I am meeting Sunder Ramaswamy for breakfast at Pumpkin Tales, one of the newer restaurants launched by a bunch of enterprising young women in a bustling residential/commercial area of Chennai. As both of us have heard good things about it, we decide to check it out. Dr Ramaswamy is the vice-chancellor of Krea University, the new liberal arts/science private university which is coming up in a sprawling 200-acre space in Sri City, on the border of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with an initial investment of `750 crore. Admissions start in September this year and courses will begin in 2019.
The university is the brainchild of Kapil Viswanathan, a young entrepreneur who exited from a successful publishing BPO which he had set up with his sister. He wanted to do something for the future generation. Soon, the idea turned into reality, and Kapil was able to rope in some of the best minds and thought leaders in the country, including N Vaghul, the former chairman of ICICI Bank; R Seshasayee, former chairman of Ashok Leyland and Infosys; and Raghuram Rajan, the former RBI governor. Doors were opened and many business leaders—including Anand Mahindra, Sajjan Jindal, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Anu Aga—have come together to support the university. The faculty is world-class and one of them is Ramaswamy, an academic and scholar who has been tossing around ideas with Kapil.
Ramaswamy has had years of academic and administrative experience at a top-flight liberal arts college (Middlebury) in the US, as president and director at the graduate level. He has had a highly-respected academic career, and has delivered lectures on a vast variety of subjects over the years. During an earlier sabbatical, he was involved in the setting up of the Madras School of Economics, when he was appointed its director.
He returned to India in 2015, on a sabbatical again, working on a book manuscript, delivering a number of public lectures on subjects ranging from globalisation, economic development, Indian economic reforms, economics literacy, and the power of a liberal arts and sciences education. Ramaswamy strongly feels that young minds must be exposed to both arts and science.
Pumpkin Tales is spacious and bright, with an interesting breakfast menu. We start with the mandatory south Indian coffee. Ramaswamy orders pumpkin, egg, lettuce and tomato, or PELT, on sourdough bread, and it’s vegan Mexican bowl for me.
Ramaswamy tells me that he is happy to see some changes happening in our educational system, with new private universities such as Ashoka, OP Jindal Global, Flame and Shiv Nadar coming up. “We need 60, 70 more such universities here. Students are bright, but the Indian system is debilitating,” he says. “Today, we have world-class companies in the automobile, IT and telecom sectors. But we have stood still in education.”
Ramaswamy grew up in Delhi. He was a science student and a topper in his plus-2 Board examinations. It was a given that he will pursue engineering. He decided to do the unexpected, and pursued economics in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, instead. Fortunately, his parents were supportive of the decision. After earning his Master’s from the Delhi School of Economics, he found his real passion for academia.
“I pursued doctoral work in economics at Purdue University in the mid-1980s. The analytically-rigorous and specialised nature of the doctoral programme at Purdue suited my temperament. I very much wanted to live the life of a teacher-scholar, with close interaction with undergraduate students, and the world of a residential liberal arts college was opened to me.”
Ramaswamy has had an outstanding career with Middlebury. Just before the start of his current sabbatical in 2015, he was granted one of the highly-coveted Distinguished Middlebury College Professorships. Of over 350 faculty at Middlebury, there are less than half a dozen of these professorships.
Our breakfast arrives, and it looks colourful; all the items also turn out to be fresh, crunchy and delicious.
I ask Ramaswamy about the Krea University curriculum and what the students will get out of this new institution. “At Krea, there is no history or legacy to stand in our way. This will be an aspirational world-class institution. Students will have to learn how to learn. When they come to Krea, they have to unlearn a lot. Teachers cannot deliver information. They have to deliver knowledge. Setting up the curriculum is an ongoing process. The academic council has spent a lot of time on it. We have to deal with challenges and opportunities presented by the 21st century.”
As more coffee arrives, he explains further, “There is now a fluid relationship between men, machinery and environment. What is the impact of fast-changing technology on traditional occupations? Constant and major shifts in geopolitical influences, and growing concerns over environmental impact are the things which require students’ attention,” he says.
The university is following an interwoven approach, which will bring together arts and science, creativity and action. It will look at both eastern and western perspectives. “If we believe India has a role to play in addressing global issues, then it is important that we prepare the next generation to do that. We have enough institutes of technology close to being global benchmarks, but we have fallen behind in teaching arts and sciences. Bright youngsters do not choose pure arts and the curriculum built around the arts has had traditional patterns without any break from the past. A physics student should be given the opportunity to choose painting as an elective,” he explains.
The morning is getting hotter and we decide to have cold hand-pressed orange juice before we set out in the blazing sun. Ramaswamy has a two-hour journey ahead of him to get to Sri City. “We will emphasise on courses such as literature and philosophy. We will also make sure that our students are comfortable with data analysis, quantitative reasoning and computational concepts.”
Krea University’s BA Honours and BSc Honours degrees will include required core and skills courses, chosen concentration courses, chosen electives, interdisciplinary core, among others. It is a four-year undergraduate course. The rigorous selection process will not depend on simply marks. However, will Krea turn out to be an elitist university for the privileged? Ramaswamy disagrees. “No, it will be inclusive. There will be scholarships, and we will arrange for aid and loans. It is open to anybody who is exceptional,” he says.
“We want ethics to permeate all the courses and teach students to make a positive impact on the world. I will be happy to make a dent in our undergraduate studies,” he tells me as we leave.