Interview with LUMS Vice Chancellor
‘A Struggle Very Reminiscent of a Silicon Valley Startup’
By Imran H. Khan
Have you ever noticed how the sunlight from the setting sun has an almost hypnotic aura that is at once illusionary in its tract yet so transitory in its being? Have you ever lapsed into the midst of complete admiration and contemplation at the wonders of nature and the manifestation of the divine essence right before your eyes? Sometimes one can only be witness to such magnificence when in complete solitude and harmony. However, there are times when one is made to bear witness by the mere words and actions of others.
So it was, as I reclined, eased back comfortably in my chair and stared into the horizon, subdued by a golden haze which had engulfed the late afternoon sky. I was subsequently subtracted from my trance by the mellifluous calls of the Adhan echoing and shifting my consciousness into a harmonious gear. I was enthralled by the moment, mesmerized by the tranquility, captured by the beauty and awed by the moment.
I once again became aware of my surrounding s; a veranda of a wooden structured house that resembled more a Swiss chalet in the Alps then the family retreat of a university professor’s home in the cantonment area of Abbottabad in the North West Frontier region of Pakistan.
I had just concluded my interview with the former vice chancellor of The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Syed Zahoor Hassan.
The conversation with Professor Hassan had lasted some two hours and it ebbed and flowed between his own remarkable journey to becoming Vice Chancellor of LUMS to the viability and impeding future of Pakistan under democratic rule.
For a man who held such an important post in Pakistan, his disposition was humbling and his attitude warm and gracious. He was affable and like most from the NWF region extremely hospitable and welcoming.
Professor Hassan and I connected immediately as he had studied and lived in Northern California. Thus he was well versed with the American culture and the Pakistani expat communities. He had attained his doctorate in Computer Science from Stanford in 1979 and several years later went on to complete his Masters degree in leadership and management in 1984. However, at the onset of the technological boom that would shift the Silicon Valley into a global village, Professor Hassan gave it all up and moved back to Pakistan. This, he says, was the most difficult of decisions as his mother advised him against the move but he remains adamant that it was the longing of his soul that eventually convinced him that it was the appropriate thing to do. His intent had never been to stay in the US and once he had attained a level of education that he felt sufficient enough to utilize in his native Pakistan he went back.
Professor Hassan’s experience and memories of California are positive and he reflected on how welcoming the Americans had been. The pace of study at Stanford was streamlined yet extremely diverse and holistic something not witnessed in the single tracked initiatives being offered in Pakistan at that time.
Thus, Stanford had allowed him to expand his horizons and question his stereotypical comprehension of the world formed in a society alienated from the world. A case in point that Professor Hassan recalls is when the Jewish Students Union protested Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. “I could never imagine that happening. I was always under the impression that all Jewish activists would always support Israel no matter what the consequences, yet here was a Jewish student body that actively employed their intellectual training, values on justice and humanity to stand up to a perceived wrong. This is something you rarely see in the Muslim world.”
I asked him what he had learnt from witnessing such actions?
“It gave me the confidence that I could get involved and make a difference, no matter how small. I knew the opportunity was there if I wanted to do something, I could. Growing up in Pakistan one is always presented with many obstacles and challenges before any task has even begun, but the American attitude was to jump right in and then deal with the difficulties as they presented themselves. So this was a refreshing attitude that I adopted. However, I grew up in Bhutto’s Pakistan and thus I was very nationalistic, and I found that a common theme with the Americans. There were many similarities between our nations and people and that helped me adjust to the society and its core values that are not too dissimilar to our own Islamic beliefs.”
So what made him abandon this great society for a nation under military dictatorship, actively involved in a proxy struggle against the might of the Soviets and an uncertain future at best?
“I always wanted to go back to Pakistan. I was trained in an academic environment and had acquired a great deal of experience from my various jobs, study and interactions. Whilst at Stanford I knew I was at one of the premier institutes of the world, so I learnt as much as I could. After completing my doctorate in 1979, I went back to Stanford in 1984 to study for a Masters in leadership and Management so that I could utilize my academic training to teach and have the knowledge to implement new ideas and initiatives. Thus, on going back to Pakistan I was fortunate enough to meet with the likes of Mr. Syed Babar Ali who founded LUMS and thus sought to join this great initiative.”
I was very curious to know what the lore was in LUMS. It was a new initiative, no previous history and no real future in a nation that was almost heading for complete annihilation?
“Mr. Ali had a vision and that was to confront all the points you make. We as a nation were facing great uncertainty and people were becoming restless. Mr. Ali deciphered that it was the lack of leadership, authority and organization in Pakistani society that had caused more alarms to ring than were necessary. Thus, LUMS would become the first institute of its time in Pakistan to focus on the backbone of any society, the economic and business structures. We wanted to change our society through education and the creation of leaders in society who could understand and implement the changes necessary to keep Pakistan afloat and then help it to progress. We started LUMS with 8-9 faculty members who were responsible for everything. It was a struggle but very reminiscent of a Silicon Valley startup. We began life as a simple business school that also taught economics and computer science. We never wanted to expand quickly to become a jack-of-all-trades and masters at none. We wanted to compete and become as great if not better than institutes such as LSE, Harvard Business School etc…
So our progress has been measured in relation to our growth as an institute and the society in which we operate. We only began to offer a Masters in Computer Science in the mid ’90s. This was an evolutionary phase and we wanted it to be the very best Masters program at least in Pakistan and as good as any in the world.”
As an academic person I wanted to know if LUMS had limited its ability to adapt to the new approach (by the Western world, traditional to the East) and was following old outdated Western models of teaching whereby specialization had people compartmented into a very narrow area of research and study, thus their weltanschauung would be heavily biased and limited by their knowledge.
“That is a problem that Western academies are only now beginning to acknowledge. People are limited by just being economists or sociologists. However, we have overcome this hurdle not through any great planning or insight but by natural dictation. We started life as such a small outfit that in order for us to have survived initially we relied on a cross disciplinary culture to teach. Therefore, inherently all subject matters were integrated with the opinions of other departments. So we are an industry leader in that respect and only now Western institutes are talking about such an approach.”
LUMS has obviously surpassed itself and its achievements by attaining an aura of excellence and elitism. What has the university done to attract the very best faculty members and students?
“We would like to attract around 500 students per year. Our syllabus is designed to provide our students with a leadership role. We have noticed that other institutes have begun to model their teaching on the LUMS model. LUMS is funded by the National Management Foundation and our relationship with industry is crucial as they provide sponsorship and funding for our ventures. To go with that we have a great culture and everyone is allowed to express himself. We have an exceptionally diverse and mixed bunch of students from all strata and segments of society.”
Looking forward I wondered if LUMS would succumb to the political shenanigans and chicanery that even the most respected and established Pakistani institutes had fallen prey to. The political and sectarian movements that dominate their agendas as opposed to providing a form of higher education that is supposed to eliminate such thought and verbosity.
“When the government begins to appoint chancellors it compromises the values of education and its merit. The tenure of Zia-ul-Haq really began an institutional breakdown through the introduction of sectarianism and party factionalism. It is through the higher education mechanism that democratic and civilizing movements are formed through initiatives that seek to create change and progress. During Musharaff’s reign we have witnessed more funding for higher education but conversely people feel as if they no longer matter when retired army officers are presented with important posts that they are ill-equipped to develop. We still have a situation where merit alone is not recognized to be an indicator of success. The military is a sound institute and will fade into the background but we must be allowed to work and develop our own civilian institutes. A nation is only a representative ideal of its institutes.
”There are other issues that we are now confronting that a majority of the people have no idea about. Globalization is presenting us with challenges that we at LUMS have actively now begun to address. Our students are being made aware of the challenges and opportunities that globalization will bring and how best to proceed with its onset.
”However, I believe sincerely that this country has an excellent future. A certain degree of fine-tuning is required and institutes such as LUMS have taken it upon themselves to provide that. Our values and principles are grounded in a sound comprehension of the Islamic way and more debate is required to find an ideal middle ground that respects all of society and dominates none.”
I wanted to conclude the discussion by asking him to share with us his own personal opinion on how anyone with deep convictions for Pakistan could make a difference.
“The Diaspora has to realize that it’s a huge commitment to make but if they have the genuine passion and desire to evolve Pakistan than they can. It is not easy but the fun is in the struggle. They need to get involved and be here. Anyone can send money or talk about good things but the real potential is coming back to the nation as I did and getting involved. People have tremendous potential and require guidance and models to lead them. So if you truly want to do something for your nation, than ask as Kennedy said not what can my nation do for me but what can I do for my nation.”
It was this point that finally captured my imagination and opened up the realms of possibilities. For once a man who had proven his point through the course of his own actions had offered advice that neither contradicted his own history nor beliefs. If Pakistan could acquire only half a dozen men of such caliber and conviction every year than we may have a nation that has no equal in the region and the world before the 100 years of existence for the nation are up.