Yale's President Talks About Its Plans for India

Rajeev Dabral for The Chronicle

Richard C. Levin (left), president of Yale, meets with Kapil Sibal, India's higher-education minister.
November 07, 2010

The Chronicle sat down with Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University, during his trip last month to sign an agreement with two Indian institutions to develop training and research programs around higher-education management in India. He talked about Yale's interest in India, how that compares with the university's longstanding ties to China, and his evaluation of India's prospects for recruiting foreign universities to its shores.

Q. What is your long-term strategy for India? How does this new agreement fit into that?

A. Our long-term strategy for India, like our strategy in China, is we have three basic objectives. One, we want to educate our own students adequately about India, its culture, history, its current politics, its society, its economic potential. ... Two, to be sufficiently visible in India so that we are a destination of choice for the brightest students, so we can attract the very best.

Three, we are an institution with a long history of having important social impact in the U.S., and we'd like to engage in activities that have important consequences for the development of these rising nations that are going to be great powers in the world, India and China particularly.

Q. How does the recent agreement with Indian institutions benefit Yale?

A. It falls into the third category, of activities that have consequences. And if we think we can contribute in a constructive way to help build quality higher education in India, that's a useful contribution.

And there are more-direct benefits to Yale. Because we get to know the leadership of the major institutions, it makes it very easy for us to follow up with exchange agreements and to find research opportunities for our faculty, because we know the people. This, we certainly found, was the case in China. ... I'm personally well acquainted with the presidents of the top Chinese universities, and my staff knows their counterparts, the leadership teams. So when we have a professor who wants to work at Shanghai Jiao Tong or Nanjing University because they have a collaboration they'd like to initiate, we can make it happen. There is a very direct benefit to us. We really get to know the people.

Q. How does the experience of working with India and China compare?

A. China is such a top-down system. When you with the Chinese government and they make a decision, it just happens. [He laughs.] So in that respect, it is very easy to work with the Chinese to develop programs and have them implement it. Although I must say we have had good experiences here as well.

Q. But things move so much slower here.

A. We're not impatient. I think there's a real need for significant innovation of higher education in India.

Q. By "innovation," what do you mean? Could you give me some examples?

A. The biggest one is this: If India is going to build some truly high-quality institutions, it is going to have competitive compensation on a global scale. One of the things the Chinese have done, ... they have essentially decided to break their salary scales to recruit back Chinese expats working in the U.S. and U.K. to be leaders and senior professors at their top institutions. And India has an extraordinary expat academic population. But it is very hard to get those people back in the public universities [here], because they are not attractive-enough jobs. So "innovation universities" offer hope that they'll be able to provide competitive compensation and merit-based compensation.

Q. Did you talk with Kapil Sibal, India's minister in charge of higher education, about this?

A. Yes, with the minister and many other people here. ... The whole point of innovation universities is that both public and private innovation universities in the legislation [to allow for their creation] will have the possibility of not paying [faculty salaries] according to the standard scale.

Q. Why is that issue here in India important to you at Yale?

A. If the question posed to us is, Help us build world-class institutions, my first piece of advice is you can't do it and pay people 20 percent of what they earn in the U.S. [He laughs.]

Q. So if these changes happen, then students will go here rather than to Yale. Do you think that will cannibalize your intake, helping universities get better here in India?

A. Not at all. We're tiny in the world education market. We have 11,000 students. India's got to educate tens of thousands. And so we're sufficiently confident of our ability to attract the top tenth of 1 percent. It is not a competition; it's a positive development for the world. India and China have to service so many millions of young people that they need really good universities.

Q. Would you ever consider starting a Yale campus in India?

A. We are doing our first experiment of this type in Singapore, where we expect to have a final agreement soon with the National University of Singapore. It will be a partnership with the NUS to establish a small liberal-arts college, which would have key features of American undergraduate education—an interactive pedagogy, a flexible general-education curriculum rather than a specialized one, strong extracurricular activities to develop leadership skills, and a residentially based education; an undergraduate college adjacent to the NUS campus. Faculty will be hired for it, with visiting professors from Yale; a permanent faculty of 100. [Students] will get an NUS degree. The Singapore government will fund it, and we've been working with the ministries of finance and education.

Q. Could you plan something similar in India?

A. Maybe down the road.

Q. If the foreign-universities bill in India gets passed, which allows them to offer degrees here, and foreign providers are given full autonomy, is India ready for an NUS-Yale kind of institution?

A. I think so. A number of U.S. schools will come in for various specialized programs. I don't know about a liberal-arts college. I do know that there are some major institutions in the U.S. who are prepared to do business schools or engineering schools, so I think you will see that happen.

Q. What do you and others need to know about India to get into this sort of venture?

A. I think the prerequisites are there ... [if under the proposed legislation] there is freedom to hire faculty and to compensate them and freedom to admit students. ... We are used to living in a regime where we practice affirmative action in admission of students and recruitment of faculty, but we aren't bound by the same rigid quota system that characterizes India, and I think I would be nervous if there were a quota system that diverted the selection of students and faculty at too big a sacrifice to quality. I would want to make sure the conditions were right. But I think that's the intention. There still would be an affirmative push to try to be representative, but you wouldn't have quite the same constraints that the current system has.

Q. How long do you think it will take India to reach China's level?

A. With the right conditions, it shouldn't take long. India has some advantages China doesn't have. The most notable is academic freedom. There is clearly much more free expression in the society. It's democratic, it's open, and I think that's a big plus for a university. In China, the fact that there is not the same kind of freedom of expression doesn't impede the development of science and engineering very much, but there are constraints in liberal arts.


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