President stresses importance of building bridges to India

Mamen Saura President John Hennessy talks with N.R. Narayana Murthy

President John Hennessy talks with N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman and chief mentor at Infosys Technologies Ltd., in Mumbai during a recent trip to India.

Mamen Saura Hennessy speaks to a group at a Stanford alumni dinner

President John Hennessy speaks to a group at a Stanford alumni dinner on Jan. 14 in Mumbai, India.

On a recent trip to India, President John Hennessy conferred with luminaries in academia, industry and government; chatted with alumni and reporters; gave a keynote address at a Stanford executive education conference; and took in a movie.

Not the latest Bollywood sensation, but a special showing of a documentary about child labor produced by teenagers at the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, a new private school—kindergarten through high school—in a suburb of Mumbai.

It's an experience that stands out in Hennessy's memories of the days he spent in India in mid-January—his second trip to the country on Stanford's behalf (his first was in 2004).

"Even though child labor is against the law in India, it's a widespread practice, and they were trying to raise awareness of the issue," Hennessy said in an interview. "The students were very eager to show us the video. They had gotten a major Bollywood music star to do the score for them. It was really fascinating to see them mobilizing and trying to deal with one of India's deeply embedded social challenges."

The school, which opened its doors in 2003, was established by a foundation created by Reliance Industries Ltd., India's largest company. Its chairman, Mukesh Ambani, who attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a member of its Advisory Council, invited the students to show their documentary during a dinner he held for Hennessy.

The trip to India—five days, two cities—brought Hennessy in contact with several generations of Indians, from teenagers trying out new skills to executives and government officials charting the country's future. Through meetings and public appearances, Hennessy demonstrated Stanford's continuing interest in increasing its ties to India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Building bridges

In Mumbai, Hennessy spoke at "Innovative Strategies for a Dynamic Economy," a two-day executive education seminar sponsored by the Business School and the School of Engineering that attracted 150 participants. It was the first such collaboration between the two schools and the second executive education event the Business School has held in India.

Hennessy, who also spent two days in the country's capital of New Delhi, said outreach to Asian countries is particularly crucial for Stanford, both from a research perspective and an educational perspective.

Solving the world's most pressing problems—such as the environmental issues raised by global warming or the health issues raised by infectious diseases—will require partnerships between experts in both countries, he said.

"Much of India's strength on the research side is in science and engineering, and clearly that matches areas that Stanford has particular strengths in," Hennessy said. "We have a long history of attracting both faculty and students from India. That provides a bridge between the countries that will help us create partnerships."

Hennessy said the first question that always seems to come up in conversations with university and government officials in India is: How do you build a cooperative relationship between industry and universities?

"The notion of creating relationships with universities to create and stimulate economic growth is very present in all conversations that go on in India and China," he said. "We probably have a better track record in that regard than any institution in the world."

Hennessy said he has been reflecting lately on what American students at Stanford—undergraduates and graduates—need to know about India and how the university can promote their understanding of the country. India is the world's largest democracy, he noted, and its economic and political systems make it one of the most important countries in the world.

"Providing our students with the opportunity to learn something about India and its incredible diversity is important for their future and the roles they'll play in the world," he said.

Last year, Stanford established the Center for South Asia, which is working with departments in the School of Humanities and Sciences to create courses, support research projects, build the library collection and organize special events on campus (see story, page 1).

Studying in India

Hennessy said an overseas studies program in India would probably look different from existing ones at Stanford, in which students go abroad to be immersed in foreign languages.

For most Stanford students, learning Hindi would not be the goal of studying in India, he said, since English is the most important language in the country for national, political and commercial communication. (Hindi, the national language of India and the primary tongue of 30 percent of its people, is one of 15 official languages in the country.)

"If you think the students going to India would primarily be engineering students, then a model that is structured around work internships might be more appropriate than a model structured around a normal overseas studies campus," Hennessy said.

"Then we would try to figure out how to create a support network to help them learn something about the country's culture while they're there."

That would require traveling great distances, he noted, since India is vast—the seventh largest country in the world—and its cultural centers are widely dispersed. "If they were in the south, for example, in Bangalore, which is the technical center of the country, they'd have to travel to the north, to Agra, to visit the Taj Mahal," Hennessy said. "Unlike Paris, where students can get to many cultural sites with a three- or four-hour train ride, it could take a 12- to 14-hour train ride to get to various cultural destinations in India."

Hennessy noted that the 482 students from India currently enrolled at Stanford make up the second largest group of international students behind China, which accounts for 610.

Among Indian students at Stanford, only 30 are undergraduates.

Hennessy said Stanford would like to slightly increase the number of foreign undergraduate students, including those from India. But that would require extending the university's need-blind admission program to international students.

"That's a significant fundraising challenge, which really depends on our success getting alumni—largely international alumni—to support financial aid for students," he said. "We've had some success in that, but not at an extraordinary level. So it's going to be an area we'll have to continue to work on."