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Lunch with BS: Ashish Nanda

'Recruit students, not just select them'

Shyamal Majumdar & Vinay Umarji  |  Mumbai/ Ahmedabad 

Ashish Nanda
Ashish Nanda

After Harvard Business School, Nanda is back at his alma mater and wants the institute to connect well internationally

What would most people in their twenties do if they had the option of either taking up a job at Delhi's Patparganj or accepting an invitation from the Harvard Business School (HBS) to join its economics PhD programme? The answer should be a no-brainer, but around 25 years ago, was more inclined towards the former for three reasons: one, (then TELCO) offered him a promotion to head the company's newly set up facility at Patparganj; two, his wife was working in India; and, three, his parents were based in Delhi and he was the only child, write Shyamal Majumdar and Vinay Umarji.

But Nanda had underestimated Harvard's persuasive powers. The school wrote to him, suggesting he should fly down to Boston and get a feel of the place. He had never flown out of the country before and was amazed that one of the world's top schools even bothered to send business-class tickets and put him up in a hotel even though he was just one of the many applicants to the school from all over the world. But those luxuries still looked like small change after he went to the campus. "I felt I was among some of the world's best thinkers. I had read their books and now I was actually talking with them. The loyalty I feel towards Harvard begins with that gesture on their part. They invested in me and believed in me", Nanda, now in his mid-fifties, says.

Harvard, of course, had reasons for this investment and belief: Nanda was an extraordinary student at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi and the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, having twice won the President of India Gold Medal and the IIM Director's Gold Medal, besides being a member of the coveted Tata Administrative Service with five years of stellar track record.

We are at the canteen located at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Management Development Centre within the IIM-A campus. Nanda, who took charge as director of his alma mater earlier this month, spent the first few seconds apologising for the barely five-minute delay on his part. The stewards inform us while orange juice, pineapple rasam soup and hara bhara kebab will be served on the table, the rest will be buffet.

We shift our conversation to his appointment at IIM-A, a process that lingered for a long time and also impacted Nanda personally as his wife wasn't able to join him. The institute approached him, he says, just before his visit to India for a reunion of the 1983 batch. But he wasn't too sure whether he could relocate to India. His wife is a successful dentist in Massachusetts and a professor at Tufts Dental School and he had just recently managed to convince his parents to shift to the US. But his wife was insistent, as apart from the fact that their son was just starting his medical education at Columbia, she felt "some economic discount or sacrifice" was worth it for a meaningful assignment in their home country at this juncture of his life.

The extent of the financial discount he has taken has been a matter of much speculation, but Nanda refuses to be drawn into any discussion on his compensation as that's not a very important factor "when you want to serve". We get the message and head for the buffet counter.

Nanda ensures he knows what he is eating. So, while a paneer do pyaza and carrot beans poriyal are easy picks, a gutti wonkai koora does test our culinary knowledge. "What's this?" Nanda asks a steward. "It's a South Indian dish, Sir," comes the reply. "But what does it contain?" Nanda persists. The steward excuses himself to find an answer and isn't seen again. The dish looks like a stuffed brinjal curry, which all of us decide to ignore. Hot rotis are served on the table.

One of the reasons for the delay in his appointment - the process took over six months - was the need for a background check. The story goes that trailing a professor abroad proved to be a difficult task for the intelligence agencies more used to following terrorists. Nanda doesn't say much, except that his wife would often pull his leg by saying, "See that car over there. There must be people watching us with binoculars".

Nanda had been teaching at the HBS for 13 years when then-Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan and vice-dean David Wilkins approached him in 2007 with an unusual idea. Kagan, the future US Supreme Court justice, wanted Nanda to move to the law school to start a first-of-its-kind executive-education programme for practising attorneys. The idea appealed to him, though he says he was somewhat of an odd duck in the law school since he had no legal background. The law school obviously backed the right horse since the course has become one of the most sought after for lawyers all over world.

The main course is over pretty fast and the stewards serve jalebis and fruits. Nanda says a lot has changed at IIM-A in the 30 years since his student days. But what hasn't is the fabulous quality of students. Another thing - he terms it a puzzle - that hasn't changed much is the size of faculty. During his student days, IIM-A had 70 to 80 faculty members for 180 students, which now stands at 100 for 480 students. He also remembers with some fondness how the signature Louis Kahn Plaza and even the shadows have remained the same in the old campus.

So, what's his agenda for the next five years for the institute? For one, he wants the institute to connect well internationally - something that goes beyond student exchange programmes. "I wish that people outside are more aware of the quality of people here and the quality of education they go through, and that people here are able to contribute to cutting-edge discussions on issues of managerial importance on a global level," he says.

The second item on his agenda is to try and create an enabling environment for IIM-A teachers and students to achieve their best potential. That includes attracting and retaining bright youngsters to academics as a profession and IIM-A as a home. "If you want to get people who are at the top of the game, you have to create a nurturing environment, of which compensation is a significant part. So, if I had a magic wand, I would say we should give schools the autonomy to compensate faculty in a manner they feel is competitive with the rest of the world," Nanda says.

Lastly, he would love to increase the diversity of students - 95 per cent of IIM-A students are engineers, unlike Harvard where students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. As a solution, he wants a system where IIM-A "recruits" in addition to "selecting" students, just as what Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did a few years ago in its drive to attract more women students. The world's best engineering institute decided to reach out to talented women students and tell them "we are hungry to get you". Apart from giving scholarships to deserving students, MIT also reached out to its alumni to identify women role models who could be showcased. "MIT did all this because it realised that its overall education is not going to be of the best quality if it doesn't get the best minds from all sources," Nanda says, adding IIM-A also needs to publicise alumni from non-traditional backgrounds who have gone on to do wonderful things and reach out to potential students in all disciplines.

That's quite a formidable task, but the professor isn't finished as yet. One of his priorities would be not to remain just an administrator and do what he has done best over the past 20 years of his life - that is teaching. "A captain also has to score runs if he has to earn real respect among his peers," Nanda says with a laugh, before rushing off to a class.

IIM-A is a hidden jewel, Nanda had said a few days before taking charge. The jewel will surely get a lot of polish over the next five years of the professor's tenure.

First Published: Fri, September 27 2013. 22:43 IST