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Monday 17 February 2020

Yale, but not hearty

Chidanand Rajghatta

I’m not sure what caused HRD Minister Smriti Irani to brag about having a degree from Yale University. Maybe she was being snarky about criticism of her not having a college degree, or maybe she mistook a week-long certification course on leadership that she attended at Yale last year for a degree course.

In either case, given her party’s ultranationalist outlook on matters pertaining to history, she may have second thoughts about boasting of any association with Yale if she knew anything about the eponymous character (Elihu Yale) who gave his name to the university for a small sum of £800. There is even a charming prelude to the story that Irani should know. A man named Jeremiah Dummer, a contemporary of Yale, gave an even larger sum to bankroll the founding of the college. But, the story goes, trustees of the institution did not want it to be named Dummer College; hence, Yale got the honour.

Elihu Yale was a British merchant who was sent by the East India Company to India to prospect for and extend its trading rights in the subcontinent in the 1680s, long before the US was even founded. Basing himself in what is now Chennai, he amassed a fortune, cheating both his employers and the people of India, while going on to become the Governor of Fort St George, the current seat of the government of Tamil Nadu occupied by such worthy successors as Puratchi Thalaivi J Jayalalitha and her predecessor Kalaignar M Karunanidhi. Must be something in the air there! Anyway, the East India Company eventually cottoned on to his rackets and he was packed off home in 1699 after some 20 years of rapacious excesses in India.

The Yale family was pretty well known in New England at that time, having come as early settlers (Elihu Yale himself was born in Boston), so word of the scion’s wealth reached a struggling group of ministers who were trying to set up a college. Yale gave his pittance and, in return, was honoured with naming the college after him, never mind his unsavoury reputation in India that included hanging a local stable boy to death because he stole a company horse.

It later grew into a formidable university, with an endowment currently estimated at $20 billion, but the institution has never really opened up to its history or origins. Indian notables, including our lawmakers, continue to make a beeline there. I’m waiting for the day Puratchi Thalaivi and Kalaignar are given a couple of honorary degrees by Yale. How sweet will be the irony!

Some years ago, Yale made a strenuous outreach to India. Its president Richard Levin, who served till last year before becoming CEO of Coursera, visited India in 2005 to drum up more interest in Yale, but its colourful history remained in the background. Here’s what I wrote at that time. I’m now wondering if it deserves an update with Irani’s claims.

Yale fellow, well met
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter Amrit is an alumnus of Yale University (class of 2001). So is his finance secretary Rakesh Mohan (class of 1971). So also domestic do-gooder Ramesh Ramanathan, who returned from the US to start Janaagraha, a people’s movement in Bangalore. Then there are Yale-ites like Pepsico President Indra Nooyi, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, Hillary Clinton’s chief staffer Neera Tanden, and US constitutional law expert Akhil Amar and his brother Vikram Amar, also a legal scholar. Of course, there’s the small matter of 4 of the last 6 American presidents — Gerald Ford, George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Jr — being Yale graduates.

But the great Ivy League school is not entirely happy with its current engagement with India, in India. It feels it is missing out on the great intellectual harvest that other US universities are reaping. Although it claims greater historical ties to India than any other university in the US — it takes its name from Elihu Yale, the 17th century governor of Madras — the school gets only about 100 students from India each year, compared to the Indian stampede to other brand-name schools such as MIT, Harvard, and Princeton.

One reason for this is Yale is best known for its humanities and social sciences studies, whereas Indians going to the US show a distinct proclivity for science and engineering. Yale’s first Indian graduate was Sumantrao Vishnu Karmakar of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, who in 1892 earned a degree in divinity studies (while his wife studied medicine at the Pennsylvania women’s medical school). Since then, scores of Indians have passed through the portals of Yale’s law school and its forestry and environmental studies programs. But the university’s science and engineering schools have found less traction in India.

Yale wants to change that. So in January this year, Yale president Dr Richard Levin will make his first trip to India to pitch for these programs and tell us there is more to Yale than its famed law school and the oldest Sanskrit chair in the western hemisphere (going back to 1854). He will go to New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai, spreading the gospel of American education at a time when there are fears that foreign student inflow, the life blood of the country’s university education system, is slowing down in the post 9/11 era. Since 2000, Yale has spent a billion dollars to crank up its science and engineering schools and bring it up to speed.

Yale’s move is part of the increasing interest in India by American universities in a process that recalls the great gold and oil rush. Except now, instead of panning for gold or prospecting for oil, the emphasis is on mining minds, with India being considered the most fecund land. Such is the competition now among U.S schools for Indian students that at the same time Dr Levin is visiting, there will also be teams from Stanford and Harvard. Secure in their lead in Engineering and Medicine, they are looking to attract students for their MBA courses, which have registered a sharp decline this past year.

So what’s in it for India and why should Indians spend their money earning degrees from Stanford, Harvard, Yale and other American universities? Because, Dr Levin explains, there is great value in leaving one’s home country for a while and living in another nation to understand their norms and values. If you agree India is being better served now by its Oxford and Harvard returned alumni (the PM and the FM) than its provincial netas with their mofussil mindset, you may see some merit in this argument. Even at the risk of the familiar bogey called brain drain. [published in The Times of India on 19 December 2004]

The writer is a columnist of a leading daily. This article has been picked from his Facebook wall.

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