At a University of Hope: An interview with Dr. Kavita Sharma, President, South Asian University

Editors : What is the first thing about the university that struck your attention?

Dr. Sharma: I heard about this university much earlier. Because I read concept note prepared by Professor Gowher Rizvi. It is a brilliant idea and Dr. Manmohan Singh being an educationist, it must have come to him because of that when they aim to bring students, faculty and staff from across the region to be able to work together, to study together is a very brilliant idea because they understand each other’s perspectives and create bonds. So already there is a dynamism that will grow as faculty strength grows and students’ strength grows.  As there is diverse classroom with diverse faculty, so obviously there is room from multiple points of view which is quite different from the other universities.

Editors: What would be your major issues and areas that you think need immediate attention in the university?

 Dr. Sharma:  Well, one of the most important issues right now is building of the campus because that is vital. While many of the permissions have been obtained, some of them will be done….we are moving towards it. Once its done, we will start working on it as we are kind of saturated for space here. Academic expansion will also get hampered if we don’t start creating our own campus. Also there is a difference between living in Akbar Bhawan and having a university campus; feel of the university becomes different. So that is as much as the infrastructure goes. But I also think we need to put more South Asian and South Asian universities. And that really comes out of bringing together the cultural activities, the music, the dance and lot of other things that we are already doing….or at least your faculty is attempting to do. Film festival, Another thing is literature; literature is a great immense wealth of getting into the ethos of a country. So I think the liberal arts, the humanities, the languages, the literatures and the cultural activities probably need little bit more attention. Also, you have this course “Introduction to South Asia Studies”, I am trying to make this course little bit more exciting and bringing the things into the course, interesting. Another thing I personally want and don’t know if it will happen is that it should be turned into a 2 credit course and introduced to students in first semester instead of 4th semester so that when people come in, they have an introduction to South Asia rather than when they are leaving. When they are leaving, they are pre-occupied with so many things- degrees, getting back to their own countries, jobs….you know; all these things are occupying them. Also they have done a whole lot of things by the time they have reached 4th semester. So it should really be a first semester course. So I honestly think the liberal arts, the cultural studies that need be put out more here. So in the next phase of development we are supposed to have a think tank within the university, which is Institute of South Asian Studies.  And the way I see it in the academic structure, it should really be looking at challenges which are common to the region; at least 3 or 4 countries face similar challenges simply because we share a geography; and that geography affects us because we share mountain ranges, rivers, forest areas, the indigenous populations, and issues of conservation and issues of environment, sustainability, and of course all other cultural issues that don’t belong to political boundaries; they have synergies beyond the boundary. So I think all these need attention and gradually should be put into place.

Editors : How can research conducted university academics contribute to the South Asian academic sphere? Does SAU have a special role to play in this context?

Dr. Sharma: To put the second question first, the South Asian university being a unique multi-country university is a rare example, I don’t of any other university for which 8 countries came forth to establish it; it obviously has a special role because as I was just saying that right now it is a postgraduate and research university fundamentally and therefore, research cannot be done in an ivory tower. Therefore researches conducted here should not only address the problems, but also propose solutions. So, for example the Himalayas, there are so many of us who share the mountain range or the oceans at the Southern side where we have Sri Lanka, Maldives, India. So there are commonality of challenges and problems which are either related to environment sustainability, or climate change, melting of glaciers and all those issues, Earth Science issues. If you go 100 years back into history, you will see we are really very rich in art, architecture, philosophy, music, folk art, tribal arts, even indigenous medicine etc . So all these things we need to study, document because some of these things are disappearing. And I think South Asian University can play an unique role because we have expertise from different regions. So the context is there, they understand the reason, rather than just going as an outsider to  research something.

Editors: As the university was established withthe aim to strengthen regional consciousness and nurture a new class of quality leadership, what further steps do you think can be taken to achieve this goal?

 Dr. Sharma: When you study together , when you do research together, when you incorporate linguistic and cultural elements into the whole thing, then a regional consciousness develops on its own. But since this is a research-based university, when you also try to solve problems together, for which an application or solution is put forward, what affects one country will affect other countries and therefore regional consciousness will grow. We need to, therefore, work with the young people. What will happen gradually is they will start to understand each other. Regional consciousness does not mean we will get homogenized; it will be very bad if that’s what happens. We need to celebrate our diversities and yet understand so that we don’t carry a baggage of misinformation or disinformation and so, I think we will serve that purpose eventually, if not already. I hear that many of our students are in key positions in academics and are getting good jobs so they will always have an understanding of each other’s issues.

Editors : How can this university further provide a platform to encourage co-curricular activities, exchange of dialogues and expressions among the students and to enhance the cultural life of the student community?

 Dr. Sharma:  I have been here only two months and I have been trying, so some of the immediate things I have been trying to do is an art camp, a hostel fest which we will soon have. I have also tried to make the course “Introduction to South Asia” more fluid, by calling people from outside. Now there is a dean of students and she will form a committee, so I am hoping that in our little space and resources that we have, we will have some sport activity, also I have tried putting in a distinguished lecture series, already on 19th January Paula Richman came and talked about how narratives travel from place to place and we are planning to bring in more distinguished personalities for lecture so that you will have interesting things. I already started talking with some personalities and scholars from different countries. Also film festivals….not only Bollywood, you have wonderful documentaries on each of the countries. So furthermore we should have debates, discussion groups, theatre…..oh yes, you have Hariprasad Chaurasia coming on 5th feb for the Hostel fest….all these are very good things to happen. So let us all do it, as one person cannot do it all alone.

 Editors : What kind of research grants, funding, collaborations, exchange programs with foreign universities can benefit the student’s of the university? How do you plan to work on this area?

 Dr. Sharma: We have already started and I have formed a committee to form the bylaws for faculty exchange, for research collaborations and hopefully student exchange. But we have to ensure not only recognition, but also time-frames and in other countries if you have a credit-based program around the same time, then you can go and come. But we will have to look at what are the academic time frames that universities in other countries are following. But at the moment I do have some proposals coming from Bangladesh and Kabul. And I have written to what is known as consortium of research, it is a privately funded but well established organization which works like a think tank on issues within the South Asia region, apart from other countries as it has offices all over the world. I have talked to the American Institute of Indian Studies and their president has already written an introductory letter about the university to all these think tanks that exist, so that is the only way you can do it. To go back to your 5th question, for the first time, hopefully you will take part in the youth festival of the Association of Indian Universities. So that way you will also come across others. Then there is an institution in Chandigarh which came to see me and they want to invite some of our students to Chandigarh to meet some of the South Asian students there,  to talk about their views on South Asia and ours. So let us see… Yes, I do have 3 letters of interest from 3 different organizations in our region and we are examining them as we should not rush into them also. So let us see if we can get into them and if we can get into American think tanks.

 Editors : How do you see this university in the near future and in the years to come? What is your vision for the university?

 Dr. Sharma: Well in the near future as I said, we must aim at keeping our academic excellence. Quality must never go down. If you are very clear that your quality must remain, your students become your brand ambassadors. If your quality slides, then your students also carry with them the idea that this university is not what it should be. I mean why do you think of going to Yale, or Stamford, or Harvard? That’s because they have hung onto quality. So that is what we should do, we started well, we continue and constantly compete with ourselves. There is quality enhancement cell here I have been talking to, to the vice president also. Then we should invite students from other institutions and work out the parameters of what goes into quality enhancement, and make sure every year we do our own internal assessment, to see whether we are moving forward and if we are not, it should not be a penal thing. But it should be for our own improvement, so that how shall we become better at areas which may not be our strong point. In future, I am hoping, if things go well and there is no reason why they shouldn’t… as there are some glitches as we move forward…but I see this university as a very very vibrant place. Just the very academic nature of it will make this place very vibrant. And the fact that the place will be diverse at every level- the student, the support staff and the teaching faculty included. I think it will be a very exciting adventure for this university which will bring about a regional consciousness. We are interested in taking this university forward and a common aim always binds people together.  Quality…..sitting in a jungle, people will find you. You are sitting at the heart of the town and you are mediocre…..nobody is interested. You have good quality and people will come to you.

The following members of the Rickshaw editorial team Mr. Srimal Fernando, Ratan Kumar Roy and Shucheesmita Simonti engaged Dr. Kavita Sharma, President of South Asian University at her office on 16th of January 2015. 



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