Spotlight On President-Designate Ramaswamy

Sunder Ramaswamy

Spotlight on President-Designate Sunder Ramaswamy

by Amy Beck

As a five year old in Madras, India, Sunder Ramaswamy wanted to be a steam engine locomotive driver. Years later, he finds himself sitting in a temporary office in the Segal building preparing for his next challenge: Monterey Institute’s next president. He is a surprisingly optimistic man with a refreshing perspective on global problems and their solutions. His goal for MIIS students is to nurture an alternate way of thinking. He sees the biggest global challenge as a combination of cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness that one cannot make a difference.

Ramaswamy said, “Think of Muhammad Yunus, [founder of the Grameen Bank] – someone must have told him it could never be done. Don’t accept that “you cannot do it.” Overcoming this mental obstacle is, in Ramaswamy’s mind, the first and most difficult step in solving a whole host of global problems, “from poverty to global warming to you-name-it. All global problems are manifestations of the ‘I can’t do it’ mentality.” We feel we cannot effect change. As Gandhi said, ‘Become the change that you want to see in the world.’ [As] we embrace that mind set, the problems start becoming opportunities that can be solved.” He urges, “small things that can make a difference.”

In fact, one visual manifestation of this thinking is a new slogan for MIIS: “Be the solution.” He urges students to find an issue that they are passionate about and work towards ‘becoming the solution’.

This mix between academic and practical work defines Ramaswamy well. He has worked with the World Bank, USAID, UNCTAD, WHO, UN University, NGOs, as a professor of Economics at Middlebury College, Vanderbilt University, Purdue University, Institute of Financial Management and Research in Chennai India, and the Madras School of Economics. He is passionate about development and international economics and his work has included economic reforms in India and agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa, to name a few.

He joined Middlebury College in 1990 and was only a few years older then the students he was teaching. He cites his recent professional experience as the director of the Madras School of Economics (MSE), one of the premier graduate research centers for economics in Chennai, India, as a very rewarding one. He reflects that as the head of the school, he was able to have the “most impact because [he] was able to make a difference in the lives of the students &faculty.” The position also allowed him to “take part in major policy discussions in India. [It was] personally and professionally satisfying because [he] was heard.”

During the two years in India, he also “got involved with the Institute for Economic Education.” The major goal of the institute was “to spread economic literacy in cities in India by giving lectures on why economics is important, and why understanding the economy is important.” He spoke to students and average citizens around the country, giving lectures every two weeks for a year. He says, “In India there is a thirst for good economics knowledge and [to know] why it’s important. ‘Is globalization good for me?’ or ‘What does liberalization mean?’ [I] tried to give a sense to why certain political things were happening and why other things weren’t”.

When asked why he decided to accept the position as MIIS’ next president, he cites his excitement for the merger as complementing both institutions’ strengths and building upon each other. When he first heard of the merger, he “emailed [President Liebowitz] and said this may be one of the best thing you could have done. Middlebury is much more international than we’d realized… [and that the schools should] leverage opportunities with all the assets available – Summer Language programs, Schools Abroad and the Bread Loaf Schools of English.” He envisions the two institutions viewing each other as two members of the same family. His enthusiasm and background earned him the position as the point person for spearheading integration. “it was a job that I really enjoyed.”

Still, when he was offered the position, he had to sit down and really think. The offer was completely unexpected, “a bolt from the blue.” He spent five weeks thinking before he accepted. One of his biggest concerns was his family: his wife, Varna and five and a half year old son, Srivats. Varna, like him, is a strong believer in the mission of the Monterey Institute.

Ramaswamy’s plans for the future include a new image for Middlebury and MIIS, as a unique education and a unique study plan. He lists future opportunities as joint degree programs such as a 3-1-1 plan which consists of three years at Middlebury, one year through some combination of summer language schools and our schools abroad and one year at MIIS. The 3-1-1 plan would earn the student a dual BA/MA degree. There are many other creative ways in which MIIS, Middlebury and the various other entities of the Middlebury network can be leveraged such that the “experience is greater then the sum of its parts” for students, faculty and even staff. The collaboration will “set [both schools] apart from their competitors.”

He concluded the interview with a message to the MIIS community:

“As the incoming president, I look forward to working with members of this community and beyond – faculty, staff, students, trustees and community friends – for I believe that real change usually requires consensus, learning, and accommodation to make any vision come to reality. It is also equally important to note, that Vision, however idealistic, or grand — without resources — remains a hallucination. The key is to do everything we can to make the Institute financially sound, remain academically excellent, innovative and nimble, and last but not least, professionally relevant. It is important to make things better, but it is equally important to make them matter.”

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