Finding Eli in India

Yale was founded with the help of India–or, at least, with the help of Indian resources. In 1718, east India Company administrator Elihu Yale donated to the Collegiate School of Connecticut a portrait of King George I, a set of royal arms, 417 books, and three bales of Indian textiles. To show its gratitude for the valuable gifts, the school changed its name to Yale College. But as Yale flourished, India’s attention turned inward as it underwent a tumultuous transition from a British colony to a democracy. Only within the last three years, as India’s social, technological, and economic renaissance has gained speed and as Yale’s expansion has turned global, has the university sought to revive this old relationship.

But it hasn’t been easy. In a country of 1.1 billion people, establishing a school’s reputation is not a simple task, and with many Indians skeptical of a liberal arts education, Yale faces a tremendous challenge. Prasanta Pal, president of Yale’s South Asian Graduate and Professional Students Association, explained: “Most students want to be doctors or engineers in India. They don’t go and study arts because the arts don’t make money. Most students study engineering not because they love engineering, but because it is economically viable. Yale’s engineering is good, but it’s more famous for the liberal arts.”

Indian MPs at Yale. (Courtesy Yale)

Indeed, to many Indian families, with incomes less than Yale’s yearly tuition, the thought of spending thousands of dollars on a seemingly useless degree is inconceivable. It is George Joseph’s job to change their minds.

Joseph has been Yale’s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs since the position’s creation in 2004. Traveling to India several times a year, he meets with school counselors, students, and parents in order to build Yale’s profile. “A Yale liberal arts education is, in fact, a preparation for a career that will be very all-encompassing,” Joseph told the Globalist, “It is not for everyone. If your goal is to get an undergraduate degree and go into your family business, Yale may not be the place for you. If you want to aspire for a career in service and leadership, then it certainly is for you.”

In a country that will need more leaders to guide a growing economy and a robust democratic government, Joseph’s emphasis on leadership has resonated with young Indians. Parmeet Shah, SM ’11, from Mumbai, told the Globalist: “George Joseph is the reason why I’m here. He said, `Yale is a place for leaders.’ Immediately, he had my attention.”

But in such a massive country, a single liaison is not enough to raise a university’s profile, and Yale has thus utilized many of its academic and financial resources. The school took a leading role in the organization of the “Incredible India @60” forum in New York City in September 2007. The event celebrated the country’s ongoing economic and political development, while critically analyzing its future. In January 2005, a Yale delegation that included President Richard C. Levin and economist T.N. Srinivasan toured India, reconnecting with Indian alumni and exploring opportunities to collaborate with Indian universities. In addition, Yale brought twelve members of the Indian parliament to campus in October 2007 and provided them with advanced economic training in a relaxed and new environment. As Joseph explained: “Whatever we do that raises Yale’s profile also makes people aware of what makes Yale special. It’s a place that trains leaders, a place that instills values of service, and a community that comes together to argue and debate.”

It is this combination of personal attention and public leadership that Yale hopes will give it an edge in expanding its relationship with India. The effort is young, but it has shown signs of success: there are 29 Indian undergraduates at Yale this year and the university has made headlines in India for its projects to aid the country’s economic transformation. Will these students return to India after graduation? Yale Club of India Secretary Pradeep Varma, GRD ’95, speculated, “With opportunities, people will go anywhere, so that depends on how much India develops.”

If all goes well, the relationship between Yale and India will help both parties by sending India’s brightest to Yale and returning them to India ready to guide the country to prosperity. It took 300 years, but it looks like India is finally reaping the benefits of its early investment in Yale.