Modernization Hub

Modernization and Improvement
Bish Sanyal

Bish Sanyal


INTERVIEWER: This is an
interview with Professor Bish Sanyal for the MIT150 Infinite
History project. Professor Sanyal is a Ford
International Professor of Urban Development and Planning,
and director of the Special Program in Urban and
Regional Studies and Humphrey’s Fellows
program at MIT. He first joined MIT in 1984 as
an assistant professor and later served as the head of
the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
from 1994 to 2002. He also served as the chair
of the faculty at MIT from 2007 to 2009. Thank you so much for
speaking with us today Professor Sanyal. SANYAL: Thank you. INTERVIEWER: So let’s start by
talking a little bit about where you’re from, your family
background, and your upbringing in India. SANYAL: Well, I was raised in
Calcutta, in the state of West Bengal in India. And I went to school at the
Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, which is like 80
kilometers from Calcutta. And I pretty much stayed there
until I finished my undergraduate, and then came
back to Calcutta for two years to work with my dad, who was a
civil engineer and had his own construction business. He built bridges around the
eastern part of India and also even outside. So I worked with him
for two years. And then I left for a Master’s
degree, for the US. INTERVIEWER: And tell
me a little more about your childhood. What kind of family environment
did you have? Was it a very academic family
with an emphasis on education? Obviously, your father was
quite a successful businessman. SANYAL: It was a family with a
lot of family members who have had advanced degrees. And many of them had degrees
from England, because at that time England was the main source
of good universities. So it was not uncommon in our
family for young men to go abroad to study at all. So it was not that difficult
for me to convince when I wanted to go abroad, except
that by this time the situation had changed and the
United States was becoming more the prominent place
to go to study. But I do come from a very
well-established and educated family. It’s been a privilege. INTERVIEWER: And what
were your early— earliest academic experiences? What subjects do you remember
interesting you? And did certain courses really
inspire your love of learning? SANYAL: In school— I went to a Catholic school. And it was a very good school,
now I think back. The school was known as Saint
Lawrence High School. I liked painting, art,
writing, math. I liked biology a
lot, I remember. So when I applied for higher
education, there was an all-India competition for the
few slots in the Indian Institute of Technology,
which is the best university in India. And I got in. And when I applied, I wanted
to do my degree in architecture. That was my first preference,
because I thought that I like art and that was kind of an
overlap with my dad’s business on construction. So why not go for something
that we can combine in architecture and civil
engineering? And so I started as
an architect. INTERVIEWER: And one of your
bios says that you credit contradictory forces in
your life for your intellectual journey. Can you expand on that
a little bit? SANYAL: Well, there are a couple
of the things that I think I would call dual demands
on the way, I think. And I’ll give you one example
about architecture and aesthetics, which I still
enjoy very much. I just like looking at beautiful
things, well designed things, parks,
beautiful environments, beautiful clothing, furniture. And at the same time, having
been raised in a city like Calcutta, I’m very conscious
about poverty and about deprivation and inequalities. And this tension between
aesthetics and inequality has always influenced my thinking. So I worked in architecture. Then I moved to city planning
to look at cities, how poor people manage to
live in cities. But now if you asked me like you
asked me before about JP, my first though was
the Arboretum. So I am still very drawn
to beautiful things. And that doesn’t mean JP doesn’t
have poor people. JP actually has much larger
share of poor people than probably Cambridge. INTERVIEWER: And JP being– SANYAL: Jamaica Plain. INTERVIEWER: Where
you live now. SANYAL: Where I live now. So that was one set of tension
that I had to deal with. I still kind of struggle
with it. But I think it makes me a more
interesting person, because I have this kind of dual need. I’m also very much
an academic. And I enjoy academia. I’m married to an
academic person. I have family members
who are academic. But at the same time, I like
getting things done, professional things. So building things, like
architecture, you have to build something to show. Same in planning. You make the city run. And so there is a difference
between just understanding, which is in academia often the
dominant mode, and actually getting things done and
supervising it, doing it well. And again, so I thought for a
moment when I came to MIT, well, if I don’t get tenure,
which is possible, because it’s so difficult, I’ll just
go back to practice. Yet, I know if I go to practice,
I will miss the life of the mind, which
is academia. Reading wonderful things, being
with colleagues who have incredibly new questions
to ask. So again, that’s a duality. So I wrote in that
piece about this. I think I have two or three
examples of that. Between India and the United
States, but the allegiance to my place, my country
where I grew up. I still go. I just was there last week. I visit. I do work there. I advise the planning
commission. And I’m quite attached to my
family members who are still alive, and to my old university,
which just gave me a very nice award, distinguished
alumni award, which I went to receive
last week. And yet I’m deeply drawn
to the United States. This is the place where I
got my best education. I married somebody from here. My child is here. And the level of things I have
received in this country, starting from good health care
to exceptional education to a lot of emotional support from
my wife and my daughter, neighbors the setting, beautiful
places to visit. It’s just part of me now. So you have this kind of
dual allegiance, right? So I don’t have to choose
if I enjoy both. So it’s another example
of that. INTERVIEWER: Growing up in
India, this awareness of the poverty and the dichotomy
between those who had resources and those who didn’t,
was that something that your family discussed? Or was it just something that
you ended up coming to realize over time? Was it openly acknowledged? SANYAL: I think West Bengal,
where the City of Calcutta is located, is a very political
state in terms of being run by political parties who do make
inequality an issue. And it was one of the states
that were controlled by the Marxist Communist Party of India
for almost 30 years. And that’s really one reason why
I even left working with my dad, because we had a lot of
labor troubles in managing the business. But the empathy for labor, for
inequality, it was cultivated in me also by the Jesuits. I think in my school, Catholic
school, the Jesuit Fathers who taught us, they drew attention
to it, that we were privileged that we were in a school in the
heart of Calcutta with a vast amount of land. And right outside the school,
there were very poor people sleeping on the pavements. And same at home. And we’d come home, and right
outside the main entrance to the building, there are
people sleeping on the pavements still. Still. We’re talking about 2012. And so it’s not really possible
to ignore that inequality if you are observant
of anything in social life. And I also realized that that
was painful, that that was painful for me to watch. And because I like aesthetics
and beautiful things, I wanted everything to fit into
a beautiful setting. So later I got more studying of
economics, because I came to realize that the problem was
not one of architecture and design, or physical design
only, that the economy had to produce jobs for the people,
for vast number of people. And then if their income goes
up, they’ll be able to buy. Then the city can
respond to them. They need disposable income. And so it’s still a very central
part of my writing and thinking as to how to create
policies that would benefit those groups of people. INTERVIEWER: And your
undergraduate degree was earned in India, as
you talked about. How different do you think that
experience was versus maybe had you come to the US and
come to MIT or an American undergraduate university? How do you compare? SANYAL: It’s hard to compare,
because I didn’t go through the undergraduate. But what I know of it now, I
think I would have had more flexibility in the US in terms
of choice of courses. In India, the curriculum
is totally set. You don’t have any choice. Everybody in the class they have
to take the same courses. And I think that also in terms
of advising, specializing, let’s say, within architecture,
I had to come to my own decision what I wanted to
do my thesis on, which was actually on a large student
center that I designed. But I think if I was here, I
probably would have had a number of people advising me
on different things, like design of museums or design
of amphitheaters or design of colleges. We didn’t have that variety
of options. And how did it affect? It affected in two ways. One was that you had to do what
you were asked to do. And there is some discipline
that you need to do, sometimes you have to do. The downside of it was that you
couldn’t be as creative as you wanted to be, because your
special parts of your strength was not sought out. So I think the American
universities are brilliant the way they do. And the flexibility they
provide is immense. And I’ll give you one example
that really blew my mind. When I first came it was
not for undergraduate. It was a course I was taking
in my master’s level. And somebody told me in
November, it was November, don’t panic. Because if you don’t finish,
well, you can take an incomplete and work over
the winter break. And then you will get a grade. I had no idea that something
like this is possible. And when I remember talking to
this individual saying, so how did you guys start this,
providing this incomplete? They said, the point is whether
you know the material. If you know the material and
you need one more month to finish and complete but
ultimately you know it well, that’s the goal, not to just
push you in a corner, which is a very nice approach. I love the American approach
to teaching and learning. INTERVIEWER: Was there also
an advantage to the more disciplined and the more
narrowly focused approach that your undergraduate school took
in India when you then came to the US for your graduate work? SANYAL: There was an advantage
in the sense that I was trained to work very hard. And it came from the Catholic
school and it came from undergraduate work that
you had to put an enormous amount of work. I was also quite used to very
stiff competition, because there are many, many
people in India competing for a few slots. So that kind of competitive mold
that sometimes allows you to go that extra mile, that
was cultivated well. But I do think that you
pay a price for that. I think that competition
is, of course, natural in any setting. But does that bring out from
within us our best performance? Maybe sometimes it does,
but not always. INTERVIEWER: And did you pursue
architecture because you wanted to be an architect? Or was it an area that interests
you because of the beauty and the combination
of many things that interested you? SANYAL: Both. I mean I like beauty,
as I said. I like aesthetics, I think
they’re more interesting aesthetics. And I wanted to go with that
feeling that I had. And then there was a kind of
utilitarian approach towards doing something that is not just
painting and art, which is very hard to make
a living in India. And my father had the
construction business, so I thought, if I do architecture,
we could do something together, that I could do the
design and maybe the other parts of the firm could
do the construction. But a beautiful living
environment, I think it’s exceptionally important
for me. And I still feel that that’s
where I do my best work, when I’m in a setting
of that nature. INTERVIEWER: Would you say MIT
is a setting of that nature? SANYAL: Initially when I came,
I was not that taken by MIT, because I came from University
of California, Los Angeles, which has a very beautiful
campus, as you probably know. UCLA campus was a place that
you could take a walk. You could sit in a cafe,
there would be mountains you could see. Beautiful foliage. The buildings are beautiful. University had a beautifully
planned campus, because the way they got land, they
could do that. So when I first came to MIT,
what struck me was this 77 Mass Avenue sort of bifurcating
the campus. It just created a different pace
for me to deal with this busy street. And also, I didn’t see the
river as much as I wanted to see it. I wanted to feel that I am next
to a river, beautiful river, right? It was still being cleaned
at that time. I found the hallways of
MIT kind of drab. And it was not a place
for aesthetics. It was a place to
get work done. So I think the labs are the
central part of MIT. But I have to say that being
here for all these years and having participated in this
conversation about the Stata Center and this new group of
buildings that have come up– and our ex-dean, who died two
years back, Bill Mitchell, was very strongly involved
in that. And there was a conversation
about do we need something like Stata Center? Do we need Stewart
Hall’s building? And through that conversation I
have come to realize that in MIT’s own way, there
is an aesthetics. If you define the term
aesthetics differently and not in a kind of classical way, the
students who come here, the faculty who are here,
they have a very unique approach to life. And this unique approach is what
I think Frank Gehry tried to capture in the building,
something very strange that from people outside
say, what is this? And you often say that
about MIT students. They are brilliant, but at the
same time you can’t exactly put them in a box. And so I thought isn’t that
interesting intellectual challenge, to capture the
psychic of this faculty and student and express it
differently in a built form? And so MIT has grown on me. I have to say it’s
grown on me. I still like the
Killian Court. But my best, absolutely my
favorite spot, where I would go if I’m really looking for
peace, is the chapel. I love this chapel. I think it’s an incredible
piece of work. And it is very small. Inside it’s not that many
people can sit. But I have been there a couple
of times, because many of my colleagues have died. Because I came in ’84, and
people who were at that time senior, many of them died. Some died when I was department
head, so I had to organize the memorial service,
et cetera, for them. And so I would go to this chapel
earlier, to make sure everything is in place. So there’s not that
many people. And you see the stream of lights
coming down, and on this brick wall that’s curved. It’s a beautiful
piece of work. I was sitting there the other
day in the student center looking at it from outside. And if you see the top of it,
I was really asking myself what was Saarinen thinking? Why did he create this space? It’s absolutely my
favorite spot. Now the new building, the new
media lab building, which is also beautiful, I think, which
Bill Mitchell also instrumental. You go to the top floor, which
just has the conference rooms now, and there’s a big patio
that you can walk out and see the river. It’s the first time I feel like
there’s a building at MIT where I can be in the building
and observe the river at the same time. It’s very beautiful. And on a beautiful day, and you
see Back Bay on the other side, it’s just a gorgeous,
gorgeous, place. So– yes. INTERVIEWER: So you found the
spot with the river view that you were so seeking. SANYAL: Yes. I think river is very important
for a city, and for just the sense of water. Water has a different
quality to it. And the water, quality of the
water, the color of the water changes a lot in this city,
because of the weather. And its volume changes. Its shade changes. It deflects in a different
way the light. It’s very beautiful. And I think that the cities that
I like generally all have water running through them. INTERVIEWER: I bet there
aren’t very many people running around the MIT campus
who notice the color or the texture of the water of the
river like you have. SANYAL: Maybe not that many. But I think there are people
who still appreciate. I have come to realize that even
though there is this kind of technology and science and
all of that, when I ask people questions about so where do
take a break if you are feeling harassed or something? Do you go for a walk? And they would often say, like,
oh, sometimes I take a walk across the road, which is
a very busy road, which is sort of a barrier. So people find peace. You ask doctoral students, for
example, who are the most harried, and the doctoral
student housing on Memorial Drive– I have asked many doctoral
students, so what do you love about the place? And they would say, oh, the
view from the apartment is just beautiful. And then I asked how many
students share that apartment? Oh, we have to share
with three or four. And I’m thinking, oh, wouldn’t
it be nice to have your own? So you can really see it, watch
the sun go down and have a cup of tea or something. So I think that people
are aware of it. But it’s not as much celebrated
at MIT, because that’s not the culture
of the place. INTERVIEWER: Is that
sad to you? SANYAL: It’s not sad, but I
think I have seen that that’s another approach to life. And I think that more and more
you see that your approach is not the only approach. So I have mine. I know what I prefer. But there are many others. And there are some of them are
very well articulated, well thought out, and they’re
very smart people. And so MIT has this very nice
style of look, you can do your work as long as you do it well
and you do it very, very well, exceptionally well, no
one will bother you. I have to say this about when
I came as assistant professor– and as I said, I was
a student at UCLA. I was struck by how little
senior faculty tried to tell me what I should
be working on. Not one. And in a way, people told me,
maybe you are not getting enough advice. You should get some
more mentoring. And this will hurt
you later when you come up for promotion. I don’t know if it was because
I was fortunate, but I felt like totally free to do
what I wanted to do. And I did good work. I was engaged with what I did. And I was lucky to get tenure. And that’s the same policy
I follow when we hire junior faculty. I don’t want to sit over their
back and tell them what to do. And if those are the types of
people who need help, I don’t think we should– we don’t
want them at MIT. INTERVIEWER: And you
found that out once you had gotten here. But what was it about MIT
that drew you here? SANYAL: Well, the name. Of course, MIT the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology is world-known. And when I applied to MIT, I
also had the option of going back to the World Bank, where I
had done some work for them. And I was posted in Zambia, you
might have seen in my CV. So I had a choice of either
going to the World Bank and working on development issues,
or this position opened up as assistant professor. My wife, who always wanted to be
an academic and also was a doctoral student at UCLA– that’s where I met her– when I asked her what do
you think we should do, she said, go to MIT. And I said, well, why? And she said, well, we would
be in Cambridge. I could probably get a
teaching job there. There’s so many other
universities there. And then I called my father, who
I respected, and he told me, if you have an offer from
MIT, you don’t think of any other things. I mean, this is the ultimate. It’s because technology, the
idea of technology, is so central to the people who are
into development process. And he was a civil engineer. So far engineers, this is it. There’s nothing better
than this. So I thought, okay. I have a choice. And after a while, some
people did warn me. If you’re going to MIT, it’s
a very highly ranked place. You may not get tenure. So I said, I’ll take a chance. And if I don’t get, I’ll look
for elsewhere or I’ll go back to practice. It worked. INTERVIEWER: And how much did
that mean to you to get that first teaching position here and
kind of launch that next phase of your career? SANYAL: It meant a lot
to get into MIT. And I remember when I mentioned
it to my adviser at UCLA, after the interview– I had borrowed his coat to come
for interview because it was cold, and in California
you don’t need a coat. So I went and gave him
back the coat. And I told him that– he said, how did it
go, the interview? I said, I think it went well,
but people were not overtly friendly or were not
overtly critical. I think it went well, because
California, the culture is very different. And then I got a phone call
that I got the job. And they told me the salary. And I said, listen, I don’t
even to know the salary. I knew that this is an incredible, prestigious position. So I went to tell my adviser
I got the job. And he was just ecstatic. And I didn’t know at that time,
which I later found out, that he was at MIT
for a while. And he was denied tenure, which
I did not know, because he later went to Chile. And then he went and
worked in Chicago. Then he was the head of
the program at UCLA. So I knew there was some
association with MIT, but I didn’t know that he
really wanted to be here and be tenured. So he announced to everybody,
my student got into MIT. And until now, when
I go to UCLA– and I was there in September,
because they had a meeting, they brought some of the
alumni together– it’s always so nice when they
introduce me as their alumni from Urban Planning who has
been chair of the faculty. I mean, they’re so
proud of me. And so I am more and more
realizing how privileged I have been and how fortunate
I have been. You know, when it happens to you
directly, it’s too quick to even sort of internalize
it. But as I come, as I grow more
into it, I see my daughter, other people, other friends, I
just have an exceptionally successful and a privileged
life. I don’t know who I owe
it to, but I have it. INTERVIEWER: What a nice
problem to have. SANYAL: Yes. It’s a problem only in the
sense of do you feel like you’re giving back enough? I think it’s important. And still when I go to India
and I see this level of poverty, et cetera, I’m really
struck by how my life would have been different if I was
born to one of those families. It would be totally different. And so when you have the
privilege and the opportunity to contribute, you have to. That’s part of your
moral upbringing. That’s what we teach
our students. So are there more
ways to give? It’s a thought that comes to my
mind quite a lot, because now the election’s going on. And did you see the statistics
on what share of the income each of the presidential
candidates actually give to charity? It was very interesting
for me. And I know that some Christian
families, like my wife’s family, they’re Methodists, they
actually give like one percent a year. They decide at the beginning
of the year. And so did they give it every
Sunday when they go to church. And I don’t go to a church. But I think that the idea of
giving back in many different ways, including monetary,
it’s important. Because ideally my income,
between two of us, is more than sufficient, even
with one child. So that’s one way to give. Do you feel like am I giving
enough or am I buying more beautiful things because
l like beauty? That goes back to the question
I was saying. If I see a beautiful piece of
furniture my immediate thought is, oh, it would be so nice
to have this writing desk. Do you need it? Could a kid go to school for
this writing desk that you are taking for yourself? I think those are the questions that are very important. And I think that I wish MIT as
a place, as a university, would have more of those
kinds of courses. That’s one thing I would very
much like to see offered. Our philosophy department is
very good, but very small. And I find our students–
because I teach a course called D-Lab with Amy Smith, who
got actually the MacArthur prize award. And I see these are young kids
who come and they want to go around the world solving
problems for the poor Small technological devices they do. And so I know that
that is there. They are also thinking
about the poor. Maybe they have come from a
different angle, different trajectory, but they
are concerned. And this is something that
I’m very proud of MIT. People from outside did not
realize how socially conscious our students are who are very
smart technologically. And so you need to get into
the conversation. You need to share with
them your thoughts. You need to say, this
is what I did. This is what are the
different options. And that’s what I’d like to see
more of at MIT, done in a more formal way. INTERVIEWER: And when do you
feel like that sense, that compassionate approach, the
human element to looking at the world started to infiltrate
your chosen career of architecture and then
urban planning? Or was it always there? SANYAL: I think it was
there partly also in the Catholic school. I think this Catholic school,
there is a very strong moral undertone to it. And these Jesuit Fathers now,
even when I go now– I was in Belgium two years back
for another very nice conference, some occasion. And I said, well, I’ll go see
the cities where these Jesuit Fathers came from
near Brussels. These are beautiful cities,
beautiful places. And then I started thinking,
what made these young men leave these beautiful cities
to go and stay– stay– in Calcutta when I’m leaving
Calcutta, right? They spent their whole
life teaching, educating people, in Calcutta. So it made me think, why are
they making these choices? And I think– so the school cultivated
by sort of examples. And there was a course called
Moral Science in the school from class 1 to class 11. And then the other part that I
think cultivated this in me is reading fiction, which
I like very much. And I think that’s a very
important source of looking at the world. And I still like fiction. I read widely. I also read many journals. And at a moment like this now,
with the way the economy is, with the way income inequality
is, you can’t start a conversation without addressing
this issue. So unfortunately, it’s going to
be more and more important. And for us, people like us, who
have the advantage of a good income, a good life,
we need to lead that conversation. INTERVIEWER: Going back to when
you started here at MIT as an assistant professor, what
was the transition like to the MI culture for you, both
as someone who came from India originally, then from
the West Coast and your schooling, but particularly
because you were born and initially educated abroad? SANYAL: It was hard a bit, but
not as hard, partly because I was married to an American woman
who helped me in many ways culturally to interpret
how I’ll be seen, how my gestures will be seen. But she’s very social,
like me, and both of us like friends. And we had a lot of friends in
California, almost too many. And that’s why I took time to
finish my dissertation. I love organizing parties
in our house. It was a small house
in California. So when I came, almost every
weekend or so we would invite some faculty, even though
they were not my age. And they would come. They were surprised, because
first of all, we are junior people, but we have both very
strong sense of a social life. We read. We can have a very good
conversation. And gradually these people
began to come. And that was a very big
issue later for me. I realized that I was able to
break through some of these power relationships because I
had taken the initiative to do the social things. They also were very impressed
by my wife, because she was a scholar. And now, after being at MIT for
10 years, she just started at Harvard. She just moved to Harvard
starting this January first. And she also loves the
life of the mind. So people enjoyed our company. And we made some nice food, not
huge, but some nice food. And I think MIT, what I realize
is that MIT has a lot of people who would
love to do that. But they don’t do it. So you might say, okay, let’s
have a coffee or something. But to say, let’s have dinner
and we will make the dinner and we’ll make something
unusual, it takes time. And that is why I think people
often hesitate, because time is so precious, because of
the tenuring, et cetera. But I made so many friends. And I think the reason I was
selected to be the department head after being
here for only– I came in ’84. And 1994, when Phil Clay became
the vice chancellor, they asked me to be the chair. I think it was because I had
created a sense of trust among a number of people within
the department just because of social– being together, reading their
material, arguing with them over dinner. And I think it’s helped
me later, even in the larger MIT level. That’s a big strength I have. INTERVIEWER: That you were
almost creating a community within a community. SANYAL: Yes. Yes. I’m able to do that. That’s a part of the strength
I have. And fortunately I’m married to somebody who
also loves that. So it works. INTERVIEWER: Otherwise
it wouldn’t work, if she was an introvert. SANYAL: Yes. Or if she would have
been more sort of– you know, if you have a set of
beliefs that you very strongly stick to, then it’s very hard
to be with people who don’t believe in that. But I think what is nice about
MIT is that you could have a group of people who don’t
agree with you. And they will argue with you
in a very forceful way and that you can’t just dismiss. And that’s so interesting. That’s how you grow. That’s how you subject your
own thinking to scrutiny. And if you do it over a nice
dinner at a nice place, beautifully laid out table,
it’s the best moments. INTERVIEWER: I was going to
ask you about the sort of intense, high pressure
environment that MIT is known for, mostly for the students,
but it also sounds like it bleeds into the faculty life. And you are providing
an outlet for that. Why do you think that was such a
unique gesture on your part? Why is there a culture here
that can’t have both, that it’s often a little more skewed
towards the work and a little less towards the play? Is it just the prestige
of the place? SANYAL: I think that work, to do
excellent work takes time. It takes time. There is no doubt about that. And people want to put that
time first on their work. And the junior faculty
are even very worried because of tenuring. So they just see that
socializing as the last thing. And they want to spend their
time– senior faculty, once they’ve got used to this junior
lifestyle, they think it’s very hard to
get out of it. So they might socialize
with one or two people, but not a lot. Look at our faculty club. MIT doesn’t really have a
serious faculty club of the kind that Harvard has. And when I ask people, how come
we don’t have a faculty club, because people will go
there for a drink, I was told that, listen, most people
do not live nearby. And there is no culture of that
kind of hanging out in a faculty club having a drink and
then thinking of something like at Harvard. There’s a different culture
to the place. But I don’t think we want to
make it black and white. What I’m saying is if I was
able to create this small community, I am totally sure
there are people like me in every department. There are one or two who
can play that role. And they are probably
playing that role. And often we don’t hear
about them that much. INTERVIEWER: Right. Exactly. How do you think MIT today is
different from the way you found it when you
first got here? How has it changed? SANYAL: Well, they are
definitely more diverse. When I came it was not bad. But the international faculty,
share of international faculty students have increased. African Americans have increased, not as much increased. Women have increased. And my best moment so far was
when I was not the chair of the search, but I was a member
of the committee that brought Susan Hockfield. So serving in this presidential
search committee and getting the first woman
scientist to accept the job– and I remember we had a small
lunch with Susan before she was introduced to the whole MIT
crowd in Building 10-250. And I was walking before her
coming back from the lunch. So I come in. And I looked at where you
usually go and sit and I couldn’t find a place. So I had to come through
the stage. So I come in through
the stage. And I look up and
like jam-packed 10-250 waiting for Susan. And so I’m looking. And Chuck Vest was sitting
in the front seat. I found a seat next to Chuck. So I sit next to Chuck. And then walks in
Susan Hockfield. The level of applause
was just moving. It was– I knew that I had participated
in a historical moment, that this is a historical moment that
an institution like MIT has a woman scientist who
is the president. You wouldn’t believe
the feeling. I still cannot explain the
feeling of that moment, that, oh, so I was part
of this moment. So it has been one of the high
points in my life to be able to participate in that way. I think financially MIT’s
situation has changed. I think that the kind of way we
finance ourselves, I had no idea when I came that it
fluctuated so much. Because we were not that
dependent before on endowments. But now this current crisis–
and because I was also chair of the faculty, I could see the
crisis from within, what was happening to the investment
portfolio– I was surprised. Though we are still one of the
universities with one of the largest endowments. We are probably seventh
in the nation. But still if, we look at where
the money’s coming from, so there’s research, there’s
endowment, research money from government research money
was still okay. But it had gone down after the
end of the Cold War, which was late ’80s, right? So the Soviet Union
fizzled out. So the kind of way we funded
ourselves had to be rethought. Endowment became big. And so that financial structure
I think has shaped, partly, how we operate
as a university. And the last crisis when we
had to basically freeze faculty salary, et cetera,
made me realize that the institution was still somewhat
vulnerable to the external economy. And since this external economy
is still not in full steam, that’s a worry I have,
about how will it work. And particularly I think how
will it work means, how will we ensure access of large
number of undergraduate students who are not from
wealthy families? The statistics that I am so
proud of MIT, this is something that I tell people
when I mention MIT, almost 18 percent of the first incoming
class last year were from families where they were the
first one to go to college. And compare that with me. In my family, third generation
back we had people going to England to study. And these kids are here. But they didn’t have
the privilege. But we opened the door. And they’re brilliant kids. What a wonderful thing to do. That is what I want MIT to
be able to preserve. INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful. Opening the doors even wider
to this amazing place. Did you have many mentors early
on in your early years here at MIT? SANYAL: You know, I was thinking
because I thought about this question. Because it was not a mentor in
a formal way, but there was a professor here, professor
Lloyd Rodwin, who was very respected. And he was the one who was
instrumental, I think, in bringing me. Though he and my advisor who was
my dissertation advisor at UCLA were archenemies. And Professor Rodwin was
instrumental, later I found out, in denying tenure
to my advisor. But when I came and applied
for the job he was polite. And he really wanted somebody
who come from a different sort of school of thought. And my advisor had created a
very different school of thought in development planning,
very different from what Lloyd stood for. So when I came in, I was very
taken because Lloyd was very nice to me. But he gave me all
the opportunity. He told me the courses
I could teach. But he was not willing
to listen to a not well-developed argument. He was very strict when given
an argument’s sake he would defend his position very well. And I could develop
my position well. And so I didn’t need the kind of
advising that sometimes we say to junior faculty, like what
do you have to publish? Where are you publishing,
and how many papers you’ve published? It just didn’t happen
in my case. People are very happy with
me from the beginning. I wrote. I wrote a major piece
of work that I think got me the tenure. And the mentors were
people who were mentors by their work. I just saw how they published,
how they wrote, how respected they were in the profession,
how rigorous they were. And then they were mostly men,
but one woman, I have to say, she came with me in 1984. But she came from Berkeley. And she had never taught at
Berkeley, but she was much senior to me. Had just gone through a
divorce and she was looking for a job. MIT offered her a visiting
faculty position because she done an enormous amount of work
for development agencies. Her name is Judith Tendler. She just retired last year. And because she came in ’84, I
came at the same time, I was assistant professor. And of course, she didn’t
have any family. And my wife and she got
along quite well. Now looking back, I realize that
in terms of intellectual impact, of shaping my thinking,
I think this woman had immense impact. And that is why I went to a
great length last year to play a big role in arranging for her
retirement party, which was incredible. What I think is interesting is
when you look at institutions, there are some people who
consider themselves marginal. And often people who are not
mainstream or you’re not white or male, you have to
find your place. Now, of course, I was from
international faculty. And I never felt marginalized,
to be honest with you. But nevertheless, there are
conversations that happen that are kind of unusual
conversations on the fringe. And I think women, particularly
this woman, and others often create small
conversations. And those are on the fringe of
institutions, but they’re often very interesting. And I was fortunate, because
of her, to bring a critical perspective on the mainstream
issues which my other advisers were working on. But the other advisers were
never turned off by this. They were actually
quite excited. They wanted some fresh voice. So I had the benefit of both. I had the support of these
people whose support mattered in terms of political power. And I had the intellectual
support of this woman who really give me a new way of
looking into problems. And she’s still there, around. And I think that– so it was a very good
combination. INTERVIEWER: That’s pretty
invaluable, to have people in your career– SANYAL: Unusual. Very unusual. INTERVIEWER: Now are you in
the role of mentor today? How do you approach that? Do people come to you now? SANYAL: Yes. They do. And you know, when I was
department head, of course, I was in a formal role
of a mentor. And we hired a lot of people,
junior faculty. And I always remember what
had happened to me. I never forced myself as a
mentor, but my door was open. I told them, tell me
what you will need. I started creating some new
policies, like giving a fully-paid semester off before
people come up for tenure, because I realized time
is what they need. We gave good salaries. I gave starting salaries to
junior faculty so they didn’t have to immediately go
and apply for grants. Lower teaching load,
et cetera. And then they did
their own work. And they were not all hired in
my field, because we have a very big department. So for me to go and advise
somebody, let’s say, who was working on environmental
issues– which I don’t work on, though of course it’s an
aspect to think about– it’s not appropriate because
there’s other people who know more. So I didn’t formally
advise people. But one thought I’ll
share with you. I think that when you have to
tell a junior person that they have been wonderful but they’re
not going to be up for tenure or they didn’t
work, it’s the most painful thing for me. As a department head, that was
the worst thing that I had to go through, when I had to sit
with somebody young and give them this news without breaking
their confidence, which obviously it’s devastating
when you tell this to somebody, that
it didn’t work. It’s not you’re fault. What do you say exactly,
that you are not good enough for us? And I just think that
the less we have to do that, the better. And the best way is to be very
strict about who we bring in. We should bring in the very
best. Then the process is easier later. But if we just bring in
thinking, well, they’ll come. And then after seven years
they’ll leave– like what happens at Harvard. Harvard, their rate of
tenuring is very low. But the process, the emotional
cost that a young man or a women have to go through, it’s
a huge damage that they will spend their whole life
reconstructing. And that, I think, needs
to be talked through more, how to do it. INTERVIEWER: How to avoid it. SANYAL: How to avoid it and what
arrangements do you need. It will invariably happen
in a top place. But there are good ways of
doing it and there are terrible ways of doing it. And within mentoring, I would
say that’s one key element that I would like to think
more about it. INTERVIEWER: You have multidisciplinary interests, clearly. You have a degree in
architecture, but this strong interest in social sciences,
which then led you to doctoral studies in international
development and planning. Does any one of these
disciplines resonate with you any more than the other? Obviously you have
the architectural foundation for all of it. SANYAL: I think it varies in
terms of your intellectual trajectory. When you solve a problem or you
have addressed a problem for a while, then other
things may come up. For example, I’ve been
working on India and the cities in India. And you know, I have been very
worried about this, how to house this large number of poor
people who are sleeping on the streets, et cetera. Housing, housing for the poor,
I’ve been working with a lot. And lately when I was there, I
realized that in some of the cities the parks were over-used,
because these poor people have nowhere to go. They don’t even have house. So the parks, they’re
sleeping. They’re not taken care of. And I started thinking, oh my. I think I would give a little
more thought to how to design some beautiful parks. Of course, I use a beautiful
park myself, which is Arnold Arboretum. But it will again bring
me back to aesthetics. So it’s a constant fluctuation
between worrying about this income, poverty, how to do this,
and worrying about other things in life that are not can
be tied down to money, but are just aesthetically
beautiful. Beautiful park. I really think for a poor person
that– there was a time in my field when there was a
discussion about whether we should be spending money
on these things. When people don’t have water,
don’t have electricity, why are we worrying about
aesthetics, et cetera? I have come to the point,
thinking now, that aesthetics matter a lot. It actually matters more
for people who don’t have anything else. INTERVIEWER: Because of the
psychological impact on them? SANYAL: Yes. Give them a sense of meaning,
that they can take their kids there. They need some space that they
can feel attached to, and some beautiful space that is
not overly expensive. So they are not going
to go to the opera. They are not going to go– but
they might take a little Sunday lunch box. Wouldn’t that be nice if they
could sit below a tree in a park and they have a lunch? So why shouldn’t
I design that? INTERVIEWER: I want
to go back to– in general you talked about
things you saw in India that developed this great concern
for poverty issues. But you had some really
eye-opening experiences when you worked for your father
at the engineering firm. Tell me a little more about that
and how that experience so influenced your thinking and
your ultimate career path. SANYAL: Well, the main thing was
because he had asked me to supervise the construction
of this bridge. And you know, I came out
of architecture. I didn’t know how to
design a bridge. But he told me, well, I’m
doing the design. But you can do the– with a part
of the construction, you can supervise. And why I agreed was
because this bridge had a separate site. And he told me I could
live on that site. Not in a very fancy place, but
so I didn’t have to stay home, which I liked very much. At that stage I didn’t want to
come and stay home, because I had stayed in a dorm for
my undergraduate. And I had gotten used
to my own lifestyle. So anyway, I go there. And every day at the end of
the day, I had to pay the daily wage laborers, which I
had no idea that people are paid on a daily basis. But I had to do it. And at the end of the day, I
often saw women or children sometimes would stand by near
the door waiting to be paid. And I didn’t even think
in the beginning. I thought, well, that’s
the way it is. And then some days there would
be rain and they had not worked, so you couldn’t
pay them. And so these women would come
and ask me saying, can I borrow, because I didn’t
get paid today. I have to buy food
for tonight. So I realized that they’re
extremely vulnerable people. Anyway, so later in the
construction site, we are doing the construction, like
laying out the cement. And you would see people without
shoes walking on this cement, and kids running around,
women carrying bricks without any protection on
their head, no gloves. And gradually I came to
see the level of their vulnerability. And it was sad. And it made me question the
kind of sense I had about aesthetics. I thought, maybe I just– I’m in a totally wrong path. Maybe what I care about means
nothing, this aesthetics and this what I have learned. Maybe their income is to
be the main thing. And so I was pretty much
concerned about it. But lo and behold, the
government at that time, the Communist Party was in power,
came to the state. And they had organized labor,
their own organization. So of all places, our house in
Calcutta they developed a term called kira which means the
laborers would surround your house and would not let you go
out until you either increased the wage, you give something,
for all of summer. My father was generally
a progressive man. But in a business circle, you do
not go out and change laws by yourself, because you are
with a group of other people. They will say, come on. What are you doing? They’ll be making the
same demands. So when that happened, and I
felt restricted at home– and my father, at that time, he
told me, listen, instead of wasting the time because you
cannot do the work, why don’t you go and get a
degree abroad? And so I say, okay, I think
that’s not a bad idea. So I had to do my portfolio. But my portfolio– and I look back now– was design a series of parks. It had nothing to
do with poverty. Isn’t that interesting? Here I was struggling with the
idea, but my portfolio was cities or parks. Now, this is a difference
with American education. If I was educated in an American
university, my adviser would have known enough
about me to say, Bish, you care about that. Why don’t you bring that
in your portfolio? Be real. Be who you are. And I think to tease that out
of you, what is inside you, and to make it into something
beautiful, that is a job of an advisor. And that’s what academic
life should be. That’s what I hope I can
play with my students. So to really know them well,
what is it that they care about, that if they are trained
well, that same concern, they can express it
in a very wonderful way. INTERVIEWER: Once you had
focused your efforts on urban development and planning, were
there some seminal moments when you knew that you had
chosen the right path, where sort of the light bulb went off
that you had found your calling, if you will? SANYAL: I think there was a
moment when I was in UCLA when I found out that the field of
urban planning in the US was very broadly defined. In urban planning, when I came
from India, I thought that urban planning would be more
physical planning, like master plans of cities, et cetera,
which used to be that way in the US. But the 1960s in the US, there
was a huge turmoil about cities and urban renewal, a
revolt against urban renewal. There was the Model Cities
Program under President Johnson, the Civil
Rights Movement. So city planning had
completely changed. And it had become much more
multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary. So you could take courses
in psychology. You could take courses in
sociology, political science. And this I immensely enjoyed,
immensely enjoyed. I really thought when I had that
option of taking those kinds of courses, I thought
this is the kind of an education I always wanted. Now, the only problem is
that you have limited time to do a degree. And if you start doing many,
many things, it sometimes is hard to get into the depth of
things, which I now sort of try to take into account as we
do our own program design. We are one of the most known
planning schools, the number one planning school in the
nation for the last 10 years, because we have many
diverse courses. But I think rigor, which is also
what MIT stands for, a seriousness of explanations,
that requires a reading of one thing very well. And so that balance, between
making something very diverse and interesting and making
something very deep, is an issue that we grapple
with as academics. INTERVIEWER: And how difficult
or easy was it to incorporate this interest that you had in
poverty and in lower income segments within a city into
urban planning generally? Was that an innovative idea? SANYAL: It was already
beginning to happen. And American universities like
University of California, Los Angeles, their program was
based on the notion that planning of the old kind, which
was master plan, was not really working. And that came because of
historical reasons, because American, African-Americans,
the problems of them, the construction of suburbs. So some schools were
more ahead of others in bringing that. And UCLA was a school created in
1969 by my adviser who was brought in to create a kind of
alternative school of thought. And this alternative school
of thought was very interesting for me. Because it put every
conventional idea on the table for scrutiny. So let me give you
one example. The idea of modernization, which
is the central idea in planning, you modernize
the city. You modernize the economy. You modernize your
social culture. People took it for granted. The question is, what is it? What is it for? And within modernization,
there is a very strong component for technology,
because modernization and technological change are
supposed to go hand-in-hand in the old theory. So when I came to MIT, I had
already scrutinized the role of technology. And in a way, I was skeptical
of technology and the way technology was being sold
as this is going to solve your problem. And then I realized after I
came here that many people here were asking the
same questions. It’s not that just because
it’s MIT that nobody is questioning the role
of technology. There was a Science, Technology, and Society program. There’s Media Lab program. There was our own program within
our School of Planning. There was a woman,
Lisa Peattie. So I found it very vibrant,
and people understanding technology, but saying, well,
that’s not the only solution. We have to do other things. And I was thinking that’s been
a central issue in my intellectual growth as to
redefine the role of technology in addressing issues
of poverty, let’s say. So in standard planning
argument, you would say technology for the very big
projects and you have for the poor, small little things. But it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be
that separation. INTERVIEWER: And how well-
equipped is MIT to help you and your colleagues bring
urban planning to that next level? Why is this the place
to do that? SANYAL: Oh, very
well -equipped. Very, very well -equipped. Very well equipped. And I was very, very surprised–
not surprised, I have to say. But I found out here that there
are a large number of people, and not just
in urban planning– like engineering, which I
co-teach a course with Amy Smith on D-Lab, Development Lab,
where 55 students each semester, they take
the course. Then they go to the all
these countries. All are working on poverty
issues during IAP. They’re coming back now in a
week and we’re going to meet with them as to what they have
developed, small gadgets to help the poor in their
household. There are multiple parts of MIT
that has been an issue. The Poverty Action
Lab in economics, that deals with that. In the humanities, social
sciences, there are courses on that. So there’s a lot going on. I think that the only thing
I would say is that we are looking for somehow to give it
a shape, to give it more of a format, a set of courses,
a sequence of courses. And that, MIT have been
involved with it. The iHouse, the International
House, which I also now serve on their board, which is
learning and living, where 25 students stay there. They go abroad. Many things are happening
at MIT. But in the MIT tradition,
it hasn’t been put into one format. So the good part of it is that
it’s kind of decentralized and many things are happening. I think the bad part of it,
the downside of it is that students still have to find
it out themselves, where to look for it. INTERVIEWER: You had a lot of
important life changes going on in the early ’90s here, where
you had a new post as head of the Department of Urban
Studies and Planning, and then big news happening
in your family on a personal level. Tell me more what was going on
then and how do you think you handled it all, looking
back on it now? SANYAL: It was a big,
big change. And I don’t know how I did it,
to be honest with you. My wife, her first tenure-track
appointment was at the New School for Social
Research in New York in ’88, ’89. And she’s an urban sociologist,
but she also works on planning, developing
countries issues. Her major interest is Mexico,
because she speaks Spanish. But she grew up here,
in St. Louis. Anyway, so when she got the
job, she said, look. I mean, should I take the job? I’d be in New York. And I thought that she should
take the tenured job, because it was hard to find a
tenure-track job here. And you know, my life here
at MIT was full. Of course we missed each other,
but she would come back on Fridays. And New York and Boston is not
that far off if you fly. But ’94– and I was actually enjoying
my sabbatical, my first sabbatical. I had just got my tenure. And I took my sabbatical
in Hawaii. In Honolulu, of all places,
there’s a very good center in [UNINTELLIGIBLE] development
studies. And we had been married
for 10 years already. And we didn’t have a child by
choice, because it was not possible at that time. Anyway, one thing led to the
other, the sabbatical, my wife gets pregnant. And so she said, what
should we do? And we said, well, we’ll
have the baby. Of course we’ll have the baby. And how are we going
to manage this? So I thought, well,
my mother-in-law lives in St. Louis. She could come and maybe help. We said, whatever it takes,
we’ll face it. But it’s not that we
wanted a child. Now that we have this, this is
something important for us. So when she came back– and I’m just planning to come
back, and I get a phone call from the department— Phil Clay has just become vice
chancellor or associate provost, and we would like you
to be the department head. And I thought, oh my God. How are we going to do this? But I said, okay,
department head. What are we going to
get out if it? So I met with the dean. The dean told Bish,
you will get three months of summer salary. And what else do you need, tell
me, to do to the job? So I told him, well, I need some
help with child support. We cannot do– there are a couple of things. He really liked me. And by the time I came up to
my office after telling him all these things he
sent me a note. I’ll take care of it. Do it. So I said fine. Finance was a big issue, because
we knew that we would be needing more money. And this was going to ensure
us more money. That was a very central part. So Diane, it was difficult
for her. She had to manage this pregnancy
and still teaching at the New School. And she was very worried that
once you get pregnant, for women faculty, you are
not taken seriously. And New School is a
very top-ranking school in social sciences. Alexandra was born. My colleagues were
very helpful. I think why I was able to do it
was I really think that my job as a department head was
not that difficult a job, partly because I dealt
with colleagues who were very civil. There were very few moments
I felt like this job was too demanding. It actually was a
very nice job. And I was nice to people. And they were nice to me. And it was expensive. We had to get a child care. And there was an Italian
architect, a man, who came to town through one of our friends
and who said he was going to stay with us and
take care of everything, including the food. And these guys stayed with us. Diane commuted. And he stayed with us for I
think four years, to take care of our daughter. And this guy had very
good taste. He gave my daughter, I think,
her sense of taste. And it worked. And Diane got tenure,
which was very hard. But she did get tenure
at New School. And then I had done that for
like almost eight years. I was getting exhausted. And then the dean told me, Bish,
your wife is tenured– he liked her– her work overlaps. Let me see if we can
bring her here. All my colleagues
supported it. And she came with tenure
as associate professor at MIT in 2002. And then I stepped down, because
you can’t supervise. And so I was also– I made eight years
I had done that. So I stepped down. And then I had a very wonderful
sabbatical. And Diane was here
for 10 years. And now look at us. Now she’s moving to Harvard. So our daughter is going
to go to college. What I have to– what can I complain? The institution has been
very nice to me. I got an endowed chair. I have a huge research
account. I got the MacVicar Fellowship
for teaching. I have a teaching load
that I can decide. I have wonderful students. I have secretarial assistance. I have a beautiful office. You have to come and
see my office. It’s part of my aesthetics. Again, I have to say I’ve just
been very fortunate. INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask
you if there was anything about that period that you would
have done differently. But it sounds like it turned out
quite well in hindsight? SANYAL: I think it
worked out well. The only thing I’ll say is
that when you take on administrative tasks of that
nature and you have these family obligations– because the child was based
here and Diane would leave Alexandra and then go to New
York for three, four days– you do not have time
for research. And I think in a serious
academic institution, if you stop doing research, I think
it takes time to come back to research. It’s not a machine. And I think that I would have
thought through my research agenda maybe a little more
carefully, because it did take me almost two years when I
finished, stepped down, to get back to writing. And I couldn’t write
a lot during the time when I was head. So that affects your
productivity, or more than productivity, your seriousness
of engagement with an issue. You have to read. You have to read. You have to write. And it’s only a limited time. So yes. INTERVIEWER: And how much
do you think MIT allows for that balance? It sounds like it’s quite a
challenge between the work and the family here. SANYAL: Yes. But MIT is moving in that
direction, partly also because MIT has more women
faculty now. And I know that the last
provost, Bob Brown, started this thing of getting
senior faculty. And he created this policy,
actually, under which Diane benefited, that if a department
would bring senior women faculty, then the
department didn’t have to pay for the full fare. The Institute was paying
part of it. And as more and more women
faculty came in, then decided the family policy where you
could take paid leave before you have a child, now MIT is
offering a policy where you can take care of senior
family members. And I think the institution is
aware of this, that there are demands on the faculty’s
lives. We could do more. But we are moving in the
right direction. And that is why we have
more women faculty. And imagine if I felt pressure,
at what level the pressure Diane must have felt. INTERVIEWER: Yes. Exactly. Totally switching gears, I
wanted to talk to you about the Special Program for Urban
and Regional Studies. Tell me about that program and
how you think it embodies MIT’s approach to solving
big problems. SANYAL: It’s a very interesting
program. And it was created in 1967 by
my mentor, if you can call mentor, Lloyd Rodwin, at a time
when MIT wanted to create a program to bring mid-career
professionals from around the world to spend a year at MIT
without any strings attached. And Ford Foundation funded it
for the first five years. They used to bring around 15
mid-career professionals from around the world
to come to MIT. Only one luncheon on a Monday
on something of issues of development. That’s it. The rest of the time, you
do what you want to do. If you want to attend classes,
you want to write, you do. And I managed the program after
Lloyd stepped down. I like the program. You know why? Because it brings practitioners
to MIT. And I think the idea of somebody
grappling with a problem and using the time to
think about the problem, and we being able to tap into that
process, I think it’s the kind of learning that MIT
really likes. Because MIT is actually
about problem solving. So problem solving you can start
with theory, which is classical mode. Or you can tell me, let me see
if you are struggling with a problem, what are you facing? And these are people who don’t
have advanced degrees. But they have grappled
with the problem. Like let’s say they say, I tried
to provide housing to the poor in the City X, or I
tried to create transportation network, or I tried
to do water. And I’d ask him, so
what happened? Were you able to do it? And they might say, well, maybe
I did this well, but I didn’t do this well. So these basis of knowledge that
they bring in, I think it’s fairly precious for
us to have this. And now I have it also funded
by the Hubert Humphrey Foundation, which is actually
named after Hubert Humphrey, and is the Fulbright. It’s Fulbright not for scholars,
but Fulbright for practitioners. These are wonderful people. I met with them last night,
because the semester ended. All kinds of interesting
things they’re doing. And I think the challenge is,
how do we take that kind of knowledge and then theorize
about it? So it’s theorizing
from practice. And this is my challenge
I’m working with. A second challenge that I think
I take as seriously now, is because it’s paid for by
Hubert Humphrey Foundation, which is American taxpayers– it’s given from Congress. These are people coming
from abroad. After September 11th, there
was a lot of concern about what is the image of
the United States? What do we want these people
to know about the US? They’re here for a year. I think it’s a very important
challenge, because the nation is in a very important stage. And so we are engaged
in wars, et cetera. So I see this task of saying,
come to MIT, and not really that you have all these
courses, et cetera, that you can take. It will have one year
for me to give you a glance of this country. Imagine. This country that I’m
still trying to understand myself, right? And for me to say, okay, I will
help you understand, I find that a very intellectually
exciting thing. What is it that I want them
to know about the US before they leave? And they’re here for
two semesters. So I’ve been trying all
sorts of things. I run a seminar called
Myths About America. For example, when I ask them,
what do you know about the United States from outside,
they’ll tell me things like, oh, people here are so
individualistic. They don’t care about
families. The second one that really
blew my mind was they’re saying people are
not religious. I mean, there are Americans
that are really– I mean, look at this election. So they have these ideas about
the United States. Oh, you don’t care about social
things that much. It’s everybody into
making money. So yes, but there are other
things happening also. And so I see this as an
incredible challenge of creating a one-year program
which they can do their own work, whatever problem they’re
working on, and at the same time that they will return to
their country with a nuanced view of the United States. And that’s why I’m
still doing it. INTERVIEWER: When those people
have returned to their countries, can you relay any
anecdotes about hearing how they’re doing after their
training here that you said, we’re making a real impact
with this program? SANYAL: I think that they do. And I have a lot, because it’s
been almost 50 years. ’67 the program started. So they’re in all sorts of
high-level positions, minister-level positions. But the return, which is the
issue that we are looking at in the last issue of the journal
that comes out every year, you know what
I didn’t realize? That the return is very hard
for them because they leave for a year and much is expected
of them when they come back, because they
have gone to MIT. Socially, after being
here, their family relationships change. Because they are here and they
don’t have servants, et cetera, they have to do their
home, household, work. Many cases, the husband and wife
when they come, they have told me that their relationships
have changed as a result of the one year. Children, if they bring
them, the schoolings are very good here. And they get used to
this very flexible American approach to education. And then they have to go back to
this old schools, which are very rigid. So the reentry, which I’m
thinking about how to make the re-entry less painful. But in terms of the impact,
they’re doing very, very interesting work, on all
five continents. We didn’t get as many
people from Africa. That’s one thing I’m trying to
do, because that’s really where the help is needed. At MIT, we could use more of
a conversation on Africa. Really, within the development
field, that’s lagging. We don’t have an African
study center. We have a lot going
on in China, a lot going on in India. But we need more in Africa. INTERVIEWER: And that place has
a special meaning in your heart, right? Because you spent time there. SANYAL: Yes. That’s where I really got
my learning of education basically on urban planning,
because I was based in Zambia. And it was a very interesting
time, because it was before South Africa even became
independent. So I think that Africa is where
they really need help. And I hope that we could think
of doing something interesting for Africa. But my program definitely
will. INTERVIEWER: What did you learn
during your time as head of the MIT faculty? SANYAL: That could alone be material for a whole interview. I learned representing MIT
faculty is a huge task, because the faculty
are exceptional. Exceptional. And it’s an honor. It’s an honor, and I still know
when I go to places and people introduce me as, he was
the chair of the MIT faculty. I mean, you should see what that
does to this audience. A chair of the MIT faculty? I mean, MIT faculty
is like incredible collection of people. INTERVIEWER: What does it do to
you when they introduce you like that and remind you that
you’ve had that amazing role? SANYAL: I’m reminded of the
honor of being there. You know what is interesting
for me is that the chair of the faculty’s role is partly
shaped by who is running the administration. Because the chair of the faculty
actually do not have that much power. I mean, you go to the
academic counsel. You are the only one who is
representing the faculty. In most cases, you have
a faculty senate. So you are the interface between
the faculty and the administration. So if the administration is
generous about faculty, are connected to the faculty, which
most cases they are, because in MIT, administration
used to be from the faculty who would come up. And still, fortunately, it is
to some extent, though many universities are bringing
administrators who are not connected to the university. But I still found that
time I was– was a difficult period, because
MIT had just hit the financial problem 2008,
and I began in 2007. There were a lot of anxieties
on both sides. The Star Simpson case
had happened. Susan and the new administration
was trying to create a new set of guidelines
for administering MIT. It was not Chuck Vest’s time. Chuck Vest came out of a very
different tradition. So Susan was the first woman
president, from outside MIT. Chuck was from outside
MIT too. But she was trying
her best. So she created a legal framework. And I think when you try to
create these new things, faculty are often skeptical,
because they are used to a place. And they just think that that
has worked before, so why do we need these new things? And I was in the interface
of that. I had to deal– I’m on both sides. So it was not easy. It was actually– after being a department head, I
thought it would be nothing. It would be like a
piece of cake. It wasn’t. It was a very political
position, because I wanted to protect the faculty. It was my job. And at the same time, I had to
work with the administration, which did not see the faculty
always as being friendly. And they weren’t. It was not just one
department. It was the whole Institute. So faculty in physics,
faculty in math, et cetera, I did not know. I had not had dinner
with them. I had friends in
my department. So we were trying to change the
undergraduate education. We had created a committee. And that was my first wake-up
call, when I realized after 10 years of work on this committee
with all of these senior faculty members
supporting it, it still didn’t pass in the faculty meeting. At an MIT faculty meeting, you
have to approve everything before it gets
institutionalized. So when that happened, it really
made me think, what is it about the process that has
to be done differently to create this kind of large
base of support? And then the financial
crisis comes. So the provost said, well, I’m
going to create a set of committees to advise me. And you know, the thing is the
faculty do not want to see you being used. So I think what I learned is
if you are the chair of the faculty, you should not think
of a future position in the administration. If you are looking for a job
in the administration, you really do not keep in
your mind the best interests of the faculty. And the faculty will sooner or
later see through that, that you are just making
up your career. And I didn’t. I’m glad. And I think that I had the
privilege of knowing a lot of faculty who are Noble Prize
winners, meeting the Dalai Lama, meeting many, many people,
top people, through the administration. And more and more– the head of the World
Bank, the president of the World Bank. Each one with some controversy,
unfortunately. It was not easy, including the
Dalai Lama’s visit, which many faculty opposed. Some faculty wanted. The head of the World Bank,
many faculty liked. Some didn’t like. So I was in the middle. But when I met with them and I
saw the way they think of this institution, it was stunning
for me, the respect this institution has globally, and to
what extent this respect is what we enjoy when
we travel abroad. It is simply mind-boggling for
me how this institution has created this incredible sense of
reputation and what people associate with you when
you say, this is a faculty member for MIT. And I just hope we can
preserve this. I don’t know if we need
to enhance it, because it’s already– but it has a sense
of quality to it. And the work that we do should
be up to that level of the reputation. It has to have that level of
reputation and rigor and kind of creativity. That takes a long
time to produce. But truly, I’m truly
humbled by this reputation of this place. And even– you know, I just
came back from India. And you should have seen when
they introduced me in my university, that IIT. It’s called IIT, Indian
Institute of Technology. They had a seminar in
the afternoon, after they gave me the award. And the first seminar, the first
question is, what will it take for IIT to become MIT? And I’m sitting there thinking,
my goodness. What will it take for
IIT to become MIT? So there was a student
in my panel. He is the head of the
student group. He told me, first of all, let
them give us better dorms. We don’t want to share the
dorm with four people. How many students are sharing
dorms in that MIT? And so– INTERVIEWER: It might take
a little more than that. Good start. SANYAL: At least you have
to start somewhere. But again, really, don’t
you think the reputation of this place? I mean, how did it happen? And I think it happened more
after the Second World War. And let me say a little bit,
because I thought of that when you asked me in the interview. The Second World War was
a major turning point. MIT prior to the Second World
War was known, but was not this reputation. And after the Second World War,
with the Cold War, et cetera, I mean, we played a
huge role in technological change and technological
development. But after the Second World War
was only when the School of Humanities was created. Not Architecture. Architecture was before. But School of Humanities and
Social Sciences was created because there were a lot of
people who were horrified by what technology did in the war,
particularly Germany. And so understanding technology
and its social embeddedness and its political
meaning are very important intellectual questions. And I think our students, who
are now at MIT and who will be graduating, if we can give them
that understanding, some of the social basis
of technology– and not just the technology
itself, but how and why it flourishes, what kind of
institutions you need, what are its impact on people– I think that is our challenge,
to develop curriculum, to develop practice, to develop
an awareness of research. And the 150th celebration that
we had was an interesting way to reflect back on that and to
see what we learned, because we were created during
the Civil War. And what a major historical
moment for our institution that we created. And I think now we have
come all the way out. And I think that if we maintain
the rigorousness of work, we have resources,
I think. We need to hire absolutely the
very best. And we need to bring the best students. The concern I have is access. Financial access, because of the
economy that’s happening. And from middle class families,
these brilliant kids that we used to get, these
first-timers in their family to go to college, they cannot
pay this level of tuition. They simply cannot pay. The president is now
aware of it. It’s becoming a presidential
issue in the campaign. So we need funds to say, don’t
worry about the money. You have shown by your
work, that you are brilliant in this work. We want you to come. We want to educate you by
knowing about this technology and its social and its
political impact. We want you to do research
in one of the best labs. We want you to associate
with one of the best faculty in the world. And I hope, I really hope,
that every one that would watch this interview would have
the time I have at MIT. It’s been absolutely the
best thing in my life. Without any hesitation
I can say that. INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful. I was going to ask you how
MIT played into your intellectual journey. I don’t think I need to
ask you, because you just answered it. SANYAL: Yes. INTERVIEWER: And your legacy
here, I mean, you mentioned the chapel earlier, your
favorite building on campus, and how you attended several
funerals and memorial services for colleagues who
passed away. Being at those services, how did
that make you reflect on the sense of legacy here and
maybe what mark you want to leave on this institution
ultimately? SANYAL: The people whose
memorial services I was able to participate in, in some
cases I organized, were giants, intellectual giants,
in the field. And when I had to reread their
work, because I had to talk about it in the service and also
sometimes we would have journals devoted to their work,
each one of them broke new ground in their field. And it’s a huge task to
break new grounds. The kind of knowledge you need
of a field to break new grounds, and the playfulness you
need to say, that doesn’t have to be the edge, it’s
how they came to it I have often thought. And my journey has
been different. I was not educated here
in undergraduate. I went through a very different
trajectory. And it makes me think as to
why, what could I do to contribute? And I think I do have, in my
own ways, tried to sort of question the broad field of
development planning, the broad field of what does it mean
to compare countries in terms of education, et cetera. But ultimately, I think hard
work, just staying at it, working with it, working with
a good group of students who are going to be able to
question, because the breaking of new grounds often come from
students, because they’re so fresh and they’re so smart. And they always would
ask you a question. Then you start thinking, that’s
interesting, right? So I think that the students
are a huge resource, huge resource for us, for people
who are trying to think of a new field. But the institution also
provides us the financial resource, the infrastructure, a
good group of colleagues who would read your material or
would come to a talk and would question you. That excitement, to create
that level of vibrancy, intellectual vibrancy, I think
with the resources we have is the challenge. It’s a challenge. And I know, because I have been
an administrator and I am now teaching, that I
can see both sides. But I’m very hopeful that we
will continue to perform exceptionally well. We are just one of the
strongest placed university in the world. And what a privilege. What a prestige and
honor to be here. INTERVIEWER: Using those
resources that you have here at your fingertips, what is the
next big challenge that you’d like to tackle, or the
thing that’s keeping you up at night now or getting you up
out of bed every morning? SANYAL: You know, because I work
on cities in developing countries, my one thought I have
now is how to manage this huge, huge megalopolis. There are millions, 18, 19, 20
million people, many, many, many poor people right? What kind of planning
would it take? And what the challenge is that
we have figured out that planning of the old kind– which often people associated
with the central planning, like Soviet Union, everything
is planned, land is allocated– doesn’t work. Maybe your intentions is good,
but that’s not how administration, that’s not
how organizations work. That’s not what flexibility
is. So what will it take? What kind of institution
will it take? What kind of policies will it
take to give these poor people a better approach, better
opportunity in life, that they could work, that their kids
would go to school, that they would have a beautiful park
to go to, that they have a cultural life? I think that’s– the whole world, if we look at
the number of people who need that, is huge. That has to be a concern that
we would like– that I would like to say I thought of
that as an approach. A second thing that I like
very much is I like explanations that are
counter-intuitive. I enjoy that immensely, because
I know the standard explanation. And so things that surprise
me with a completely new explanation, whether it comes in
a fiction or it comes in a research, that is very exciting for Me. So I do get bored very
quickly with things that we already know. And so again, you have
the same thing again. And I can’t stand it. I just simply can’t stand it. And I need new things,
new explanations. And Cambridge, not just MIT, but
both Harvard, Cambridge, and the whole group of people
that are here, they are very good in the way they are
asking all sorts of new questions about the human mind,
which I think is an incredible frontier
of work, of brain. And that’s one thing I would
have studied if I was undergraduate again. I would have done cognitive
sciences, I think, brain, the relationship between human
beings and social structures, the relationship between
social structures and institutions, I mean— But the unit of analysis
is the human being. And we are now, through work
on the genome, the brain, I mean, look at how much more we
could know about why we do what we do. So aesthetics– which again, let me end with
again, because that’s something I’m still concerned
about, I still value a lot. It will be interesting to know,
when we study the brain, what aesthetics does
to the brain. We know a little bit about what
music does, because music is a series of sounds. But what happens when you see
a beautiful sunset, or a beautiful river? And I think that what has
happened to me at MIT is those questions that I loved to deal
with when I was young, they’re coming back to me through a
different route now, because of the work on science
and technology. But I want to be able to blend,
to make some way of explaining aesthetics in
a more scientific way. INTERVIEWER: So if you weren’t
in your field now, would you be a cognitive scientist? What job do you think you’d be
pursuing if you weren’t– SANYAL: I would like
to study the brain. I think that excites me
immensely as to what people are finding out and what we can
do about it, and how to be able to influence it. Now, the brain is not
all hard wiring. And in a way, being in academia,
I was always concerned about the brain,
figure out how people think. But I’m now realizing that
thinking has different elements to it. There is a hard wire part to it
that we didn’t understand as well before. We are just beginning
to understand that. So if we can know that and we
can also know sort of learning environments and learning
methods, how to bring the two, then we have somebody who
should really be in the business of teaching,
of teaching helping people to learn. But learning is a central
element of being in academia. We are in the business
of learning. And we should know
what that is. And we are just beginning to
learn about learning, just beginning to learn how people
learn, why some people don’t learn as fast, what
affects learning. So I would say after urban
planning, that’s my second very precious thing to follow. INTERVIEWER: Your second
career, if there were to be one. SANYAL: Yes. INTERVIEWER: And you’ve
obviously– you’re very grateful for your
path through MIT from the moment you got here. How would you say the
institution is doing in terms of welcoming foreign-born
students and faculty into the fabric of the culture
here today? SANYAL: I think they’ve
done quite well. I mean, if we look at the
Institute’s faculty now, almost 30 percent are
foreign-born faculty. And I think the student’s
body, also international student’s body also, for the
graduate students, is almost 40 percent. Undergraduates, we have a cap. We put a cap to 10 percent,
because we also fund them most cases. So we have limited
funds for that. But MIT, I think Chuck Vest
was the one who really explained it to me well. MIT owes a lot to international
minds. But it’s true that MIT gave them
the opportunity, but they also give back in terms of research, in terms of vibrancy. I think that connection has been
very important for MIT. The world came to MIT. And I wrote a piece once when
I was the chair of the faculty, because what surprised
me a bit was MIT was making an effort to go abroad. So we are creating a campus in
Singapore, in Abu Dhabi, in Russia now. And that’s not bad. And these are also very
lucrative things. And when the Institute is
financially in trouble, you need money. And these are very well-endowed
efforts. But I was very struck that
instead of the world coming to us, that we were beginning to
go to the world selectively. And I wrote in my piece that we
have had students come to MIT from abroad since 1873. I wanted to see a center at
MIT that, a building that would be sort of a global
center, that we could have languages being taught. One floor could be languages. One could be research on
developing countries, all these technological things
we are producing. One could be an international
cafe that we have— I mean, we have the resources. There was a lot of support for
it when I presented it to the academic counsel. But then people say,
well, we have other things to do right now. So I think that MIT’s engagement
with the world, what form would it take, what
institutional form will it take, is an issue to be
thought through more. I think we cannot afford to
just go in places that are giving us money. I don’t think it will
be good for our reputation in the long run. The respect that we have, if
we start squandering that respect by going to places that
are just giving us money but not really good research
is coming out of that, it will hurt. So the work we are doing in Abu
Dhabi or in other places, even in Singapore we had created
a new center for design, I think we should watch
very carefully what is the research, and is the
research really cutting-edge research, you know? But I see the administration
very concerned about it. MIT created two ad hoc
committees to look into this, our relationship in the world
and what we should be teaching our students about the world. I was in both committees. And not that we came up with
very firm answers, but it told me that a good group of people
are worrying about it. But we still don’t have a
concrete, fixed answer, I think, as yet. INTERVIEWER: So for MIT’s next
150 years, what are the few issues that you would like to
see the institution really, really set its sights on? Is it access? Is it this more global
perspective? Or is there another topic that
you think has yet to be researched? SANYAL: Yes. I think the idea of excellence
and access, some people have portrayed it as a trade-off. I think we have to do both. And I think there is a way to do
both and have the access of average people, brilliant but
average, who cannot afford to pay this very high tuition at
the same time the excellence of the research. We cannot compromise
on excellence. Our reputation is excellence. But I think that as the world
changes, I think the political economy is changing. And so we need to keep that
access of people. We have been pretty good. I have to say we have
been pretty good. And as I told you, the
statistics, if we look at even now how many students come
from these kinds of families— I mean, it’s admirable— and then from obscure places,
small towns that I have never even heard of. And there this kid is full
of energy, talking, saying things in class. I think we should keep that. And yes, the world will come. And we can go to the world and
do joint research projects. I think research, the way
scientific research is going now, it’s become
very expensive. The US does not have
monopoly over those research centers anymore. A lot of good research centers
are in Europe, because Europeans have invested a lot. The American government has
not invested as much as European governments, because
most of cases, MIT has been private. And I think that a lot of
research, I think, in the future will be done
collaboratively. And so the challenge is, I
think, when we get involved in this research, how are we
going to divide the intellectual property. Because intellectual property
rights is a very central question. And I think we don’t exactly
know the rules. The rules are changing because
the situation is changing. But if you would think of
cooperative research, we also have to think of new rules of
who will get credit for what, what will be the investment. And those kinds of things will
take us, as scientists, into a different domain of
conversation. INTERVIEWER: How much do
you see MIT being a leader in that evolution? It seems like the
perfect place to help make those rules. SANYAL: I think MIT
is playing a role. And our vice president of
research, Claude Canizares, is very aware of it. But so are other places. If we look at patents, et
cetera, Europeans are also quite aware, because they are
producing good stuff. Yesterday– I don’t know if you heard— it
was Scotland that produced the first– you know, they had first
done the mimicking the Dolly, sheep Dolly. They invented something
else for doing work. And I thought, that’s
very interesting it’s coming from Scotland. And so they’re also going to
ask for their share of the intellectual property. So I think we need a new
round of conversation. We need a new round
of conversation. And this will ultimately link
us to the larger issue of where the United States
is vis-a-vis the rest of the world. So MIT is an American
institution. It is true it’s a global,
but it is still United States, right? That’s where it is based. And so I think our president
understands that. But you need new presidents,
new provosts, in the future who will understand the kind of
importance of those issues. It’s no more just inventing
in your own lab. We are working in a very
different world. And we have to work
with other people. And at the same time, we need
to protect our share of the things that we put in, so that
we can run this place well. But it’s a geopolitical
question. INTERVIEWER: And that MIT has
a unique position in leading those discussions. SANYAL: A lot. You know why? Because people trust MIT. This goes to the issue
of this reputation. There is something about these
engineers and scientists that they think, these people
are really after truth. These are not people who
are fabricating things. And retaining this sense of
trust in a global form is an immense responsibility for us. And I think you need a set of
faculty and administration who can really be trusted
at the global level. People say, yes, if this
person is saying this, I trust it. So imagine the level of
responsibility that we are asked to shoulder. And I think that that’s why
hiring the best people and bringing the best students, not
just based intellectually, but morally, who if they say
something, they stick to it. They say what is
the real truth. And I think it’s a big, big
responsibility in a world where there is a huge amount
of distrust, huge amount of misunderstanding, to have a
voice that you say, oh, a professor of MIT’s saying
that, that must be true. INTERVIEWER: Thank you
very much, professor. SANYAL: Thank you so much. INTERVIEWER: It’s
been a pleasure. SANYAL: It’s been my pleasure.

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