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3 Lessons in Building Partnerships in India

The following is a guest post by Cheryl Matherly, the University of Tulsa’s vice provost for global education. It is following up on a Chronicle article about the challenges American universities face in building partnerships in India.
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A street in Delhi, India. While the country can be a confusing place, it holds great promise for American educators.

A street in Delhi. While the country can be a confusing place, it holds great promise for American educators, says Cheryl Matherly.

My flight to New Delhi from Chicago had already been delayed 24 hours when I learned that my Air India connection to Bangalore would be late. This information emerged, some four hours after the time we were to depart, when my increasingly irritated fellow passengers demanded that the airport information desk clerk summon a manager from the airline.  When the Air India rep finally arrived, he politely informed us that the flight was canceled, that the next flight would leave the following morning, and that it was overbooked and would not be able to accommodate the travelers from my flight.

At this point, the crowd started sending text messages—not to let family, friends or co-workers know they were late, but rather to register complaints to the airline representative, who of course was holding a cellphone immediately in front of the crowd. Then someone grabbed the public-address microphone and began calling shame upon the airline. I was in the middle of the slowest moving, most polite, but nonetheless outraged mob I had ever seen.

This, I thought, is what John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist and a former U.S. ambassador to India, must have meant when he described the country as a “functioning anarchy.” For university administrators interested in setting up partnerships on the subcontinent, the challenge, of course, is to recognize which part is functioning and which part is anarchy.

For many American universities, India remains an opportunity wrapped in a riddle. The University of Tulsa has identified it is as a geographic priority in our internationalization plan, but it is a region in which we have little experience. We want to raise our visibility in India to recruit top students, but we also believe it is important that our American students learn about Indian culture, history, politics, and economics. We are looking for partnerships with Indian institutions that will include student and faculty exchanges, and degree cooperation, in engineering, management-information studies, law, and the humanities.

Karin Fischer’s article, “For U.S. Colleges in India, Great Possibilities, Thwarted Hopes,” captured the pace of progress that many of us seeking partnerships with Indian institutions have experienced. The University of Tulsa began our efforts in 2010 when we were selected as one of 10 institutions for the International Academic Partnership Program India, which was run by the Institute of International Education.

Representatives from the Institute for International Education and American universities on a 2010 trip to India to explore academic partnerships.

Representatives from the Institute of International Education and American universities traveled to India in 2010 to discuss academic partnerships.

We did our homework about opportunities in India. We convened a working group that consisted of faculty with experience in India and staff in key areas, such as graduate-school and undergraduate-international-student admissions. The group completed an audit of our current activities in India and assessed the capacity of specific degree programs for university partnerships. Before a trip in 2010 to New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, we developed a carefully articulated plan that summarized strategies for engaging with Indian institutions. But we quickly learned that, as Eisenhower advised about D-Day, planning is everything, but the plan means nothing. Two years later, we have made some incremental progress with partnerships, but in a word, it has been slow.
Based on our experience, we can offer three lessons for American universities interested in working in India.

Lesson One: The best-laid plans for foreign universities to develop partnerships in India should leave room for informed improvisation. Absent a national system for quality assurance, it is very hard to evaluate Indian institutions without spending time on the ground. India’s current government plan for education rightly stresses expansion of higher education, but one result is a flood of new, private institutions of varying quality that are eagerly and even aggressively seeking foreign partners. At the same time, public institutions, starved for funds, struggle with inadequate facilities that belie the quality of their faculty’s teaching and scholarship. Outside of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, measures we use to evaluate the quality of a university—number of faculty with advanced degrees, levels of government or industry support, accreditation, facilities or library holdings—may not present a complete picture.

To understand the quality of a particular institution requires that you spend time on the campus with Indian colleagues in order to separate promise from reality. We have established a partnership with Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, an institution founded in 2006 by the Gujarat State Oil Company. The partnership has yielded some successes—short-term programs for PDPU students at Tulsa, opportunities for visiting Tulsa faculty members to give lectures, and a nascent pipeline for recruiting graduate students. The reason for this modest success has been the deep involvement by engineering faculty who could help the rest of the campus understand the promise of a young institution.

Lesson Two: The complexities of the Indian higher-education system demand that foreign institutions prepare for a long-term investment. The slow-moving Indian bureaucracy and the famously dysfunctional system of Indian higher education demands patience to navigate—anyone waiting for the bill to pass that would allow foreign institutions to operate in the country understands this. We have been advised to not rush agreements with new partners but rather develop our own slow-moving strategy. For institutions new to working with Indian institutions, it is best to start with small projects, such as faculty or student exchanges that sow the seeds for familiarity, trust, and experience between institutions before entering larger, more complex agreements. As an example, this spring we are sending a faculty member from our law school to deliver a series of lectures at a partner university in an effort to catalyze a student exchange.

Lesson Three: American institutions that will be successful in India will build expertise on their home campuses. This means cultivating campus leadership with the recent and relevant experience in India to evaluate opportunities, including faculty educated at Indian institutions.  It also means generating interest among students in study abroad or other academic programs related to India to support these efforts. Short-term exchange of visiting scholars, developing faculty-led study-abroad courses on themes related to India, or engagement with Indian alumni are all steps that can both deepen campus expertise and provide experience with potential partners.

We’ve maintained our India Working Group to continue to vet new opportunities. Each of our study-abroad advisers has recently visited programs in India. A delegation of faculty and staff members, including some for whom this will be their first visit to India, will travel to Delhi, Pune, and Bangalore in March to meet with current and prospective partners and officially start the University of Tulsa India Alumni Club.

Two years after we initiated projects in India, it is clear that we need to invest in our partnerships. We also need to invest in faculty and staff who can make the case for why we engage in India and understand what is required to successfully carry out collaborative projects.

Functioning anarchy? Perhaps. Controlled chaos? Maybe. But India is still one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a rapidly expanding middle class. Like many aspects of India, higher education is full of contradictions but it still somehow works. For the well-prepared and very patient American university, Indian institutions can deliver a dynamic partnership.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia photo of a Delhi street by McKay Savage; photo of India delegation courtesy of Cheryl Matherly]

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