Home / Education / News /  New director wants more diversity on IIM-A campus

Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad’s (IIM-A) newly appointed director Ashish Nanda, who takes over on 2 September, is a man on a mission. Nanda, 53, who has begun visiting the institute’s campus and has been interacting with the faculty members and students from 15 August, said in an interview about his vision to turn India’s best management institute into one of the world’s top B-schools, the challenges ahead and his return home.

A Robert Braucher Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, Nanda is a gold medallist both from the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi in electrical engineering and IIM-A. He taught at the Harvard Business School for over a decade before moving to Harvard Law School.

The Financial Times 2012 global ranking for B-schools places IIM-A 10th in the world for its flagship Post Graduate Programme (PGP) course. Edited excerpts from the interaction:

You were a student at IIM-A and are now appointed as its director. What’s your first reaction?

I am thrilled and delighted to have the opportunity. A lot of what I learned is thanks to my experiences here 30 years ago as a student. It feels like life coming full circle to return to IIM-A.

Was there any defining moment that made you leave Harvard and take up this new responsibility?

There has been no such clinching moment for me that made me take this decision. I have been at Harvard for over 25 years and the institute offers wonderful resources and terrific opportunities to do what you wanted to do. I have achieved what I wanted to achieve, so IIM-A in a sense gives me new learning opportunities.

There are schools who have developed an ability to take good individuals and give them the resources to become effective managers and executives.

IIM Ahmedabad is one of those institutions. If you look at the top panoply of global business schools, you have a few in the US and some in Europe.

IIM-A is a hidden gem and not many people outside of India know about it.

It was during a recent reunion of our 1981-83 batch at IIM-A campus when people from the IIM-A Board asked me if I would consider this post. I shared this with my wife as a joke, saying ‘it was so nice of them to consider me’. My wife asked me to consider it more seriously. And it made me feel nice when I thought more seriously about it. I owe a lot to the institute and wanted to give back to it and the society. My family and even my Harvard Law School dean supported the idea. My mother, who was a school teacher and who is the reason why I got into academics, passed away on 5 August. She was equally excited about my new job.

You have joined at a time when the economy is going through turbulent times. How are you going to face the challenges? How do you foresee the upcoming placement season this year?

Our goal is long-term and not short-term. While there are business cyclic challenges, we do not want to get too caught in short-term solutions although we will work out some short-term solution. We want to instil in them (students) values and educational training that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives and career.

Regarding placement, I am yet to be fully updated on the situation so I will not be able to comment on it as of now.

Having been associated with both Harvard and IIM-A, you have seen best of both the worlds. How are the two world’s different? What changes would you like to make?

Had I still been a student, with what I hear about the percentages required for admissions in top professional colleges, I wouldn’t have got admission now (laughs).

One of the biggest differences between IIM-A and US schools like Harvard is diversity. Recently when I visited an IIM-A class, I asked how may of the students were from engineering background and 95% of them raised their hands. In Harvard one can find people from various backgrounds; someone may be a historian, someone from computer background, someone would be an arts graduate. When I’m in a Harvard class, it’s like a meeting of the United Nations. There is diversity of not only geography but also perspective. IIM-A is limited mostly to Indian students and some from other emerging economies.

I want to see more diversity in the IIM-A campus. But I don’t want to compromise on quality to achieve this.

Another noteworthy aspect about Harvard (is that) people are very well connected to the alumni. IIM-A also has a very good set of alumni but linkages are not as strong as what one can find at Harvard.

Business schools in the US are positioned as centres for global economy. For countries like India and China that have emerged as new global economies, the centre of excellence will spread in wider geography, and in next 10 years that shall be a major opportunity for IIM-A to grow.

Will you bring more overseas faculties in your pursuit to make IIM-A one of the world’s top institutes? Also, there has been some controversy in the past about the research at IIMs not being of international quality.

We will be getting more academicians from overseas but they will be visiting faculties. There will not be much change in the existing faculties.

For research, it will not be fair to compare Harvard and IIM-A. But broadly speaking we will strengthen in this area.

Have you set some specific goals that you aim to achieve at the institute?

I don’t have a laundry list of goals. IIM-A does not have the same presence internationally as some of the other global B-schools. This gives us an opportunity to get our rightful place as one of the top global institutions. We should be able to say with a degree of confidence and pride that this is truly a top notch global institution that offers quality education.

Can we see law and management coming together as specialized courses at IIM-A to leverage your expertise?

I think there is a tremendous opportunity to bring management and legal education together in India. Most US universities offer JD/MBA courses. Additionally, law firms and legal departments benefit from exposure to leadership and management training. There are specialized offerings, such as new venture creation, corporate governance, etc., where a mix of business and legal training can be useful.

How do you see the future of executive education in India?

Education is increasingly becoming a life-long engagement that goes beyond classroom interactions dictated by degree considerations. Executive education increasingly is an integral part of management education the world over. It is even more true in the Indian setting, given that India is a large, emerging economy that has integrated with, and continues to integrate with, the global economy. Indian businesses and their leaders feel the need to hone their management skills so as to lead world class enterprises.

You are the first professor from a foreign school to be appointed as IIM-A director. Why did you apply for the post when you are well settled in Harvard?

Harvard is a wonderful institution with tremendous history and opportunities. Every day that I have gone to Harvard over the past 25 years has been a day filled with anticipation and excitement. I believe IIM-A is an institution that offers similar opportunities to contribute, in a different setting. I think the experience will be rewarding and I will learn a lot from it.

What’s your vision for IIM-A

I would like to defer sharing it with external audiences before I have had the opportunity to do so with the internal constituencies of the school. Suffice to say at this stage that I am committed to putting my energy and effort into ensuring (a) the school takes its rightful place among the best business schools globally and is well connected with the global exchange of practices and ideas on management, and (b) the outstanding faculty, staff, and students of the school have the best opportunity to achieve their potential.

You are coming at a time when economy is facing a tough time, and placements in B-Schools including in IIMs are increasingly becoming tough. How will your experience and expertise come handy here?

There are some macroeconomic drivers of the slowdown. India is an emerging economy and, despite the recent economic slowdown, has a positive outlook in the medium term. I believe there will be ongoing, and increasing need, for well trained management executives who can lead enterprises in the future: whether those are international businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups, public sector undertakings, or non-profits. I will try and ensure that the school continues to offer high quality and relevant education to its students and an educational experience that meets but also transcends the needs of the current business cycle.

Will you continue to do your consulting engagements even in Ahmedabad?

To the extent that rules permit and time allows, yes.

Harvard and IIM-A has an old connection. Will this relationship grow stronger and which are the areas where you see the collaboration can be strengthened?

I hope IIMA’s relationship with Harvard, as also with other international schools of repute, will grow stronger on multiple dimensions—build on the student exchanges that are already in place, establish collaboration and exchange of research, and encourage sharing of teaching experience.

Few Months back faculty members at IIM-A had opposed appointment of director from a foreign school, do you see challenges to garner acceptance in the institute?

I am not aware of IIM-A faculty members opposing such an appointment. Every new appointment offers its own set of challenges and opportunities. This position comes with challenges, but also tremendous opportunities to contribute.

Sidin Vadukut in London contributed to this story.

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