INTERVIEW – PART TWO – Pradeep Khosla on His IIT Days and Vision for Future

Pradeep Khosla, New Chancellor of the University of California at San Diego

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Washington DC – In the second of a two part interview, India America Today provides a one-to-one talk with Pradeep Khosla as he prepares to take over a new challenge August 1 as the eighth chancellor at the University of California, San Diego.

Khosla, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus and dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, went down memory lane with Tejinder Singh, a fellow IITian and editor of India America Today, about his days at IIT, his message to students, and the ongoing controversial changes in the admission process at the elite Indian Institutes of Technology.

Khosla described his IIT experience as “very inspirational,” adding, “It was a very quiet place where you had a lot of time to think, build good friendships, and the faculty was so committed to student well-being and student education, that it was overall a very good experience.”

IIT faculty who inspired Khosla most include Professors M.N. Faruqi and Y.P. Singh. Prof Faruqi was dean of student affairs and professor of electronics and communications while Prof Singh was professor of electrical engineering and both are themselves alumni of IIT Kharagpur.

“These two people had a big influence on me, especially Y.P. Singh, because he was a man of such integrity and technically so good. He helped me a lot too – both of these professors helped me a lot in different times. If I were to pick one or two I would pick these two,” said Khosla.

On the question of fond memories from his IIT Kharagpur days, Khosla waxed nostalgic, saying, “My fond memory, to be honest with you, is spending time on campus during the Puja holidays, when most of the people are gone, and just sitting at Chedi’s (an iconic tea stall) and drinking tea and chatting with people and fixing all sorts of problems in life.”

Addressing the drastic changes that are being instituted by the government of India for the IIT JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) and with the number of IITs increasing from five to 17 soon, Khosla felt that the standard of students entering would not be diluted.

“In terms of picking the best people to go to an IIT, even after they have tripled the number of IITs, I don’t see the standards being diluted, because the number who want to go into engineering is so high, that instead of taking 1 percent, they might now take 3 percent. It’s still a very small number,” said Khosla.

On the incoming standards, Khosla said he was “not concerned about being diluted too much.” adding with a note of caution, “I’m really concerned about the standard being diluted in terms of creating these IITs.”

Stressing the lack of infrastructure as a major concern, Khosla said that the new IITs “don’t have the infrastructure to deliver the same quality of education,” adding, “That’s what I’m really concerned about – that the education of students coming out will not be as good. And that, over time, can hurt the perception of all the IITs.”

On the possibility of the selection process of US universities being affected because of the dilution of educational standards at the new IITs, Khosla said, “If the quality of education suffers and the students from the new IITs don’t perform at the same levels, I think it will create a two-tier system over time. But it might take ten years. So it is very important that infrastructure risks be taken care of.”

The former IITian reiterated about his alma mater, “I’m not concerned with diluting the incoming standards, I’m more concerned about diluting the quality of education.”

Khosla lambasted the growing number of inferior colleges in India saying, “The problem in India is not the fact that they’ve tripled the number of IITs. I think the bigger problem in India is that there are a lot of colleges out there that are basically diploma-printing colleges, with not much education- not very solid, high-quality education.”

Khosla commented on the new guidelines being formulated in the present context as “structured more to avoid abuse by foreign universities than to enable excellence.” “And what that means is that fly-by-night operations, they’re trying to stop that. But it’s not structured to enable excellent and top places to come in and do the right thing and set the bar high so that the Indian universities can match that bar,” explained Khosla.

Asked to give his advice to current students at IIT Kharagpur, Khosla said, “My advice would be that you should always do what you love. And once you focus on that, then you should absolutely love what you do.”

Khosla, hailing from Mumbai (Bombay) was in Rajendra Prasad Hall of Residence (RP) at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur and received his bachelors degree in 1980 before coming to the US, where he earned his MS and PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. He was hired at CMU as an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering after receiving his PhD in 1986.

Over the years, Khosla advanced to become the founding director of the Carnegie Mellon CyLab and dean of the College of Engineering.

Khosla and his wife, Thespine, have three children: Nathan, 21, Alex, 14, and Nina, 11. 

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