Two weeks in India: President Reinharz reflects

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The following is an entry that Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz posted on the Global Brandeis blog as he prepared to return home from India. President Reinharz, Vice President for Global Affairs Daniel Terris and professor Harleen Singh have been posting pictures and commentary during their two-week trip. Read the press release about the trip.

From the desk of Jehuda Reinharz
Kochi (Cochin), India

Brandeis University and India have a long history together, and I decided to visit the world’s largest democracy in order to build on this history and to strengthen our connections for the future. I have now spent nearly two weeks in this vibrant nation – the longest visit that I have made to any single country as president of Brandeis University. Nothing could have fully prepared me for the impact that India has had upon me.

The first thing that struck me upon landing in Delhi and venturing into the streets was the extraordinary variety of this country: its peoples, its dialects, its smells, its full-fledged excitement of all the senses. The bright colors are everywhere, particularly in the saris the women are wearing, whether they are in high society or in the slums. Every minute seems to be an overload of one’s senses: the monuments, the history embedded in almost every corner, the great numbers of people, the striking contrasts between great wealth and great poverty.

The second immediate impression is the traffic. One needs to be extremely courageous and inventive in order to manipulate the chaotic movement in India’s streets. It is just a mass of cars that seem to hurl into each other. And yet during two weeks in India, I have not seen a single accident. Drivers blow their horns to warn one another off, but no one seems to be angry, and the near-misses are taken with total calm. After a while, the visitor’s frustration wears off, and one simply has to adjust to another rhythm – an odd combination of frenzy and nonchalance. Drivers must be active and aggressive to make progress, but you know that you’re ultimately at the mercy of the unpredictable flow.

The third thing that struck me here is the incredible energy and entrepreneurship of people, whether they are street vendors or industrialists. Everybody seems to be involved in some sort of business, new idea, new way of doing things. Indian entrepreneurship has gotten a lot of attention with regard to information technology and global business. But I was most struck by this same spirit when I visited Asia’s largest slum, the Mumbai neighborhood of Dharavi. In Dharavi, small-scale entrepreneurship, especially the recycling of trash, is the life-blood of the community. Our students would no doubt be fascinated by the incredible recycling that goes on there. There is absolutely no waste. Every scrap of paper, metal and plastic is reused, transformed through painstaking manual labor, and sold. My view of slums has radically changed, as I now have a greater understanding of their possibilities, as well as their limitations.

One of the many highlights of our trip was meeting our Indian alumni, many of whom are actually implementing the commitment to social justice that no doubt was part of their education at Brandeis. Alumni like Sundar Burra ’71 of SPARC and Devika Mahadevan ’00 of Mumbai Mobile Creches are extraordinary people, and testament to the global impact of Brandeis University. I hope that we can build on their energy and encourage more Brandeis students to spend time in India, learning both in the classroom but also from leaders like Sundar and Devika.

It is probably no accident that the largest number of Wien Scholars at Brandeis University over the years have come from India: 67 out of more than 800 Wiens hail from this country. The hunger for education is palpable here, and India’s current educational infrastructure cannot satisfy the demand. The proliferation of educational institutions in India is mind-boggling, and the desire for first-rate secondary as well as post-secondary education is the subject of almost every discussion one has with Indians. In conversations with counselors and school officials, as well as with juniors and seniors in high school, I was pleased to see how much interest there was in what Brandeis University has to offer, as a small, liberal-arts college and research university. An increasing number of Indians seems to appreciate the importance of the liberal arts, which is not common in many parts of the world, but is a prominent feature of American higher education. I was also struck that the Brandeis connection to the Jewish community resonated in India, not only with the Indian Jews whom I met, but also with Indians from all walks of life who appreciate the Jewish commitment to learning, tradition, and justice. 

All in all, there are intriguing opportunities for new models of partnership and cooperation. In a few days, we will post the public talk that I gave on February 10 in Mumbai, where I discussed these ideas in more detail.

I was also heartened and delighted by the substantial financial support we were able to garner from a number of Brandeis parents, who are so delighted and pleased with the education that their children have received and continue to receive. One mother was literally moved to tears by what Brandeis University had done for her children, and she gave a very generous contribution in appreciation.

All in all, this trip, a team effort with Professor Harleen Singh and Vice President for Global Affairs Dan Terris, was very successful. I want particularly to acknowledge the preparatory work behind the scenes of Bryan McAllister-Grande, assistant director of the Office of Global Affairs.

My only regret is that we did not really have much time to explore the cultural and historical wonders of this great country. But that only means that I will return as soon as possible. As you can see from the blog, we have established many new contacts for Brandeis, with the help of parents, friends of the university, and alumni. And I am confident that the ties between India and our university will be broader and deeper as we continue to build Brandeis University as a global institution.

Jehuda Reinharz
President, Brandeis University

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