Acclaimed academic and Vice Chancellor of Pakistan’s iconic university, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Dr. Adil Najam talks to Blue Chip about his vision for the future of LUMS, the state of education in Pakistan and his views on international affairs and climate change
What prompted you to take up the position at LUMS?
Dr. Adil Najam: “Because it’s LUMS. LUMS is special. This is a very special place in Pakistan. This was not the type of position that one has to think about. It’s a responsibility, an honour and a challenge.”
How do you see LUMS evolving in the future?
A.N: “LUMS is becoming a major research university. It has grown very fast in 25 years: it has moved from being a relatively small, business-focused school to now being a fully fledged university and is aspiring to be a fully fledged international university – and even more than that to be an international research university. We are doing many things to gear towards trying to cultivate a research culture in academia. In many developing countries including Pakistan, universities are still seen primarily as only places for teaching. To me always, teaching and research have to go hand in hand in a university, that’s what makes it a university. It is when you have faculty that are really thinking about cutting-edge problems; or are thinking about answers that haven’t been determined; or are thinking about questions that haven’t been asked –that is what research is. If you have that milieu then the students’ learning is a very different one. So there is a large thrust in trying to make research a major focus of what we do at LUMS. The university awards travel grants every six months as we encourage our faculty to go and present to the best conferences all over the world. It is a regular thing that we do, encouraging them to do quality research.”
What are your views on the state of education in Pakistan?
A.N: “Education is Pakistan’s greatest hope; education is Pakistan’s greatest challenge. I say that in a very serious way. It’s the greatest hope because I do no think that there is any single force – political, economic or international – that matches the potential impact that education can have in changing the direction of any society, particularly this society. If there is one thing that could change Pakistan in a positive way, it is education and that’s why it is also the biggest hope.
It’s the biggest challenge not because what we have done is bad. In many ways Pakistan’s education profile is much better than one would have expected it to be given how little attention we pay to it. Show me a university in the world where you don’t have Pakistani students doing stellar work. You shouldn’t expect that from a country that has not invested much in education. It is not that we have done well; it is that despite the odds, there is something in our society which actually values education. It is a great challenge because we are a country of 170 million, we have not paid as much attention to education as we should have and we have not paid attention to education in the ways that we should have. It’s not just a question of money, it’s a question of how you pay attention to education; we have created an apartheid education system where different people speak differently, Pakistanis can’t talk to each other because we don’t educate them to talk to each other, it’s a class-based education system, it’s an apartheid based education system.”
Is LUMS making itself more affordable for students?
A.N: “LUMS is one of the most affordable places. Nearly half of the students who come here get financial aid from LUMS. This year we gave Rs 350 million to financial assistance. 10% of our students are from the national outreach programme. This means that 10% of our students come from households of less than Rs 25,000 a month. The LUMS commitment is very simple: if you are good, if you are smart and if you can make it, we will find whatever ways we can to help you. In many ways this was the real reason I came back. You get in on merit and you will work like you have never worked before. That’s the great thing about LUMS. People think of LUMS as being a Lahore elite institution. 60% of our students are not from Lahore. Students are from all over Pakistan. A lot of time, money and effort has been spent in making this a national university, because the belief is that a university has to be a place that affects a nation. Every Pakistani irrespective of where they are from, irrespective of class and creed should be able to get the best education. It is a very difficult thing to achieve because good education costs money. The reason everyone clamours to get into LUMS is that they know that if they get a degree from here their lives will be changed.”
You were also Director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and a Professor of International Relations and of Geography and Environment, when did you develop an interest in these issues?
A.N: “For the last 20 years I was involved in teaching in the US. Right before I came , I was heading the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University. That really came about because a lot of my own academic work is on international development and climate change. A lot of what I have studied is about the human condition on the planet, where are we going and how we can do it better. That has always been of great concern. The purpose of the institute was not to tell the future but to think about the future in ways that we usually don’t. The future is not a disinterested party, the future is built, and the future happens because we make it happen, the future happens because we take decisions today that impact tomorrow. So the centre focused on thinking about what we need to do today in order to make our tomorrow better than our yesterday.”
What are your views on climate change?
A.N: “It is changing very fast, it is one of the great forces that is changing humanity, it may already have impacted our lives in ways that we haven’t even recognised. It is an amazing story of how the human race has come to a stage where they have changed the environment of the planet on which they live. If you think about it that’s an awesome statement: I have the ability through my actions to change the planet; and that is what we have done. The implications of that now have to be borne by us and future generations. Climate will be a major force in the future of Pakistan because Pakistan is particularly climate dependent. We don’t realise this. Only when the floods happen we realise how climate dependent we are. We are a country built around a river. When you have climate change the river changes and our fate is dependent on a waterway. Our history and civilisation developed around this waterway. That waterway is dependent on the glaciers and the glaciers are dependent on the monsoons. So climate is one of those grand forces that change humanity. If you look at human history, why some civilisations rise and fall, it is usually due to floods, famines, and climatic forces. The grand stories of history are written in the language of climate.”
On the international relations and diplomacy side, what key policy recommendations do you feel are important for Pakistan and South Asia?
A.N: “Much of my career was devoted to the study of international relations, especially international relations of Muslim countries including Pakistan. I wish we could worry less about international relations. We always joke about how Pakistan is important to the world, sometimes I wish we were not important to the world, that we were an island state, no war in our backyard. But the fact of the matter is that we sit at the crossroads of history, we are the fulcrum of history and therefore the world looks at us. What is not an option is to opt out of international affairs because we are at the fulcrum of history. Therefore I think we need to grab the mantle of history, what I sometimes find depressing is that we sometimes look at history as an actor that we don’t have control over, we look at the world as if it is against us, which may or may not be true, all countries have their own interests, but we need to take more charge of our own fate. I think we need to carefully understand the neighbourhood that we live in. We live in a tough neighbourhood. There are two major superpowers in terms of population: a billion Indians and a billion Chinese. You have nuclear armed countries on three sides. You have an ongoing war on the other side. You have the remnants of a disintegrating empire on another side. You cannot escape these realties, you have to confront them. That means that we have to take our development seriously, and we have to think of our international relations first of all as neighbourhood relations. We have usually thought of international relations as relations with people who live very far off. Principle two of our international relations should be to think of our own interests We spend too much time thinking why others don’t think about us. But if you don’t think about yourself, no one else will think about you.”
You have had an illustrious career in academia and education, who are your role models?
A.N: “I am blessed to have had mentors from the beginning who I will not enumerate because there have been so many. People who believe in you beyond what you believe in yourself – that is what a mentor is. I have been blessed, my school teachers and college teachers who have had faith in me and gave me opportunities.”
You have won several accolades and have received great recognition, what advice would you give to your students?
A.N: “I don’t think I can give advice but I can share lessons. The first is the lesson of humility. I have never met a great person who is not humble. The greatest sign of humility is that a person listens because they are hungry to learn more. The second lesson is that of confidence. Confidence must never be confused with arrogance. Confidence is the belief that I can try to do anything, the greatness comes in the trying.”