The array of options for students is evident from the fact that, at Flame, there are over 250 unique major-minor combinations to choose from.
Nestled in the verdant foothills of the Western Ghats on the Pune-Bangalore highway, the 53-acre campus of Flame University is picture-postcard perfect. The private university, a first-mover in the liberal education space, has quietly built a formidable reputation as an institute of excellence over the past few years. Says Dr Devi Singh, vice-chancellor of Flame, “Not only are we the pioneers of liberal education, but are also uniquely positioned in the amount of experimentation we offer, the creation of almost customised opportunities for students by ensuring limitless alternatives and flexibility for them to explore new frontiers.” The array of options for students is evident from the fact that, at Flame, there are over 250 unique major-minor combinations to choose from. The major areas on offer are graduation degrees in economics, psychology, literary and cultural studies, international studies, environmental studies, journalism, public policy and sociology. Apart from this, the university offers a BSc in applied mathematics and BBA degrees in finance, marketing, HRM, operations and entrepreneurship, as well as a BBA in communications management including advertising and branding, digital marketing, film and television, and communication studies. Dance, music, theatre and design are offered as minors.
The underlying foundation for the methodology at Flame University clearly seems inspired by noted American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligence” theory, which advocates that all subjects need to be integrated and taught differently, using all that is known about how people learn, elimination of silos and a renewed focus on interdisciplinary learning. Singh succinctly puts it: “The existing silos or disciplines, for example, are irrelevant to finding a job. Maths and science and art and music become important to the extent that they are folded into a larger context, and used to solve real-world problems. Only then can a student understand how and why such disciplines are relevant and necessary. Education should not only make young people world-wise and, hopefully, ignite a love of learning, it must give our students the skills they need to live a meaningful, productive life—for most, this means a job and a living wage.” Not only that, Flame has steadfastly resisted the temptation to become an all-encompassing “all rolled into one” model that many of its peers in the private higher education sector have succumbed to and has, instead, held on to its “small boutique university” model. “We are quintessential purists and, therefore, a liberal education university with a difference,” Singh quips.
A brand in himself in academia who, prior to joining Flame three years ago, was at the helm of IIM Lucknow for more than a decade and director of MDI Gurgaon for four and a half years, Singh has given top priority to roping in the best faculty. “During my stint here, we have been able to attract 30-35 faculty embellished with doctorates from the best universities in the world. That, I believe, will be our biggest asset in the times to come,” he asserts.
How does he manage to draw some of the best academic minds to Flame? “The mandate I give them is clear: I ask them to be selfish by protecting their professional interest, which can only be achieved by a constant endeavour to keep growing professionally,” he reveals. “And that can only be achieved by giving them enough stimulation inside the classroom as well as unlimited freedom and resources outside it to pursue their research activities.” Undoubtedly, the husband-wife team of Prof Pavan Mamidi and Sharon Bernhardt are the poster couple for Flame’s faculty recruitment drive. Embellished with doctorates from Harvard and Oxford, respectively, the two decided to shift base to Flame a year and a half ago. Says Mamidi, who has an LLM from Harvard Law School prior to his DPhil from Oxford, and has taught at IIMs at Ahmedabad and Bangalore, the LBSNAA at Mussoorie and MIT (Sloan), “When I was shopping around for a change, my foremost concern was academic and research autonomy, and Flame seemed an answer to my prayers.” In his role as director of International Research Collaborations for the Centre for Experimental Social Sciences (CESS), a collaborative initiative between Nuffield College (University of Oxford) and Flame, Mamidi maintains he has been given a free hand in conducting research and hiring his own team. “My experience has been extremely rewarding,” he exults. Echoing his sentiments, wife Sharon, director for Economics and Public Policy at CESS who has had teaching stints with IIMA and IFMR post her doctorate from Harvard in Public Policy, defines Flame as “a breath of fresh air after the stifling academic environment in my earlier places of work.”
What is remarkable at Flame is that teaching and learning are seamless. Says Ravikant Kisana, assistant professor of Media Studies, “The university is structurally different in fundamental ways. What differentiates us from the rest is that the delivery and relevance of courses is constantly being reworked.” Echoing similar sentiments, Viraj Shah, who teaches Archaeology, says, “It’s really exciting that we can design our own curriculum. What makes it even more challenging is that since our students are so demanding, we have to keep updating our knowledge as well, while the unique options each student chooses enables us to integrate with specialists of diverse fields.” It appears to be a win-win situation for both faculty and students. Soumya Sampath, who is pursuing two majors—digital marketing and international studies—says, “It’s an invigorating environment here. Unlike other places, the access to faculty is unbelievable. There’s an open door policy without any restrictions. We can approach our teachers and demand an audience at any time. Constant mentorship and guidance is provided to us.”
Several students have consciously chosen Flame over other colleges simply because of the reputation it has been able to build. Singh attributes this to a “reflection of confidence reposed in us at a time when private players are still not trusted in the field of higher education.” Another feather in Flame’s cap is the string of collaborations it has managed to sew with renowned foreign universities, including Nuffield College, York University of Canada, and Wellesley College, Babson Collaborative, Kelley School of Business and Boston University of the US, among others. As a hub of diverse offerings at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the interdisciplinary warp and weft of Flame are designed to offer a “transformational experience.” Clearly, in the fast privatising higher education space, Flame is emerging as the torchbearer of excellence.