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Residents of Bihar, India’s poorest state, often remind visitors that their home was not always known for high levels of poverty and illiteracy. It used to be the cradle of Southeast Asian civilization and a place to which scholars from all over the world flocked. In the next few years, many are hoping that Bihar will regain some of this reputation when the Indian government constructs Nalanda International University, a project that is drawing interest and funding from countries across Asia.
The school is named after after an ancient Buddhist university that operated from the 5th to the 12th centuries A.D., until invaders burned it down. The new Nalanda will open on a 500-acre site near the brick ruins of its predecessor. Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate and Harvard professor, leads its planning board, and countries including Japan, Singapore and, more recently, the United States, have offered support. But the plans to build a globally competitive research institution in the heart of poverty-stricken Bihar still face many obstacles.
In an interview with The Hechinger Report, Anjana Sharma, who is in charge of academic planning for Nalanda, discusses the vision for the university and how that vision will be realized.
Q: How did this project come about?
A: This is the oldest seat of learning in the world. There were other centers of learning, but an actual university the way we think of universities these days, in terms of curriculum, in terms of students, admissions processes and examinations, as far as we know, Nalanda was unique in that respect. It was the first to do it.
Lessons From Abroad
This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.
There was all this enthusiasm among the East Asian countries to begin with this university, because it was unique as an Asian university and it was a desire to return back to the time of Asian excellence, which has been eroded over a period of time.
It is a university that is completely unique, not only because it’s related to an ancient university that has historical value and, of course, emotive value attached to it, but also the fact that it is genuinely an international university in the true sense of the word. Because it’s an international university, many of the requirements are going to be different, in terms of student-teacher ratio, in terms of the fact that it’s going to be, at the beginning, only a post-graduate and research university.
They call it the dream of Bihar, and I think the support for the dream of Bihar is enormous.
Where in the process are you?
Right now we have the land. But we are now at the point where we are going to begin and launch a design competition. We want the university to look like not only the symbolism and the great historicity of the ancient seat of learning, but also to be a place that will be unique in its architecture. To not only reflect the old, but to be very modern in how we build it. Green architecture is very important to us. We’re now trying to figure out how to run this competition, so that countries can truly participate and help create this place. The internationalism is not just limited to faculty and students, but to the on-ground reality of building the buildings.
But the institution should be a place that can work in an organic manner and a harmonic manner with the areas that are surrounding it—so that it doesn’t become a place that is isolated, with these high walls cut off from the realities of Bihar, but something that is porous and open and inclusive.
The idea is to bring faculty members from around the world—how will you do that? It’s a beautiful area, but also remote. How will you deal with those logistical issues?
I think you have named the thing that in order to translate this idea into reality is the challenge of Nalanda right now. But I’m very hopeful, and I’ll tell you why … Logistically how to get there is important. One of the things [the Bihar government is] planning to do is to build a four-lane highway.
The other thing is that we may manage to get a domestic airport closer to where we are.
One of the things we are looking at in terms of design is that we will be planning for a whole township. It will be like a university village. We understand that everything you would require both for the body and soul and for the mind should be available. For example, Penn State is in a completely rural area surrounded by all these large farms, but they managed to create a space so that you didn’t feel like you were dying because you had no access to anything. There are so many more examples of this. Our idea is that we should also be able to create this.
But the idea is not to create an enclave that is separated from the world that surrounds it. The challenge is really to see how we can work with the community. One of the things we’ve been discussing is having a school on campus, for children from the surrounding regions and for faculty and post-graduate students.
It’s difficult to build up a reputation. It’s something that takes years. How do you hope to bring in faculty and students, in terms of the academics?
We’ve already got lots of people who are chasing us. We’re not even having to entice. Considering we don’t even have a website up as yet, it is quite amazing for us how, through word of mouth, people are finding us and writing to us. We’ve had this amazing experience where people are writing and saying, ‘I do this, how can I help, when can I come to teach there?’ We’re in a very happy situation.
The transcript of this interview has been edited for length.