Inaugural speech at International Conference on Transformations in Engineering Education, RKU.
April 23, 2017
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentleman.
Its an extraordinarily special day for me. Educational transformations and learning experiences, be it engineering or otherwise take up the entirety of my waking life. As a member of RK University, I am honoured that we have the privilege of hosting this conference. And as someone who cares about education, I am filled with hope seeing you all here thinking, talking and finding ways to build better institutions. But I am also deeply aware that our collective work here is a constant struggle with resistance to change and a constant endeavour to keep learning.
I want you to think about RKU and what it represents from a perspective that I want to present. I think RKU and things happening at RKU are highly UNLIKELY. Why do I use the word “unlikely”? Unlikely means not likely to happen, be done, or be true; improbable. I’ll share a few anecdotes and hopefully it will be clearer.
Founding of the institution by an unlikely visionary
We are all gathered here in an institution which was founded by the singular vision of one man, our President. Just imagine the unlikelihood of this happenstance. Picture this: A young boy of 10–11 years in 1970’s; living in a dire poverty, pulling vegetable cart and polishing shoes at railway stations supporting a family with 9 siblings. Fast forward 3 decades. We have a global conference aiming to nudge the narrative of engineering education of this country. How unlikely this journey, how unlikely the outcomes.
Oasis in the desert
While you are here, I encourage you to walk around the campus. Take in the sights, colours, sounds and smells of the campus. Count the different kinds of trees you can find. Or the different kinds of flowers you can see. Sit in the shade of the massive Neem tree or walk the long trail from University plaza to the Highway Entrance Plaza and see the climbing vines and flowering shrubs. Then stop and think: We are practically in a desert. Perpetually water starved. Monsoons without rains and rivers running dry, we dig holes in the very ground that we stand. We salvage every last drop. In the hopes that one flower blooms. One tree gives shade. One more colour to see. Some more oxygen to breathe. How unlikely the story of the Oasis in the desert.
Small City Blues
I am sure Krishna would have had a few sleepless nights mulling over whether to host this conference in the little town of Rajkot. We are an unlikely choice, if you measure us by the standard parameters of size of the city or its connectivity or just being there, historically, on the map of academic affairs. How unlikely that a small, young university manages to have these amazing inspiring people here together for these two days. How unlikely this happenstance that what we are doing here must be something special that warrants your presence here.
Struggling with admissions, talking transformations
As most of you know, higher education sector, specially, engineering, is in a state of turmoil. Enrolments have seen massive drop. Competitive landscape keeps getting more and more dense. All this in an environment which is over-regulated and under-governed. Stifling the conditions for innovation and original thinking. How unlikely that we are here talking about building institutions based on deep and meaning learning experiences. How unlikely that we get this opportunity to nurture the intellectual curiosities while outside a burning forest fire is kept at bay.
I mention these unlikelihoods to you for a reason. And it is that we, I, value what RKU is doing for its students, for its faculties, for the community. This event may just be one conference in many more such conferences around the world. But for us, it matters. Your presence matters. In a way all these “unlikelihoods” represent interdisciplinary, deeply human problems. Now, more than ever, we need to bridge the gulf between the two cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities. What CP Snow told us 60 years ago remains true today, perhaps more so. In my personal journey from the hard sciences to social sciences I have realised that if we are going to solve the world’s most intractable problems we need to be more humane in our scientific pursuits. Isn’t that what this conference is about? Isn’t that what engineering is about?