A True Liberal Arts University in India
Following my return visit to Bhutan, it was a short hop to Delhi, India for a four-day Big Data short-course at Ashoka University. Technically India was also a return visit — Hyderabad and Chennai were early stops in the odyssey. But India is so large and diverse, it hardly counts as going back to the same place.
Ashoka University is a unique experiment in India: Founded in 2014, it’s a philanthropically funded private university modeling itself after American liberal arts colleges — students choose from an array of majors after they arrive, receive a broad education, and the residential campus is an integral part of the experience. In most other Indian universities (and many universities across the globe, for that matter), students specialize from the time they arrive, or even earlier; most Indian students are pigeon-holed by 11th grade. The students I talked with greatly appreciated the flexibility at Ashoka, and many changed what they planned to study after arrival. (Incidentally, it’s known that late selection of majors leads to more women in STEM fields, especially computer science.) The 25-acre campus located an hour or two from Delhi — depending on traffic — is thoughtfully designed and well-equipped, and the students clearly enjoy the rhythm of campus life. On the other hand, the well-to-do campus feels a bit out of place among the adjacent farmland and poor villages, and students do frequently make the trip to Delhi for big-city excitement.
Philanthropically-supported private universities are not new to India, but they’re typically funded by a single family or enterprise, who also name the university after themselves and control its operation. In contrast, Ashoka was funded by a consortium of donors and is run by academics. This set-up, together with strong financial footing, has allowed them to attract surprisingly good faculty. I’ve visited several other upstart universities as part of my odyssey: Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, UTEC in Peru, African Leadership University in Mauritius, and Ashesi University in Ghana. While details vary, all of them have a strong sense of purpose, offering new educational structures and opportunities in their host country. The future isn’t entirely certain for any of them, but based on my four days at Ashoka, I’m optimistic it will thrive. Apparently a few other Ashoka-like colleges are already sprouting up around India.
I had about 100 participants in the Big Data short-course. It was a similar class size to Bhutan, and once again the students were participating voluntarily during a busy time, so they were attentive and engaged. That’s about where the similarity with Bhutan ended. On average, the background of the Ashoka students was considerably stronger and they were able to master the material more quickly. Furthermore, when they ran into difficulties, they had no reticence whatsoever asking me for low-level debugging help — no student-instructor gulf here! On balance my preference is to interact with class participants more rather than less, so I set aside any impression of entitlement.
But then came something I never imagined would happen during my teaching abroad: plagiarism. A couple of students scoured the web and located solutions to some of the exercises, then attempted to pass them off as their own to win prizes. I had no trouble recognizing the code (I wrote it!), and I most certainly gave them a piece of my mind. That said, the vast majority of the students actually wanted to do the work, and they were a pleasure to teach. Some of them told me afterward that it was a turning point in their education.
While I was in Asia, wildfires were raging in California, with much discussion of the bad air quality in the Bay Area — Stanford classes were canceled for the first time in decades. While there’s no doubt it was a challenge at home, the Delhi area regularly has much worse air quality than the Bay Area was experiencing, a reminder that some people deal with these challenges on a regular basis. The Delhi pollution is due in part to stubble-burning by farmers, so fall is the worst and Ashoka is particularly hard hit given its rural location. Apparently I was lucky, with the air quality being categorized as “very unhealthy” but not “hazardous.” Although Ashoka’s gym facilities rivaled those at Delhi’s five-star Le Meridien hotel (where I hosted a Stanford alumni event my first night in India), the marginally acceptable air quality allowed me to exercise outdoors and experience a bit of real India.
It’s always a challenge for universities to figure out how my teaching interacts with regular class schedules. In some places classes are canceled or students are excused. At Ashoka they had me avoid most class conflicts by teaching from 1:45–9:45 PM each day. It was certainly a different rhythm from my 9–5 norm, but no problem for the students, who are night owls (another similarity with American campuses). One of my fond memories of Ashoka will be lining up with students at 10:00 PM for delicious north Indian food after a satisfying day of teaching.