When I traveled to India last month with a delegation of Princetonians, we were proud to see a portrait of Princeton’s 16th president, Robert Goheen ’40 *48, hanging on the wall of the American embassy in New Delhi. After retiring from the University presidency in 1972, President Goheen went on to serve as the United States ambassador to India from 1977 to 1980. He knew the country well, having grown up there as the child of Presbyterian medical missionaries, and he visited several times during his tenure as Princeton’s president.
This was my first trip to the subcontinent, and I was honored and grateful for the opportunity to renew the ties and traditions that President Goheen represented. In Mumbai and Delhi, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Cecilia Rouse and I spoke to gatherings of enthusiastic alumni. Throughout the course of our visit, we met with leaders in higher education, business, and government to learn more about India and how to facilitate connections with it. On a walking tour of the magnificently restored Humayun’s Tomb (often cited as the inspiration for its slightly younger cousin, the Taj Mahal) and the Nizamuddin Basti surrounding it, we witnessed firsthand the breathtaking beauty and the distressing poverty that co-exist in close proximity across the country.
The India we visited was much changed from the country where President Goheen served as ambassador nearly 40 years ago. According to data from the World Bank, between 1980 and 2014 the population of India grew from around 700 million to nearly 1.3 billion. In this same period of time, India’s gross domestic product, measured in current U.S. dollars, grew from around $190 billion to just over $2 trillion. Infants born in India today have a life expectancy of nearly 68 years, up 14 years from what Indian babies born less than four decades ago could expect.
During our visit, many people told us that India is now at a pivotal moment in its history. The Indian economy grew by more than seven percent last year, making it a bright spot in a dismal world economy. India is poised to reap the benefit of a “demographic dividend” — a period of heightened economic productivity that can occur when a nation’s population structure shifts, resulting in an increase in the size of the workforce relative to the overall population.
To seize the opportunities before it, however, India will need to overcome challenges related to (among other things) health care, water quality, education, roads and other infrastructure, and regulatory reform.
The work of several Princeton faculty members and students focuses on these challenges. Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and professor of economics and international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, received the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics for his pathbreaking work on “consumption, poverty, and welfare,” including his contributions to the measurement of poverty in India.
As part of Princeton’s Health Grand Challenges program, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Peter Jaffe led an effort to develop simple and sustainable systems to remove fluoride from groundwater (excess fluoride from drinking water can cause fluorosis, a condition that deforms bones and teeth) — his hope is that such systems might one day be scaled up, tested, and ultimately deployed in rural villages in India, where fluorosis is a devastating public health problem.
Physics hysics professor Shivaji Sondhi and the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for International Security Studies host an annual program on international relations and strategic affairs for Indian parliament members, which is co-sponsored by the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
A number of departments across campus offer courses that are relevant to understanding India and its place in the world, from “The Making of Modern India and Pakistan” and “Democracy in India” to a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies Global Seminar on Indian youth held in Mysore, India, to language courses in Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit. As part of the strategic planning process, a task force on regional studies recently identified India as an important area of emphasis for the University.
Of course, the most important contributions to India’s future will come not from America’s universities but from India’s own. In the conversations my colleagues and I had with India’s academic leaders, our counterparts mentioned funding, but spoke even more passionately about their struggles to ensure the kind of autonomy that most American universities take for granted: the freedom to make hiring decisions and budget choices; to set disciplinary rules; to manage their campuses; and, most importantly of all, to maintain the academic freedom and freedoms of speech that are the lifeblood of great scholarly communities.
I hope that India’s schools, colleges, and universities will succeed in their efforts. India is indeed at a special moment in its history, and a strong system of higher education is vital to its future. We will do what we can to contribute as Princeton builds its connections with this extraordinary country.