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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  We need biographies written of our great academic institutions

We need biographies written of our great academic institutions

India is increasingly pushing its weight to play a leading role in international affairs

Madan Mohan Malaviya set up Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1916.Premium
Madan Mohan Malaviya set up Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1916.

India is increasingly pushing its weight to play a leading role in international affairs. Despite the constant diplomatic efforts by the Indian Government, the India story faces criticism on the global stage. India’s potential to lead the global order is debated heavily in domestic and international circles, and often dismissed. One key missing piece of this story is our claim to thought leadership. Academic institutions of excellence that are research-focused are very important to build a case for any nation to lead the world. They are the fountainhead of ideas and the nerve centres of intellectual and cultural exchange. But we cannot hope to build institutions without inspiring more institution builders to take up the task. There is no formal training for institution builders and there cannot be. They are usually inspired members of society who understand the need for institutions and choose to dedicate their lives in building them. While formal training can’t be given, we can spread inspiration by highlighting success stories and making role models accessible. While we have had many great institutions built in the past, we have been poor in documenting their stories and of their founders. This gap needs to be addressed.

Academic institutions play a critical and often underappreciated role in building a nation. Families, communities and academic institutions shape each generation. They have played this role for millennia and will continue to do so, despite all the transformation we see around us. Academic institutions provide education and training to the next generation of leaders, professionals and citizens. They conduct research and scholarship in a variety of fields that help us to advance our understanding of the world and lead to new discoveries and innovations that have a positive impact on society. In their role as centres for intellectual and cultural exchange, they bring together people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to discuss and debate important issues. This leads to new ideas and solutions to challenges facing us. Academic institutions also play a role in creating a systemic impact, by partnering with other organizations and institutions to address social and economic challenges. They may work with government agencies, non-profits or businesses to develop and implement programmes or initiatives that address the biggest issues of the day.

Above all, good academic institutions are built to last. They do this year on year, generation after generation, and aim to do so for centuries to come. The scale of their impact in shaping human civilization is thus too huge to fathom.

To build new institutions of global excellence, it is critical that Indians write biographies of our best academic institutions. We need young people who are inspired to build institutions, just as they are inspired to build startups. And stories of institutions and the people behind them are the source of motivation and inspiration. Can we portray founders of institutions as heroes to emulate? Can Homi Bhabha who built Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Vikram Sarabhai who set up IIM Ahmedabad and Madan Mohan Malaviya who established Banaras Hindu University, become role models for the next generation? Beyond just serving as an inspiration, an institutional biography serves as a portal into the times when the institution was built. It provides insights into the cultural and social context in which the institution was founded, including the societal and political forces that shaped its founding mission and goals. This can offer us a deeper understanding of the institution and its place in history. It would describe the institution’s impact on society, i.e, the contributions it made to education, research and the wider community, and the ways in which it has helped shape society for the better. It could also elaborate on how the institution has adapted to changing societal needs and how it has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in its field.

A biography of an academic institution additionally serves as a model for other institutions, highlighting best practices and successful strategies that can be applied elsewhere. It could show the value of taking risks and trying new things, which can encourage younger institution builders to do the same.

India cannot hope to lead the world with a narrative of its demography, democracy and consumer demand alone. The more powerful and sustainable way to lead is through the power of ideas, and academic institutions are their fountainhead. How do we help the next generation make sense of their lives and the world around them? What are our answers to the grand global problems of today? And how do we wish to shape the future that everyone is nervous about?

We will lose our thought sovereignty if we merely become followers of ideas. New ideas rooted in the indigenous knowledge traditions need to be seeded and germinated in our own academic institutions. These ideas can then be carried by graduates to their professional domains and showcased in research publications, allowing them to spread and multiply. Capturing the imagination of the world is the essence of true power. It is already past time to create the next generation of institution builders. And institutional biographies could serve as the trigger for that endeavour. Let’s start writing them.

Suresh Prabhu & Shobhit Mathur are, respectively, a six-time MP and former cabinet minister in the Government of India, and co-founder and vice-chancellor of Rishihood University.

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Published: 04 Jan 2023, 10:19 PM IST
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