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Lokvani Talks To Jamshed Bharucha

Ranjani Saigal

Jamshed Bharucha was named Provost and Senior Vice President of Tufts University in 2002. He formerly served as Dean of Faculty and Deputy Provost at Dartmouth College, where he was the John Wentworth Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences. At Dartmouth, he received the Huntington Teaching Award and the Undergraduate Teaching Initiative Special Award, and held appointments in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Program in Linguistics and Cognitive Science, and the Program in Electro-Acoustic Music. He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1993-94 and a visiting scholar at Cornell and Carnegie Mellon Universities. Dr. Bharucha’s research is on the perception of music, using computational neural net modeling and brain imaging techniques. He has received numerous research grants, has served on the National Science Foundation’s advisory panel in Perception and Cognition, and was Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Music Perception. He has co-developed two successful software products for teaching. A 1978 graduate of Vassar College, he received a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Yale in 1979 and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard in 1983. He served as a Trustee of Vassar College for eight years, where he chaired the Budget and Finance Committee. 

One of the few Indian Americans in a high level leadership position in academia, Bharucha spoke to Lokvani about his work and some of the issues in higher education.

You came to the United States to get an undergraduate education in the early 70s when it was not very common to do so. What motivated you to apply to Vassar?

My father who is a civil engineer, came to the United States in the forties to pursue graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Later he and my mother moved to India. Even though my mother is American, I never visited the United States since in those days it was not easy to travel. The Dean of Vassar College visited India in the 70s and my sister had a chance to meet her. She encouraged my sister  to join Vassar. After my sister joined Vassar she encouraged me to do the same.

You have degrees in psychology and philosophy and you have conducted research in the field of cognitive psychology and neuroscience focusing on the cognitive and neural basis of music perception. How did you develop such an unusual interest to combine music and science?

My mother is a very talented and well trained western classical musician. I received music training at a very young age.  I was part of the Bombay Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Joachim Buehler.  I was fortunate to attend a month long seminar conducted by the Max Mueller Bhavan featuring top German and Indian musicians. I had an opportunity to learn under Ustad Vilayat Khan and others.  While music was such a big part of my life, I never thought about a career in music.

My father was an engineer and he wanted, like any typical Indian father, for me to pursue a career in science. I liked science and math very much as well.  My father was also very interested in computers. He felt it was important to use them in his work even in the early 70s when it was not common to do so. He learnt FORTRAN programming in the early 70s. He also encouraged me to learn FORTRAN programming and I used to help him with his work during my high school days.

When I came to Vassar, I became very interested in the biological basis of the mind and how that translates to behavior.  This field was not very well developed then partly due to lack of techniques like MRI.  Later I also became interested in broader philosophical issues. After majoring in biopsychology from Vassar, I went to Yale to study philosophy and did a PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1983. My research in the area of "Music Perception" was a culmination of my training and interest in the different areas. 

I have done a lot of work on the mathematical modeling of information
processing in the brain.  For example, in a project led by my former
postdoc Petr Janata, we created a topological mapping of brain activity
as subjects listened to major and minor keys. We discovered that the
brain activity in this area mapped a four-dimensional donut-shaped
geometric surface called a "Torus", in line with earlier theoretical

Could you describe your current research efforts? Do you find it difficult to balance your duties as Provost and faculty?

I continue to work in the area of music perception.  In a recent article called “Varieties of Musical Experience,” we distinguish between computational processes in the brain of which we are not conscious, on the one hand, and conscious experiences on the other hand.   Recently we also conducted a study on the cultural adaptation of the brain to music and speech where we conducted an fMRI study of listening to Indian and Western music, Hindi and English.   We were able to show that there is a clear evidence of neural adaptation to spoken language. As a Provost it is critical that I continue to remain active in teaching and research. It is a priority for me and I will never relinquish teaching or research.

What attracted you to the post of Provost at Tufts University?

Tufts has the best of a liberal arts college and a research university. It is well positioned to continue to develop as a pre-eminent university.  We are truly an international school. The Fletcher school is one of the most reputed schools of International law and diplomacy.  We have traveled to different countries to further enhance the international nature of the school. Our Dental School and Medical Schools have partnerships in India and other countries.

The University’s stature has continued to rise during the recent years. Admission to Tufts is very competitive and we are able to attract very talented students and faculty. Another special thing about Tufts in that faculty, students and alumni really want to give back to the community.  This public ethos combined with academic strength makes Tufts a special place. When I was offered the position I was really excited for I felt I could make a difference. 

What are some of the challenges in the field of higher education in the United States?

One of the greatest challenges is to prepare students for the global context. There is a great global knowledge asymmetry where students in countries like India know more about the American culture, government, geography and history than the other way around. Universities need to work hard to change this. The best way to do this is to become more international. We must continue to receive students from overseas and provide opportunities for peer-peer- interaction so that students learn about other cultures. We must increase international financial aid so that we can attract a diverse body of international students.  We must provide opportunities for students to go abroad and foster collaboration with educational institutions around the world.  For example Tufts is working with a hospital in Karnataka, India. Tufts medical students have an opportunity to do an internship in India which will give them an opportunity to learn about medicine in India.

Currently there are a lot of second generation students who are flooding the universities. This population is still connected to other cultures and can help bring cross-cultural understanding to the University.

There are a couple of myths prevalent about Indian students coming to the US universities. The first is the “Brain-Drain” myth.  People think we are robbing the home country of talent. This is not true at all.  Indian students trained in the US have been assuming leadership roles in the global economy. Their knowledge of both the Indian and the Western culture has helped them succeed in a variety of settings and they have been instrumental in changing the face of India and the US. 

The second myth is that Indian students are taking the place of Americans in Universities and companies. The fact is that there is a great shortage of highly qualified science and engineering graduates and Indians are filling the void created by that shortage and actually helping American companies grow.   Thus bringing international students to the US is a win-win situation for all.

In today’s global economy it is important that our students learn about different cultures and feel comfortable working in any cultural setting.

There is a feeling amongst some South Asians that since there are many  high achievers amongst South Asians, there is a virtual ceiling imposed by universities in order to maintain ethnic diversity. Could you comment on this?

This is absolutely untrue. It is a myth. At Tufts, we never deny admission to anyone on the basis of national origin or ethnicity who meets our admissions standards, and I think that is true of other universities as well.

What advice do you have for a youngster aspiring to a leadership position in an academic institution?

First, it is critical to gain academic expertise in your area of interest.  It is important to be a scholar in your field. If you would like to become a Provost, it is important that you reach out beyond your own field. As a Provost I talk to faculty from different disciplines and hence I need to understand the language of each specialization.  One must have an intellectual appreciation of academic pursuits. 

Leadership is all about people. It is about empowering people. It is about understanding their concern and enabling them to fulfill their aspirations. Of course as a leader one must also be assertive and be able to convince faculty to adhere to the broader interest of the University in addition to their own.

Do you have any advice for Indian American parents as they send their children to college?

I would encourage parents to relax a little about the career choices of their children. College is a time when students can experience a rich textured array of opportunities and stimulations. Once children find their interest they will be motivated to excel in that.  Science and Math may not be the right career choice for every child. There has been a tremendous rise in the number of Indian Americans in literature and the arts. There are many different opportunities that are available for youngsters today in which they can excel.

Your father is Indian and mother American. What was the most important thing you learnt from each that has helped shape you?

My father was a great follower of Mahatma Gandhi and aspired to Gandhian values. He taught me to not be affected by the trapping of wealth and fame. He was a big believer in non-violence. He also believed in helping everyone immaterial of their station in life. Once when we lived in Mumbai, a riot broke out and the son of our maid was killed. When he learnt of this he immediately went to her house to provide help even though it was very dangerous to move out during the riot. I will never forget that moment.  My mother gave me the gift of music

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

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