Sitting amid Mahatma Gandhi’s book collection at Mani Bhavan in Gamdevi, Brown University President Ruth Simmons said that the Rhode Island-based institution's interest in India was only growing. The first African-American head of an Ivy League university also spoke to Hindustan Times about growing up in an era of discrimination:
Your visit follows our government’s approval of the Foreign Universities Bill. Any plans for India?
We do not plan to establish a campus here, simply because we have not done it in any other country. I don’t think we will be able to match the same standards anywhere else, and our faculty is not prepared to travel back and forth.
As for hiring faculty from here, it would mean bleeding public institutions, and is that a right thing to do? The Bill is indicative of India’s aim to leapfrog beyond others in higher education.
We are here to strengthen ties with the country. We have also renewed our 20-year collaboration with St Stephen’s in Delhi for a study-abroad programme. We are in talks with other institutions for tie-ups and are already working closely with institutions such as ISRO.
How important is India in your curriculum?
India has always been an important part of our campus, but its recognition has gained importance over the past few years. We already have several courses in India Studies but we are adding more. It is Brown’s Year of India, where we have had public lectures by people from author Salman Rushdie to Infosys founder Narayana Murthy.
You are in Mumbai on a historic day, when the right to education will become a fundamental right…
Well, India beat the US at that. It is a civil right in the US but not yet a constitutional right. I grew up on the margins in a segregated community and school, where everyone said we could never become professionals. But our teachers kept teaching us, hoping that things would change, and when they did, we would be ready. That is what happened. Historic moments like these matter most to people on the margins because for them it is the ray of hope that they have been waiting for.
What is the responsibility that comes with being the first African American president of an Ivy League university?
What worried me most was that I should not do anything that will lead people to conclude we should not be given such positions. It is the same expectation that our President (Barack Obama) is facing. People have a tendency to generalise and I did not want to become a victim of that.