Professor Deepak Sharma assumed office as the new Vice President for Academic Affairs on April 1, 2019. After completing his Masters in 1987 and Ph.D. in 1990 from AIT, he moved to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where he served as a faculty member for 28 years. Before joining AIT, Prof. Sharma was working as Director of the Center for Energy Policy and Professor of Energy Planning and Policy at UTS. AIT’s Office of Public Affairs joined him in his office and had a long and engaging discussion.
Here are some excerpts from the interaction.
1. You have returned to AIT after almost three decades. What are your first thoughts and emotions?
It is a mixed bag. In the days immediately prior to my arrival here, I reminisced a great deal, rather nostalgically, about my time at AIT and I wondered how AIT might have changed since then and what I might encounter.
In my initial weeks after arriving here, I began to experience AIT, and as I noticed what had changed and what had not, my mind began to seek explanations for the changes. And as I immerse myself more and more into AIT life, I have been here for nearly three months now, I find myself bemused by its toings and froings, and I find my thoughts turning more and more to understanding the institute’s logic.
Overall though, I am delighted to be back at AIT!
2. How has the Institute changed since then?
In one sense, AIT has not changed at all, yet in another sense, it has changed most palpably.
Let me elaborate. In a quite discernable sense, the AIT of today is exactly the same as the AIT of my time here. It has largely kept intact its fabled mystical ability to embrace one-and-all and to color them in its own indelible colors! This is a great tribute to AIT, something we should be immensely proud of, something we should cherish.
But if I reflect more intensely, I find the AIT of today to be fundamentally different from the AIT of those days, be it in a professional sense, in its academic and research programs, or its positioning in the global scenario. And this is from someone who is a most ardent well-wisher of AIT!
3. Can you elaborate on the factors, both within the Institute as well as external, that have brought about this change?
This is a complex question, which requires a rather nuanced analysis. There is a multitude of interlocked factors, making it therefore difficult to provide a simple, straight-cut, and unequivocal answer to your question.
I would like to begin by first categorically refuting the often-heard argument that AIT’s major challenge is a lack of resources, which in turn is due to a drastic curtailment of scholarships by international donors, the termination of undergraduate programs, political tensions over recent years, and – of course – the floods of 2011, etc., etc.
While there is no denying that these factors have been significant, the fact is that the world has moved on, and geo-strategic changes over the last thirty years or so have completely changed the political, economic, social, and – more importantly for us – the educational landscape around the globe. We need a clear strategy to deal with these changes, but before that, we have to accept this reality.
4. You just mentioned that the educational landscape has changed significantly. In what sense has it changed, and how will this impact AIT?
Yes, the global educational landscape had changed dramatically over the last thirty years or so, concomitant with, or perhaps more appropriately, as a consequence of, global geo-strategic changes. This is a vast topic for discussion, but let me try to put together a few rudiments about the changes I think have taken place and how they might impact us.
From a macro perspective, the educational landscape has changed in terms of the main focus of education, its modes of learning, modes of delivery, funding options, stakeholder mix, expectations, and so on. These changes have shifted the very emphasis of education from knowledge to skills, from theory to practice and applications, from real to virtual, from means to ends, from local to global, from long-term to short-term, from citizens to work-ready graduates, from one-off learning to life-long learning, from public to private, from responsibility to expectations and rights, from humanities to STEM, and indeed from humans to technics!
Lately, there has been yet another factor, probably in recognition of the sheer complexity of emerging global challenges, that is beginning to have a perceptible influence on shaping the contours of our educational landscapes. This factor is interconnectivity. Accordingly, the emphasis of educational and public policy discourses is fast shifting away from single-discipline silos to multidisciplinary domains, from proximate to fundamental, from technological preoccupations to the centrality of institutions and governance, from a-contextuality to cultural sensitivity. This is likely to fundamentally change how we perceive the world, the various challenges we face, how we synthesize diverse domains of knowledge, what approaches we follow to redress global challenges, and who decides, why, and how.
All this is going to impact us profoundly. It will call into question the very quiddity of our academic programs, our research, and our outreach. Unless we keep pace with these changes and prepare to deal with them, we may find ourselves completely swept over by the forces of change, and that at the most opportune time in our region’s history: the Asian Century! This will not only be sad, but in my view, a crime!
5. How is AIT preparing itself to tackle global changes?
I think AIT has developed a most thoughtful approach to tackle the global changes. This approach is founded on a rather penetrating soul-search involving revisit to our origins, mandate, and expectations; and honest appraisal of our past experience, our strengths and weaknesses. Many of these sentiments are quite appropriately reflected in the transformation agenda proposed by the AIT President. This agenda is supported by a clear vision and considered strategies for its realization. We are now in the process of developing a road-map to implement these strategies. And, I am confident that our agenda, vision and strategies will set us on the path to revival and enduring growth.
6. How do we put these thoughts into practice?
First and foremost, we need to review the entire gamut of our academic, research and outreach programs, and we need a thorough understanding of current demands and requirements. AIT has to improve its contemporary relevance and embrace new ideas. We should also strengthen our ability to shape the future and not merely react to events. This can be done by repositioning ourselves and undertaking a range of initiatives under I2E2S2. This is how we will transform AIT!
7. What do you believe are the strengths of AIT?
Several. The biggest strength of AIT is its people – past and present faculty, staff, students. Their belief in - and commitment and dedication to - the institute is simply irreproachable. Our other notable strengths are: our illustrious past, recognizable brand, sound academic moorings, well-placed alumni, diverse cultural-milieu, beautiful and inviting campus, attractive geo-strategic location, and access to regional policy and industrial hubs.
8. As the leader of academic affairs at AIT, can you outline your vision specifically in the realms of academics and research?
Every vision is founded on a mix of stated and unstated suppositions. So is mine. I have three main suppositions, pertinent to your question. Firstly, our core identity as human beings is cosmic; our planetary existence, which is rather recent on the evolutionary time scale, is just one of nature’s myriad of experiments; the planet does not need us – we need the planet. Secondly, everything is interconnected with everything else; there is no individual identity, no unique domain, and hence no domain-centric problems, no unequivocal solutions. Our lives are lived at the interfaces of various domains, and that is where we perceive problems and seek solutions, and – most importantly - search for the meaning of life! And finally, the role of an educational institution, like AIT, is to provide its students – through its academic, research and outreach programs – appropriate education and professional skills in their chosen areas of interest, but more importantly, to enlighten them, broaden their mental horizons, by augmenting their capacity to engage with the big ideas - beyond the bounds of their immediate professions - as global citizens.
Persuaded by these suppositions, my vision as Vice President for Academic Affairs has three strands, namely, philosophical, strategic and tactical.
Philosophically, I aspire to lead the development of a much bolder educational narrative at AIT - a narrative that is imbued with a discerning sense of purpose, vitality, empathy, and courage. These should inform every educational endeavor of the institute.
Strategically, I would like to enrich the essence, coherence and reach of our academic and research programs, by aligning them with the global challenges facing humanity, for example, Climate Change, Energy-Food-Water Security, Infrastructure provision, Resource Scarcity, Technology-Public Policy mismatch, and Inequality and Distributive Justice.
Tactically, I would like to ensure the contemporaneous relevance, integrity and probity of our educational programs and supporting processes.
In short, the leitmotifs of my vision will be: contextuality; multidisciplinarity; interconnectedness; policy-orientation; and social impacts – underscored by imagination, curiosity, ingenuity, and creativity.
9. What will be our priority areas in the coming years?
Commensurate with my vision, and guided by my responsibilities as a member of the institute’s leadership team – my priorities will be to foster broad consensus among the faculty and across schools and other units of the institute on the imperativeness and direction of change; delineate the key lineaments of our new academic and research direction; align institute’s vision with school interests; and promote a sense of ‘commonality of purpose’ and a ‘sense of ownership’ for change.
And, I would like to accomplish this in a caring, sensitive, and respectful, yet decisive and responsible, manner, within the ambit of the institute’s strategic framework.
10. What challenges do you believe you will face in achieving your vision?
There will certainly be some challenges – some external, others internal. Any and every change inevitably invites resistance – some well-founded, most not so. To oppose is a basic human instinct! Within bounds, this is, in fact healthy as it promotes debate, enables different perspectives to be considered, and may even produce new ideas, new ways of doing things. Such opposition can however become counterproductive if taken too far - when opposition begins to feed on itself! Other potent sources of challenge could come from our apathy, ignorance, self-delusion, and denial – not so uncommon human traits. I am confident though that our collective strengths, our clarity of vision, our well-considered strategies, our sense of purpose, our firm resolve and the courage of our convictions, will enable us to emphatically overcome these challenges.
11. What would you hope AIT to become?
I would like AIT to be an institution that is renowned and respected for being true to its own values; a crucible for contesting ideas; welcoming of cultural diversity and human enterprise; contributing to a balanced redress of global challenges through its academic discourses; and meaningfully engaged with community and society at large, through its socially impactful research. In short, an institution that is intrinsically a force for good!