At panel, Levin talks future in India

NEW YORK — Discussions between University President Richard Levin, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi SOM ’80 and journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria ’86 normally take place behind closed doors at meetings of the Yale Corporation, but on Tuesday night the trio found themselves in front of alumni, government officials, members of the media and businesspeople.

The American India Foundation and U.S.-India Business Council sponsored the Yale India Initiative Symposium, which drew a crowd of about 400 to listen to a panel that included Rakesh Mohan ’71, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of Human Resource Development for India, as well as the three fellows of the Yale Corporation. The official topic was “India Today: Challenges and Opportunities,” but the panel , which Zakaria moderated, spoke at length about Yale’s role in India’s continued development, the importance of primary education and the inevitable comparisons between India and China.

At a press conference before the panel, Levin addressed many of these issues, and dealt with questions about Yale’s proposed new liberal arts college in Singapore.

“I don’t think we’re ready for a campus in India,” he said, explaining that the University will not be able to deal with other similar projects while focusing on the Singapore venture, a liberal arts campus operated jointly by the National University of Singapore and Yale. Levin added, though, that if there were to be another international college, India would be a more likely choice than China because of the predominance of English. In the meantime, Levin said Yale has maintained an involvement in Indian education reform; he informally advises Sibal on issues of higher education.

Speaking at the panel, Levin recalled the roots of the initiative in Yale’s decision 11 years ago to accept international students on a need-blind basis, a move he said, “opened the door to the world.”

Only after Yale established connections in East Asia, Europe and South America did it announce the India Initiative in November 2008. Levin attributed the University’s late entry into South Asia to a lack of previously established connections such as century-old Yale-China program.

But he said Yale is now fully committed to teaching its students about India and attracting specialists on the region to New Haven. Yale wants access, involvement and partnerships with India because it is one of the two great growing economies in the world, Levin said.

“It is 20 percent of the worlds population,” he said, “and we would be betting in the long-run a larger fraction of the world’s most talented people.”

Zakaria began the moderated discussion by asking Nooyi what she thought India was doing right and what it still needed to work on. Her three suggestions — “appalling” infrastructure, education and work skills, and health care — framed the conversation for the rest of the evening.

Much of the talk focused on philosophy of education and reform. Sibal, who is currently trying to pass several bills reforming various areas of education, said he wanted to focus on the lack of skilled workers.

“I don’t have time for piloting projects [in liberal arts colleges or top-level universities],” he said. “We need to set up a vocational education framework. We don’t even know what skills people need to have as benchmarks.”

Nooyi argued, however, that vocational and academic education systems can be concurrently developed, and she highlighted the need for an educated citizenry in a democracy.

As for Yale, Levin said the University’s biggest role in the future will be to strengthen India’s top schools through advising and collaborative projects.

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