How India gave the US a generation of business school deans – Financial Times


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Dipak Jain still remembers the suspicion, more than two decades ago, when he was appointed as the first dean of Indian origin to run a leading US business school. A prominent alumnus commented “I can see the downside but not the upside”, while a rival for the post made disparaging remarks about his relative lack of experience.
Yet Jain’s leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management from 2001 to 2009 heralded the start of a trend. Rao Unnava, the dean at the University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management, pulls out his phone and counts more than 80 US-based Indian deans and other senior academics on a WhatsApp group. “We share information and guidance, and have dinners together,” he says.
Unnava recalls that, after finishing at the elite Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, when he went on to study for his PhD at Ohio State University in the 1980s “they had never had an Indian”. By contrast, since the early 2000s, his generation of academics “has been coming of age”.
Indians’ increased presence among the leaders of US business schools brings some distinctive cultural characteristics and demonstrates both the social mobility afforded by US universities and the weaknesses of India’s own higher education system.
Many of those in top positions share a similar profile: they were raised in India, studied in prestigious technology and management colleges in the country and then came to the US for postgraduate work. A large number stayed on and worked their way up to the top of university administrations.
“Culturally, Indians value education and are sensitive to academic brands,” says Paul Almeida, the dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington DC, who obtained his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management before a PhD at Wharton.
“Historically, high quality business education was largely a US phenomenon and academic careers in this area were well compensated and respected,” Almeida says. “Over the years, like in other fields, some Indian professors were successful as academics and now lead their schools as deans.”
Jain, now vice-chancellor of India’s Jio Institute, notes: “one of the things I credit to the British is that they gave us the English language”. Coupled with a firm commitment by Indian families to education, that gave him and his peers a strong start in pursuing US academic careers.
Rangarajan Sundaram, dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business, agrees that, in the postwar period, “India was desperately poor”. Its elite, highly competitive Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management “created models, a middle class and educational aspiration” which then attracted him and his peers to the US. After an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, he received a PhD from Cornell University in New York state.
Soumitra Dutta studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, did a PhD at Berkeley and was dean at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, New York state, before taking charge at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the UK. He also points to “familiarity and ease of expression in English and to deal with Anglo Saxon cultures” and “a quantitative mindset” from his compatriots’ foundational education in India.
Dutta stresses “a natural ability to handle diversity of viewpoints, religion and backgrounds” among Indians in academia, reflecting the country’s rich linguistic and cultural variety — characteristics that sit well with the diversity in US institutions.
Unnava at UC Davis argues that those Indians who successfully adapted to US culture realised early on they needed to abandon the more traditional hierarchical approaches of their own country. “Indians are God-fearing and humble, and value harmony over conflict,” he says. Some, like him, are Hindu, although others, including Almeida (who is Catholic), draw on different traditions.
Culturally, Indians value education and are sensitive to academic brands
Today, this widespread presence of senior Indian academics in the US is one factor inspiring a new generation of Indians to attend US business schools. Their numbers are swelling thanks to a growing middle class that can afford to pay for an MBA, the greater availability of tuition loans in the US, and the continued constraints on domestic academic opportunities.
But that also has its downsides. Devesh Kapur, Professor of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says: “I firmly believe that the mirror image is how weakly Indian higher education has [performed]. India has gifted the US, in particular, immense talent. It’s worth reflecting what they could have done if they had stayed, and what India has lost.”
By contrast, the large numbers of Chinese doctoral students in the US often have a less strong command of the English language, and far greater incentives to return home to pursue academic careers — aided by their government’s funding of leading universities.
Madhav Rajan, the dean at Chicago Booth School of Business, whose undergraduate studies were at the University of Madras, got his start on the US academic path when Srikant Datar — now dean at Harvard Business School — persuaded him to switch to a PhD from a masters’ programme at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “For us, the US was where you had to do a PhD,” Rajan says. “It was very much a first generation thing.”
However, he argues that, today, most Indian students are instead motivated by masters degrees such as data analytics rather than PhDs and an academic career. They see the increasing success in the US of Indians as corporate leaders, including in the tech sector, and are inspired to follow such more diverse business careers.
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Rajan suggests future US business school academic leaders are now more likely to come from Europe: both from southern countries such as Italy and from the likes of Bulgaria and Romania in the east. “Like the Indians before them, they don’t find the right opportunities in their own countries,” he says.
Yet the number of Indians coming to study in the US remains high, opening the way for some to continue to pursue senior academic careers. Jain points to his American-born son, who is the fifth generation of his family to go into teaching: he is now lecturing at Columbia Business School in New York.
This article has been amended to show that Dipak Jain is now vice-chancellor of the Jio Institute.
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