Frank F. Islam
Mr. Honorable Governor; Honorable Ministers; Members of Parliament; Mr. Vice Chancellor; Members of the Faculty; Students; Friends; Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for your warm welcome. I greatly appreciate your hospitality.
Thank you for that kind introduction
Let me begin by thanking Vice Chancellor Rajesh Singh for the invitation to speak with you the faculty, staff, administration and students of Purnea University today.
Thank you, Prof Singh for your vision. You are a true leader. You inspire all of us to do well but do good. You are the guiding light. You provide the example; set the standard; and provide the broad shoulder upon which we can stand. Let us give him a big round of applause.
As I look at you students in the audience, I see me in you. I see the future of India. I see the future of the world. I know that future is in good hands. You are hope of tomorrow.
I am most pleased to be here to give my speech which I have titled Thoughts on Purnea University’s Journey to Become World Class
When I was asked to speak, I accepted without hesitation. I did so for four primary reasons.
The first reason is that I understand how important higher education can be in one’s life. The higher education provided me with the basic knowledge, skills and abilities that I needed for success in the business world and as an entrepreneur. It provided me with the essential foundation for realizing the American Dream. It prepared me for my journey.
The second reason is that I am passionate about higher education and what it can do to transform lives – especially for those who come from modest circumstances such as I did. I have taken that passion and gotten involved with higher education. I serve on several boards of higher education ranging from University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, American University, and Marymount University.
My foundation supports numerous scholarships in India and the United States. As part of this trip I will inaugurate an entrepreneurship and Innovation center in the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex which we funded and dedicated at Aligarh Muslim University in 2017.
The third reason is because of what this new institution is and what it aspires to be. As I did my research, I was inspired by what I found out about Purnea.
The fourth reason is because of my firm friendship with the Vice Chancellor Singh. I could not say no to his request.
You have a clear and compelling vision and mission. Your commitment to becoming world class in this region that needs the highest quality higher education for its citizens is truly commendable. I hope that what I have to say here today will make some small contribution to Purnea’s journey to become world class.
I have structured my speech into three parts. In part one, I will share what I see as the two primary roles of higher education. They are: Shaping Studies and Shaping Students. In part two, I will share Lessons for the Student’s Journey. In part three, I will address the joint responsibility that higher education, students and graduates have for Shaping Society. I will conclude by summing up my thoughts on what all of this means for Purnea University.
The Roles of Higher Education: Shaping Studies and Shaping Students
Let’s get started. I direct this first part of my talk Shaping Studies and Shaping Students primarily to the faculty, staff and administration in the audience.
As those of you who are involved in higher education know, the Modi administration has recently placed considerable emphasis on designating a few higher education universities as world class or “institutions of eminence.” This will elevate their status.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, it will do little to address the underlying problems of higher education in India.
This is true because the focus is completely wrong. These universities are the tip of the higher educational iceberg. Enhancing the capacity of a few institutions, thus possibly enabling them to be rated a little higher in the world rankings of higher education institutions, does nothing for the many.
That’s not to say that India does not need world class institutions of higher education. It is to say that more, importantly India, needs a world class higher education system.
A world class higher education system is one that is student- or customer-centered rather than institution-centered. It comprises certified and caring institutions that have the resources required and the core mission of ensuring that students/customers acquire the knowledge/skills/abilities and dispositions that they need to achieve their individual goals and to maximize their contribution to society.
India’s current system has been almost exactly the opposite of that. The emphasis has been primarily on a select group of institutions and individuals rather than embracing and addressing the needs of the whole.
I am truly excited to be with you today because I see the establishment of Purnea University as a free-standing public institution as evidence of a move to make India’s higher education system world class. From what I have learned on why this University was “carved out” and what it intends to accomplish, I am confident that it will be in the forefront of shaping studies and shaping students in this 21st century.
That said, let me turn my attention to the first role that I have identified for higher education which is Shaping Studies.
There are entire books devoted to curriculum design and development. What I want to call attention to is not how to write a lesson plan but to the areas in which lesson plans should be written and what subjects should be covered in a curriculum of study.
Too often, schools of higher education develop curriculum which are instructor driven rather than driven by what the market place needs or requires. The studies have been shaped from the inside of the classroom rather than from the outside of the classroom.
The other thing that has happened for some time – especially in the United States- is that the studies are time-based rather than competency-based. Everyone has been forced to get a four-year degree when a two-year degree or some type of advanced certificate would suffice.
I know this will not be the case here at Purnea because of the breadth and depth of your undertakings. In his message on the Purnea University website, Vice-Chancellor Singh states, “At its inception, we propose to offer courses that shall cater to and attract the present scenario in the job industry.”
Vice Chancellor Singh goes on to state that you will have about 50 courses in the first year, 250 courses by the third year, and 100 departments and 500 courses by the sixth year.
Those are big numbers and are impressive. Even more impressive is Purnea’s commitment to excellence and to deliver a scope of studies that is differentiating. The special centers that are planned to promote Entrepreneurship, Public Leadership, Skill Enhancement, Placement and Training, Hotel Management, Internationalization of Education, and Information and Knowledge Management are testimony to the fact that Purnea will be student-centered.
This brings me to the second role of higher education which is shaping students. Purnea’s being student-centered stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by most higher education organizations.
During the 20th century too much of higher education operated using what I would label an “institutionally-centered model.” In that model, much attention was paid to the interests of administration and faculty and the development and the buildings of the college or university but too little was paid to the needs of the students.
As I said earlier, what higher education needs to do in the 21st century is to convert to a “customer-centered” business model. That model would put the student as the customer at the center of all decisions and do things that add value for the student.
Higher education students come to school to learn. But, the vast majority of them are there not only to graduate but to get a job or promotion where they can earn an appropriate return for the investment of their educational money.
Viewing things from a student perspective as opposed to an institutional one, I would classify the purpose of higher education from the student perspective into three broad categories:
- learning purpose
- earning purpose
- turning purpose.
For a very long time in higher education the academic perspective has prevailed. The learning purpose or knowledge for knowledge’s sake was front and center on the higher education agenda.
Now, given the developing needs of a country, the changing world, globalization, and the challenges that students and we all are confronting, what should be the purpose of higher education for students? Or, more appropriately, should there be a single purpose?
Students come in all shapes and sizes: Some are interested in learning. Some in earning. Some in turning. Some in all three forms. Others are uncertain.
The exercise of student choice acknowledges this. It brings into play a fourth category of purpose for higher education.
That is fulfilling the educational “yearning” or desire of the student. The yearning purpose should be the key driver for the type of education that a student pursues and that an institution provides.
Given the diversity that Purnea is proposing in its fields of study, I think that you are structuring yourself to align with a student’s yearning purpose. In doing that, Purnea will prepare each student for his or her journey
Lessons for the Students’ Journey
Let me shift gears now and go to the second part of my speech in which I will talk primarily to you students who are in the audience today about your journey.
It is wonderful to be with you students and to share my thoughts with you regarding your journey by drawing upon my own journey and the lessons that I have learned.
I hope that the story of my journey and my thoughts will be of some relevance for your journey. I share them not because I expect you to imitate my path or adapt my perspective but because I hope they will be useful as touchstones and frames of reference as you define what will matter for you and chart your own course for the future.
I will tell the story of my journey in three sections:
- Lessons from India
- Lessons from America
- Lessons from Life
Lessons from India
Let me begin with Lessons from India:
Growing up in India had an enormous impact and influence on the person I am today. It’s here that I learned lessons from this country, my family, my home city of Varanasi, and Aligarh Muslim University.
All of those forces shaped and influenced me during my formative years. Let me tell you how.
My country: I love India. I love this country because I was born here and because of its art, history, music, culture and rituals. But most of all I love India because it stands as an international beacon of democracy, diversity and peacemaking.
My family: I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents taught me to: Treat people in the way that you want to be treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Work hard and aim high. Do what you can to serve your community. In the neighborhood where I grew up, all of us from different backgrounds and different faiths learned to work side-by-side because we were bound together in the service of others.
My home city: I was born and spent the first few years of my life in Azamgarh but I call Varanasi my home city. I treasure Varanasi. I have fond memories of that city. It is where my journey began. It shaped my story. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is there that I learned about the richness of religious diversity and respect for other religions.
My university: Last, but not least of course, is Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
A.M. U provided me with the basic building blocks to become a successful entrepreneur, to assume serious responsibilities, and most importantly, to become a passionate leader. Aligarh provided me with an excellent education.
More importantly, it instilled the core values that have served me in good stead throughout my adult life. They include:
- A love and passion for education
- Eternal optimism about your hopes and dreams
- Being collegial and candid towards all
- Keeping steadfast to your standard of excellence
- Living in peace and harmony by being tolerant & respectful toward the dignity of each person.
These values continue to be my guiding principles today.
Lessons from America
Those are my lessons from India. Now, let me tell you my lessons from America.
When I went to the United States from India to pursue the American dream, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream. I knew even then that being a business owner would be part of it.
I also knew that it would mean being apart from my family and developing my own career track with little parental or professional guidance. This was a daunting challenge.
But it was also an opportunity. That’s the way I saw it – an opportunity to define myself in America, the land of opportunity.
That process of defining myself in America had five stages:
- Getting a good education
- Taking a risk
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong and talented team who shared my vison and values
- Broadening my horizon
I got my masters and bachelors in computer science at the University of Colorado. Then, I worked with two major information technology firms which gave me skills and real-world grounding that I needed to be a business owner.
Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took my Company QSS Group from a workforce of 1 employee to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me ladders of opportunity to succeed. These are the values and qualities of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
The team of talented managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. So, when you ask me how I became successful, it was not me but we who made it happen.
My journey was not a straight line. Indeed, there were numerous twists and turns. There were many sleepless nights. What enabled me to prevail on the journey was a belief in myself and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American Dream.
Finally, I sold my company to Perot Systems in 2007. That sale allowed me to establish a private foundation that supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States, here in India and around the world.
Now I am concentrating on community and social engagement and on philanthropic activities by giving back. In this regard, I am reminded and guided by the words of President Kennedy, who said: “To whom much is given. Much is expected”. In many ways process of sharing and giving back is as – and even more rewarding than any of the money that I earned throughout my business.
Lessons from Life
That is my story and my key lessons or learnings from India and America. Those lesson taught me so many other lessons that I could never cover them all. I do want to highlight four that standout for me, and even though it is a little contrary to my upbringing, to provide some advice for you students and your journey. That advice is:
- Don’t think anything is impossible
- Make it your journey
- Do well but also do good
- Be a life-long learner
Don’t think anything is impossible. If you would have asked me more than 40 years ago coming from a middle-class family in India could I achieve and accomplish what I have, I probably would have said no. I was not certain about where I would end up when I went from India to the United States. But I knew absolutely that working hard, aiming high and getting the right education was the key to success.
I am confident that the same will be true for you no matter where you or your family is currently on the economic ladder.
A quality education has been the great equalizer, opportunity creator and liberator for Indian citizens of all religions and for Indians at the bottom rungs of the ladder. For those on the other rungs of the ladder, a quality education has helped to cultivate the creativity, compassion and commitment to make the economic ladder stronger, to put more rungs on it, and to enable more people to make their way up it.
There are numerous stories here in India of the successes of graduates of modest means from higher education institutions. That is why I ask you to don’t think anything is impossible.
Make It Your Journey. Even though I have shared information about my journey with you, you will succeed by making it your own journey.
Frank Islam’s journey was Frank Islam’s journey. Just as Bill Gates was Bill Gates. Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs.
My story is testimony to the fact that anything is possible if you make it your journey. Write your own story. Chart your own path.
Do Well but Also Do Good. In making it your journey, I am encouraging you to succeed but do not forget those who have been less successful. You should extend your hand, hope, help, and heart to those who are less successful, who are less fortunate, who are socially and economically disadvantaged and who are voiceless and who are venerable.
Let us empower them with education and inclusive economic mobility. Let us help them through their darkest moments of their lives. When they succeed. All of us succeed. India succeeds. The World succeeds.
Be a life-long learner. Study hard but remember that life’s lessons are taught inside and outside of the classrooms and they are never ending. So, commit to learning at least one new thing every day. Use the new things you learn to continue to reinvent yourself.
The Joint Responsibility for Shaping Society
This brings me to part three of my presentation: the joint responsibility of higher education, its students and graduates for shaping society. Higher education accomplishes this by facilitating and promoting the civic engagement of its administration, staff, faculty and students both on campus and elsewhere now and in the future.
India is the largest democracy in the world. Through the increased civic engagement of its institutions of higher education and those in those other institutions India can become the leader on the world stage for democracy. You here at Purnea can be leaders in demonstrating what can be accomplished through civic society to shape society to make India and the world better place.
Now, I would like to shine a spotlight on interfaith dialogue as it contributes significantly to shaping societies. I strongly believe in Interfaith Dialogue as it brings people together and it increases religious and cultural unity. It allows to build bridges, to breakdown the barrier, and to promote dialogue with various faiths and to promote a shared sense of community. India has long succeeded because it is diverse, inclusive, and tolerant. I believe diverse society is a strength as it enriches a nation and ensures all people have equal chance to succeed. We need to step up, speak up, and speak out by rejecting the voices that seek to divide us or to limit our civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. Therefore, all of us together should continue to build a fairer, stronger, and just India with inclusive economic growth. We need to stand together. And, together, we can help shape a better future for India. I ask all of you to remember fundamental acceptance of equality of other religions by not looking to the heavens and to the Gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and people and family that we are. We need to strengthen the bonds that binds us as one family. There are a lot that unite us and there is a little that divide us. Our relationship should not be defined by differences but what we can do together by being a difference maker. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart.
Purnea University and Change
I have discussed the role of higher education for shaping studies and students. I have presented lessons for the students’ journey. I have outlined the shared responsibility for shaping society. In closing, let me sum up what I think all of this means in terms of Purnea University.
As I said in my opening and have commented throughout this speech, I can see that Purnea University – unlike many traditional higher education institutions here in India that are still locked in the 20th century – has been created and is being structured to chart a new course in the 21st century.
In his message on your website, Vice Chancellor Singh observed,
The establishment of this university was essential and long-awaited. The entire region ranks dismally low in several indices of development, education, but one is struck by the fact that the potential and talent of students here is by no means lesser than those studying in universities located elsewhere. The natural pollution free environment of this place also has its own historical legacy on which Purnea University would build upon, and create a mark in the global educational scenario
Putting that in other words, Purnea University is all about bringing about change.
Higher education is at a pivot point. It needs that change
Many years ago, Mahatma Gandhi advised us, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Purnea University and those of you in this audience – students, faculty, staff, administration – are being that change. You are the change-makers.
Higher education, this region, its citizens, India and the world will be a better place because of you. Good luck and god bless you in your pivotal and noble work.