Professor Amartya Sen answers questions on the making of a dream university.

Nalanda University, the world's oldest centre of higher learning, is being re-established through an Asian initiative, involving India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, is chairman of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda University. Professor Sen, the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, believes that Nalanda stands for the passion of propagating knowledge and understanding. It was a residential university, and at its peak had 10,000 students from many countries, especially China, Korea, Japan, and Turkey, studying various subjects. Professor Sen responds to Shreeya Sinha's questions about the project ahead of a lecture he will give at the Asia Society in New York on September 22. Excerpts:

What was the original ethos behind Nalanda University?

Old Nalanda as an educational institution was fully dedicated to the pursuit of learning. It was committed to educational excellence. Indeed, because it was largely successful in achieving and maintaining excellence that Nalanda attracted foreign students — from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. The institution was Buddhist in terms of its foundation, but Nalanda's teaching and research were not confined to Buddhist studies. Indeed it was well-known also for what it offered in secular subjects such as health care, linguistics, and astronomy. Nalanda received patronage from Hindu kings (such as the Guptas) as well as from Buddhist kings (such as the Palas of Bengal). It was not, in any sense, a specifically Buddhist institution, but it was in the general Buddhist tradition of focussing on knowledge and understanding as ways of solving problems that pester humanity. It was also a “modern” institution — modern in relation to its time — in offering education that went well beyond religion, and included science (such as astronomy) and the pursuit of practically useful arts (such as public health care).

What is your vision for its future?

Ever since I saw Nalanda for the first time as a child, I was completely bowled over by the vision it offered to humanity. I dreamt of bringing the great institution back to life, some day. As I continued to visit Nalanda through my teenage years, the idea of an outstanding centre for higher education at the great centre of ancient Indian civilisation, in Bihar, gripped me more and more. When Chief Minister Nitish Kumar approached me about helping them build a new institution near the old site, I was impressed to see how close his own vision was to what I had hoped would happen one day. I hope to see that dream being realised — at least the initial stages of it — before long. The fact that Bihar also has a lot of economic problems, including persistent poverty, makes it even more necessary for the new Nalanda to offer educational opportunities for the useful arts (such as information technology, environmental studies and management), without undermining the more abstract investigations.

How was the Vice-Chancellor chosen? What qualifications were the Nalanda Mentor Group looking for?

The post of Vice-Chancellor is meant to be open to any of the member-countries of the East Asia Summit, even though for the first Vice-Chancellor, the Nalanda Mentor Group had a preference for an Indian academic, with the practical ability to do things, to get the project moving. The four primary considerations that the selection committee had, on the basis of the deliberations of the Mentor Group, were: (1) academic excellence, (2) administrative ability, (3) interest in — and commitment to — the Nalanda university project, and (4) willingness to be based on the new campus in Nalanda to build an intellectual community there from scratch, and be fully involved with Bihar's problems and concerns.

Members of the selection committee talked with at least 20 people, sought their advice and also checked their own interest in being considered for the position, including living in Nalanda, as and when it becomes a functioning reality. From time to time, reports on these consultations somehow got leaked in Indian newspapers (even though the consultations and ascertaining of interest in being a resident Vice-Chancellor have sometimes been confused, in these reports, as “offers” having been made to this person or that). On the basis of all the information it had, the selection committee decided that the best feasible appointment would be Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, but it was willing to accept the possibility of appointing some other person from a list of three it gave to the Government of India. Dr. Sabharwal's academic qualifications are excellent (one of our advisers on the academic side was Professor Andre Beteille, a world-renowned sociologist); her administrative ability is well established; she is totally committed to the Nalanda project; and her involvement with Bihar and willingness to be based in Nalanda contrasted sharply with some others who could have been considered for the position. The Nalanda Mentor Group, which was authorised to make the selection, listed three names, including that of Dr. Sabharwal, but the government could have appointed any one of the three. The government offered Dr. Sabharwal the position of being Vice-Chancellor Designate, to be followed by being Vice-Chancellor as the legal formalities of the university are sorted out. The Mentor Group was very happy that she agreed to take on this job when she was approached.

I understand that in some parts of the media questions have been raised about whether someone who was not a “full professor” should have been chosen to be the Vice-Chancellor. I suppose an obsession with rank and status in our stratified society makes some people inclined to judge a person not by his or her qualities — and particular qualifications for a very specific job — but by the person's position in the social hierarchy.

Has the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, started functioning, and what steps is she taking to get this big project off the ground?

Dr. Sabharwal has made an excellent beginning in setting up the campus, with the help of the Bihar government (which has been impeccably cooperative), and also in planning the legal, administrative and academic arrangements. The first two faculties to be started will be environmental studies and historical studies, to be followed by others such as information technology and international relations. The work on setting up these faculties is very much on the way. Nalanda University, under Dr. Sabharwal's leadership, has also established reciprocal relations with the Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre in Singapore and the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and, at an informal level, with the Peking University in China, through Professor Wang Bangwei of that University who, as an active member of the Mentor Group, has been involved in the planning of Nalanda. There will be a partnership with Korean and Japanese universities as also with leading American universities. These possibilities are now being explored. The making of the architectural plans for the campus and the buildings is in high gear right now, along with securing and looking after the land that the Bihar government has given to the university.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sabharwal still remains “Vice-Chancellor Designate” rather than being the actual Vice-Chancellor, because of administrative delays at the level of the Government of India, and this does hamper Dr. Sabharwal's ability to discharge her duties even more efficiently. The Board of the Nalanda University very much hopes that these delays would soon come to an end, which would help her do her job with even greater speed. The Nalanda University Act was passed in Parliament last November (in line with the recommendations of the Mentor Group), and it is anticipated that the administrative delays at the governmental level would soon cease.

How will the university be financially viable?

At the moment the bulk of the expenses are being met by the Government of India, through the Planning Commission, which is also helping in sorting out the administrative hurdles. There have been promises of contributions from abroad, both from governmental and non-governmental sources (from China, Singapore, Australia, Laos and elsewhere). But there is a long way to go in firming up the financial base of the university.

(The full text of the interview can be read at http://asiasociety.org/blog/reasia/qa-nobel-prize-winning-economist-amartya-sen-reviving-nalanda-university)