When Kevin Naik wanted to do a PhD at the interface of robotics and Internet of Things, it wasn’t Ahmedabad University (AU) that first came to mind. Like many his age, he first wrote to professors at three IITs— Delhi, Mumbai and Gandhinagar. The IIT faculty had clear research goals for themselves and their groups and Naik’s plans didn’t quite fit in.

That’s when he looked to AU, where he found a willing professor – along with freedom to develop his own interests in a PhD. “Robotics and IoT are an unusual combination,” says Naik. “So only a small faculty is working in this area.” In contrast to the IIT legacy, AU is relatively new —just eight years old —with little reputation outside Gujarat. It makes up by providing flexibility in choice of research. AU enjoys another distinctive edge: a large endowment that provides plenty of leeway to students and faculty. AU was set up in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society, with a mandate to become a comprehensive university driven primarily by research. It was an unusual start. All private universities in India began as teaching institutions and then developed research as they grew. Almost all private universities were dominated by engineering or medicine. There was no private university at the time that mixed humanities, arts, the sciences and engineering in equal measure.

AU grew slowly initially, laying the foundation in the first five years. Institution-building picked up pace in 2014 when chairman Sanjay Lalbhai brought in Pankaj Chandra as vice chancellor. Chandra was till then director of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), where he was instrumental in reconstituting the board and instituting new standards for faculty tenure, among other things. He had a few novel ideas about how a university should function and they were a departure from what universities do now. Two principles guide his vision for the fledgling university. “We want to do impactful research,” says Chandra. “We also want to bring the visual into the classroom.”

Why Ahmedabad University is different from most private universities

Vice-Chancellor reports to a professional board and not a family

Works with large endowment and not overly dependent on student fees

Stresses science, engineering and the humanities in equal measure

Driven primarily by research and not teaching

The foundation raised about Rs 670 crore from sale of land and Chandra set to work. The university had a few unusual characteristics from the beginning. One being that the vice-chancellor reports to a management board and not a family, a governance structure not common among India’s private educational institutions. Delhi-based Ashoka University is an exception to this. “We have a governing board that is not easy to hijack,” says Ahmedabad University chairman Sanjay Lalbhai. The university also works with a large endowment and is not so dependent on fees. Not many of India’s private universities have a large endowment, the notable exception being Azim Premji University. When the government sanctioned new IITs, each one was given only Rs 500 crore, some yet to get the full money. Chandra has an endowment that can grow up to Rs 1,500 crore if necessary (through sale of land), and a 180-acre campus that could be designed almost from scratch. He has as much academic freedom as is possible for a private university. He also has the support of the trust and the board that share a common vision. Money, a common vision and a professional board have all brought in flexibility to the university functioning. “You cannot build a world class university without top-class talent,” says RA Mashelkar, former CSIR director general and member of Ahmedabad University governing board. “And you cannot have top-class talent without flexibility.”

All the best universities in the world have flexibility to hire the best. Mashelkar’s prime exhibit is Ahmed Zewail, the Egypt-born chemist who was made full professor at the age of 28. Zewail went on to do pioneering work at Caltech and win a Nobel Prize. Peter Danckwerts, one of last century’s finest chemical engineers and former professor at Cambridge University, didn’t have a PhD. Indian scientific institutions and universities once had that flexibility. MM Sharma, one of India’s best-known engineers, was made professor at the University Department of Chemical Technology at the age of 27. India has lost that flexibility now.

But Chandra has flexibility and used it by getting some of the best architects in the country to design AU. Desai Architecture in Ahmedabad was campus architect. Rahul Mehrotra, founder of RMA Architects and professor of urban design and planning at Harvard University, designed the arts and sciences building. Swiss architect Mario Botta designed the library. French architect Stephen Paumier will design the student centre. Although situated in the city, the campus is being built with a central forest, being overseen by ecologists.

“Pankaj Chandra has a specific vision of pedagogy and culture,” says Bobby Desai of Desai Architecture. “The campus is built for cross faculty interaction and debate.”

In the private sector, OP Jindal Global University’s main building was designed by Paumier as a vast classical garden. AU architects, who had to work with some old buildings as well, are designing campus buildings for frequent interactions. It is being built for walking in peak summer, when temperatures are in the high 40s.

The concept of universities without departments is not new in the world. University of California at Merced was the first to try it in the 1990s. In India, IIT Gandhinagar has tried the concept with some success. Chandra has organised AU around schools and centres, not departments. Schools are formed in well-established disciplines. Centres are in subjects not well established, and are aimed at developing expertise as the subject grows in depth and relevance. “The biggest future inventions are going to be multidisciplinary,” says Lalbhai.

The schools are organised around four related areas. Data, materials, biology and behaviour; energy, transport, education and food; air, water, land and forest; individual and community, civilisation and constitution. The three centres are for heritage management, for learning futures and the venture studio. The centre for heritage management is an unusual experiment, based on the premise that India has a lot of heritage but few professionals to manage it. Ahmedabad itself has many heritage sites. The university centre, however, does not study just tangible heritage like museums, art galleries and buildings. It will also study intangible heritage like language and music, not just by scholars of the discipline. The centre has a partnership with the University of Vallalodid, a 700-year-old university in Spain, through a €0.5 million grant from the European Union.

Partnerships are key to some of the programmes of Ahmedabad University. The deepest of these partnerships is with the Olin College of Engineering near Boston, a twenty-first century institution with a global reputation for innovative pedagogy. Olin College, which has no other partner in Asia, does not have classroom lectures like other universities. Students learn by doing projects.

Over the last two years, four AU faculty have spent a few months each in Olin College and imbibed its methods. “The class is no longer like a podium,” says Ratnik Gandhi, assistant professor at the school of engineering and applied science. “It is like a studio.” Undergraduate students are exposed to research methods from the beginning. In the life sciences division, among the most developed disciplines at the university, undergraduates have the luxury of a well-equipped laboratory usually accessible only to masters and PhD scholars in most places. “All equipment is handled by our undergraduates,” says Ajay Karakoti, nanobiologist and associate professor at the university. It is one way of immersion in the subject. All students are required to take courses in science, data and mathematics. Engineering students have to learn biology and commerce students must learn maths. Arts subjects are also compulsory. Mayank Jobanputra, an undergraduate in information, communication and technology, had to take courses in critical thinking and argumentation, ethics, communication skills, English literature, and so on.

AU is part of the zeitgeist, part of a movement when rich philanthropists are setting up good educational institutions. “The government will never be able to build a disruptive educational system,” says Ramaswamy Subramaniam, professor at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in Bengaluru. Hardcore scientists may not easily go to Ahmedabad, as Gujarat is not seen as an academic destination. It took four decades before IIM Ahmedabad got its current reputation. It will take equally long for a private university as well.

A version of this article was published in Economic Times on 21 Feburary 2017.
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