Universities should be able to take education to students, wherever they are: Vistasp Karbhari

Vistasp Karbhari
Vistasp Karbhari; photo credit: University of Texas at Arlington

In a wide-ranging interview with the American Bazaar, Indian American Vistasp Karbhari looks back at his UT Arlington presidency and discusses opportunities and challenges in higher education in the 21st century.

Vistasp M. Karbhari, a former president of University of Texas at Arlington, was recently selected as a Cohort Fellow by Complete College America, a nonprofit that works toward improving higher education outcomes for students across the board. “He is passionate about the mission of public universities and focuses on issues related to enhancing access, inclusivity and comprehensive excellence, transfer pathways, returning adult students, the importance of impactful research and innovation, credentials and certifications, online/digital learning, and the integration of academic knowledge and skills needed for success in the workforce,” says his bio on the CAA website.

Karbhari, who served as UT Arlington president from 2013 to 2020, is one of the very few Indian Americans to lead a major research university in the United States. During his presidency, the 126-year-old school was designated as an “R1: Doctoral University” with “Very high research activity” by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. He is also credited with improving the university’s infrastructure and increasing enrollment of minority students. Since stepping down from presidency last year, Karbhari has been serving as a professor at UT Arlington’s Departments of Civil Engineering, and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.

Karbhari completed his bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering from University of Poona. He came to the United States in the mid-1980s to enroll for a Ph.D. at University of Delaware. After earning a doctorate, he joined the university’s Department of Civil Engineering as a research assistant professor and as a Scientist in the Center for Composite Materials in 1991. In 1995, he moved to the West Coast to join the University of California San Diego as an assistant professor in its Department of Applied Mechanics & Engineering Sciences. Later, he would become Chair of the Department of Structural Engineering. In 2008, he was recruited by University of Alabama in Huntsville, to be their provost and executive vice-president for academic affairs.

ALSO READ: Vistasp Karbhari to be next president of University of Texas at Arlington (March 1, 2013)

In an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, Karbhari speaks about his tenure at UT Arlington; higher education issues, including access to higher education, availability of technology; industry-academia partnerships; and his academic journey, among other subjects. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

American Bazaar: Congratulations on being selected as a Cohort Fellow of the Complete College America!

Vistasp Karbhari: Thank you!

AB: What does the fellowship entail?

Vistasp Karbhari: One of the biggest challenges, not just in the United States, but across the world is trying to make sure that we have students who are actually educated appropriately and complete college, get degrees obviously in areas that will be fruitful, both for themselves in their personal lives, as well as in their careers. The challenge that we have in the United States is a lot of our students start out and then for a variety of reasons they stop. Most of those reasons are not academic. Rarely does a student stop out because they cannot hack it. They stop out because life happens; because there are problems. One of the things that Complete College America has been doing is trying to figure out mechanisms working across all the states in the U.S. as to how to increase college completion, [and] to do it in a meaningful way. Not just go get a degree, but how do you get a degree that is purposeful [and] impactful. How will it actually increase the equity of education? We all talk about education being the great equalizer, but it can only be the great equalizer, if there’s access for everybody rather than just to a select few;and if there are support systems to help students. Not all of us come to the start of an academic career at the same level. It depends on the high school you went to; it depends on the middle school you went to; it depends on the support that you have from your family. So if, for example, you have a math homework that you can’t do, if you can go to mom and dad, and mom and dad will help you with it, you may have an advantage over somebody who could not go to their mom and dad and get help. If you have the time to spend outside of your college, or your school hours to study, rather than having to work, or being a healthcare provider for children or for elderly parents… it definitely gives you a leg up. What Complete College America does is to try to look at different programs and alternatives that can be used by universities across the spectrum working through different states in order to make all this possible. And fellows are picked because of their commitment to equity, student success and bold reform of the educational system. When I talk about new programs, I’m not talking about degree programs. It’s how do you make things happen? How do you support a student towards completion? How do you support great ideas, perspectives and policies for student progression, and enable their success? What are the changes in the mechanisms that need to be made? So they pick their fellows very carefully. I’m honored to be a fellow of Complete College America because it sort of allows me to continue some of the work that I had started in terms of access and excellence and in trying to make sure we have greater equity of education.

AB: You went back to being an academic from being a university leader and administrator. How are you adjusting to that?

Vistasp Karbhari: Well it’s actually a wonderful thing and something that I’ve never left. I joined academia because I love to teach and I want to have an impact on the lives of the future. Even during my service in the administration, I had a very close relationship with students and I was very focused on how we gave support to them and how we managed to move from just teaching to learning.  When I was the Provost and the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, I actually taught classes. I also had research students. It was only with the presidency that I stopped because you don’t have the time to do all this, and your schedule changes based on the demands that come from around you that I didn’t think it was fair to my class, if I suddenly said, “Well, I’m not going to turn up today to teach because I have to attend a meeting.” But otherwise I’ve always been very involved in that. I love to be in the classroom. So for me, this is actually a natural progression and it’s great.

AB: During your tenure as president of UTA, you raised the profile of the university from somewhat of a second choice regional school to a national research institution. UTA was designated by Carnegie as a top research university, and scholarship also increased during your tenure. Can you talk about some of the things you did as president?

Vistasp Karbhari: Sure.

This is something of which I’m very proud of our faculty and the entire university for what we were able to achieve in a very short period of time. We went from being a Carnegie R2 to being a Carnegie R1. But more than just being a nationally recognized research powerhouse, it’s what comes with it. We very often talk about access and excellence as being two different things. We talk about research and teaching as being two different things. And the thought generally is, if you’re great in research, you are bad in teaching. If you open yourselves up to being more accessible to students, then your excellence and your ranking must come down. We were able to show at UT Arlington that’s not true. While we became a Carnegie R1, one of the top research institutions in the United States, we also achieved Hispanic-serving institute status. So we are an HSI. We also increased our enrollment significantly. In fact, we were one of the fastest growing universities in the United States. We also increased our degree attainment by about 48 percent. That means that the number of students who are gaining degrees over that period of time has also gone up. And it’s not like our faculty hand out degrees. Their standards remained the same and even rose. What we were able to do was to increase student success. We are ranked number one in the United States for our service to veterans by Military Times. We’re in the top 25 for social mobility — ranked by Washington Monthly. We are the top institution in Texas for degrees awarded to African-American students at the bachelor’s, and master’s levels, as well as being the top [university] for Masters degrees awarded to minorities in Texas.  Again these are things that talk about impact, and when we talk about what does a university do, it’s not just that a university achieves rankings, which are obviously important. But it’s also how do you impact society? How do serve the mission? As an urban serving institution, our mission is to increase educational equity and excellence. What we really were able to do over a very short period of time was to not only continue the evolution of UT Arlington from a commuter school to a largely residential campus, but we also kept it open for students from all over the metroplex. So we didn’t say that everyone has to stay on campus. What we said was if you’d like to stay on campus, we’ll make it possible. And our rooms are full. But we also said, for those who want to stay at home, for those who want to stay across the street, we are open for you. And that led to the campus having a very active life, being engaged with our students. It also led to significant engagement with the corporate community and the nonprofit community around us. One of the keys for institutions today, especially in urban areas, is that we cannot just be situated in a city. We have to become part of the city. Our goal with that in mind, set in the strategic plan, was to help enable a sustainable mega city. And so we recognized very early on as a university that we were in the midst of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation. Being a university we needed to plan for how this university could positively impact the mega city in the making, and so our entire university was focused on that — that as the population increased, how would we change in order to serve that population? And we picked four specific areas: health and the human condition, sustainable urban communities, global environmental impact and data-driven discovery. Because of that we were able to achieve all these other things that really make a lot of impact, sometimes far more than just the research impact.

AB: You talked about increasing Hispanic enrollment and enrollment of veterans. Texas is a majority-minority state; it also has a huge military and vet population…

Vistasp Karbhari: So again it’s trying to see when you have an institution of higher education, let’s see how do we evolve the institution of higher education to meet the growing needs of the population around you? So in today’s world it’s not enough to be just an institution of higher education, you’ve got to be an institution of higher education that impacts the evolution of the ecosystem around. And that’s one of the things that we were very successful in doing for the military and for veterans and were recognized for it as a national leader.

AB: You’ve been credited with building infrastructure during your tenure as president. Something like $650 million was spent in upgrading infrastructure. Can you talk to us about that?

Vistasp Karbhari: One of the things you have to look at with a university is that you have to balance technology and infrastructure. A lot of people think of it as just building buildings, and definitely you can build buildings. But one of the things that we did was to build buildings where they were needed, looking towards the future and simultaneously increase the use of technology, so that we were not constrained by the needs of geographical co-location. I’ll come back to that because I think it’s a point that’s important to keep in mind as we go forward. But one of the things we did was to build a new building for science and engineering innovation. But it was designed by the faculty and built to be a shared space so that we could truly have interdisciplinary research going on. We talk about the fact that new discoveries, the changes and transformations that we have in technology, in science, and in engineering are going to be at the intersections of disciplines. And that’s absolutely true. The challenge is that, at most institutions, every discipline is in its own building, in its own room, and so the interaction that is so very important around the coffee machine, as you walk in the corridors, that does not increase. And the science and engineering innovation research facility that was built was primarily focused on that; to make sure that we could have scientists, engineers, people who came from social work, from science, from engineering, from nursing were all in the same environment, working on things together. So rather than define spaces as being individual labs, they were shared laboratories, with the faculty offices, on the corners of the labs with students in between, and you had this lab that had different faculty working on the same topic. Just think of the fact that if you had an interdisciplinary group working in cancer research, and you had someone from biology, someone from biochemistry, someone from bioengineering, and someone from nursing, all together. The brain power over there, and the ability to be able to make that transformational leap is substantial. And that was one of the goals. And it really helped us in terms of accelerating the work that we’re doing, whether in terms of cancer research, or in health disparities, or in the area of rehabilitation, or in a range of other areas that were in health sciences. We also increased the amount of student services. We had increased our student population significantly. But the Student Center was only on one part of the campus. [It] was a single building that had been extended through the years. We built another Student Center on the west side of campus. The intent of this was not just to be a Student Center but to be an area where students could come together. So the first floor was actually a place for students to eat; the second floor was [for] students to meet and to have rooms where they could work together, with technology, so that we could again increase that social interaction [and] engagement, but also the way that they learn through extracurricular activities outside the classroom, which are often as important, if not more important than what you do within the classroom. Because of the need for student housing, there was another student housing project that was built right next to the Student Center — trying to again bring housing into the central part of campus and integrate within the learning communities, if you will. We also extended the old student center and refurbished it, as well as added a new building for technology that has just been completed, where we could have the I.T. group and also we could have a significant space for our faculty to interact. We talk about the importance of faculty, but we forget that faculty also need to be able to interact with each other. So we have the entire first floor where faculty can actually interact with each other; they can actually work with each other, engage with learning new methodologies; they can be instructed by our experts in other areas as well. And that increases the richness of education.

While we were doing all this, we had also kept in mind, even prior to Covid, that in order to reach a student population, we needed to take education to them — rather than forcing everyone to come to the university. A lot of focus was spent on how we use digital means and digital mechanisms to go much further. So we actually had a very large online population much before it became the norm by Covid, which forced everyone to do it. We had some very innovative faculty, who over the last five to seven years, have done some significant work in online education, ensuring that it was more than a talking head, and was truly interactive. It’s adaptive; it immerses the students in learning. I wanted to make that point because a lot of people think that for an institution, you need buildings — and you definitely need buildings — but you also need to be able to now project the university to a student anywhere, anytime. Because otherwise we’re still being restricted by the constraints that we had in the 19th and the 20th centuries. So we have to do both those things – buildings and technology. And when we build these new facilities, we have to keep in mind that technology must become part of it; so that we can truly have a connected campus, where the campus now is not defined physically, but it’s defined in terms of the concept. What is it that we’re trying to provide for our students, for society, and the social compact that we have with society around us?

AB: In other words, infrastructure is not just a bunch of buildings?

Vistasp Karbhari: You’re absolutely correct. Previously we thought about infrastructure as being bricks and mortar. And that’s still a very important part of infrastructure. But bricks and mortar, by itself, is not enough. We’ve got to think of infrastructure in two ways. More and more we are creating education deserts because we think about infrastructure only from our end. We have to think about infrastructure also from the end of the receiver. Does a student have Wi-Fi where they are? Does a student have a dedicated computer? This is one of the things that so many institutions of higher education found out through the Covid pandemic. We should have known before that students very often have a computer but it is shared with the rest of their family. They may have a computer in a very noisy place. We shouldn’t expect them to sit outside Starbucks, or outside a Wal-Mart, in order to get their Wi-Fi and be in a quiet place. We have to think about those things. So when we talk about infrastructure, it’s Wi-Fi, but it’s also all these other things that allow learning to take place 24/7, as and when the student needs it. So we’re changing the mode, if you will, that was defined by the time at which a student came to the university, both a geographical and time-based, to something where a student is now defined in a much broader context. It’s not just the 18- to 24-year-old. If any person who wants knowledge at any point in time, we should be able to do that through the university.

AB: You also increased UT-Arlington’s international presence during your tenure. For instance, you went to Bangladesh, India, China and the Middle East. Talk about the programs you started in India.

Vistasp Karbhari: If you look at a university today, because of digitization and because of the digital mechanisms it is interconnected. And we’ve always talked about students coming to the US, and that’s a great part of the United States. The best and the brightest from across the world come to the US and add to the richness of our society. But we also have the ability now to take the wonderful brand of US education, which is truly one of the best in the world, and make it available for enhancing the education in other countries, as well as creating true partnerships. Some of the things that we were able to do both in India and in Bangladesh was not just be able to go there to attract students to come here, but to have partnerships with institutions of higher education, so that we have more than just the exchange of faculty. Don’t get me wrong — that’s very important. But beyond the exchange of faculty and of students, it’s partnering in programs. How do we make sure that some of the programs that we have over here are made available to them? How do we make sure that we can actually have a research that is being done jointly, not just on a platform that is in the US, but a platform that is somewhere else? Let’s take Bangladesh as an example —and India is no different — I’m coming to Bangladesh just because of the more recent agreement that was signed with them at the level of the country, rather than a level of an individual institution. There are some tremendous challenges that are there in countries like India and Bangladesh. Let’s take floods, for example, or healthcare, and we have some tremendous faculty in the United States working on those topics. But if you look at them, the living lab is not here. It’s in Bangladesh, or it’s in India. The [program enables] our faculty to work with students over there, while making sure that those students are getting advanced knowledge that can then be used in those institutions. We have a lot of faculty in India and Bangladesh who do not have a Ph.D., but they’re already within an educational institution. Our intent was how do we build intellectual human capital within Bangladesh, or India, so that they can get their Ph.D.s working on topics that are relevant to them? Working with our faculty, but not having to spend all the time in the United States, because that is depriving the institution of a person that’s very important to the institution. It’s fine to say take four years off do your Ph.D. and come back right, but during the four years what does the institution do? So part of that agreement was that we would do joint research. Our faculty would go there; their students would come here. But the research would be done within that location, so that they could then not only improve what was going on in the environment there, but apply it back to their classes and improve the level of higher education over there.

AB: In a sense it’s also capacity-building…

Vistasp Karbhari: It’s tremendous capacity building, which is what we should be doing. We always talk about this one-way flow. And then we hope that people go back at some point. We’re now taking intentional steps for capacity building in those locations. Previously what we talked about is brain drain. It was one way. Now what we’re doing is truly capacity-building. We are engaging, we are making sure that there is a true partnership. Take the point of what we did in Jordan. Jordan had a tremendous need for nursing education. It also had great need in civil infrastructure and wanted to work with us in that discipline as well. So one of our faculty, Ali Abolmaali, who is the chair of civil engineering, helped them build a large-scale testing facility at the Royal Hashemite University of Jordan. This ensured that they didn’t have to do all their research at UTA. They could actually do it themselves and they were building an infrastructure that is now one of the best in that entire region. In nursing, working with the Royal Nursing Council, we were able to ensure that they could not only get degrees from us, but we also we made it possible for their faculty to come to the United States to be at the University of Texas at Arlington, spend a few months with our faculty, and then go back and teach. Again, it was capacity-building, not just bring the best here but how do you take it back there. And obviously, while we’re doing it, we’re learning as well right and we’re gaining significantly. We’ve been able to do that in China and Taiwan. Our College of Engineering and College of Business Administration actually have degrees that are taught there, by our faculty and by their faculty, as a partnership. It is one of the top programs in the nation now.

AB: When one student comes here from India, or Bangladesh only they and their families benefit. When universities go there, it is an investment in those countries that will benefit more people.

Vistasp Karbhari: That’s something that I think needs to be done more and more. We need to recognize that, as leaders in education, the doors of opportunity that we have to open are global and we have the ability to do it now. Fifty years ago, the only way you could do it was fly back and forth. Right now, because of technology, we can actually do so much more in a partnership. You do have short trips that are very important, but things can go on between those and you can actually capacity-build within those locations, and suddenly accelerate education in those areas. So our impact is now global and that is very important.

AB: Some of the highly successful initiatives like community colleges are not there in India…

Vistasp Karbhari: One of the things that we’ve started doing in India, and we had a couple of agreements to start doing that, was to work with some universities in India, where they would provide the first two years of education, following a similar a pattern to the US. We would provide all the structure and everything else, but they do it themselves. Students could then complete two years in India and then come here. I think it’s very important as we look to the future. You’re absolutely correct. In countries like India, there’s a great need for talent development and community colleges in the US do this so very well. Not everyone has to get a four-year degree, but everyone needs the development of talent and skills and at universities we need to do much more of both. I think in places like India, we need to do far more in being able to do that now.

AB: You also had a stint at University of Alabama in Huntsville. Tell us about your academic journey prior to UT Arlington.

Vistasp Karbhari: I started my academic career at the University of Delaware. I came there to do a Ph.D. in the area of composite materials, which was a tremendous experience because it was one of the first national science foundation centers of excellence that actually had, a tremendous set of university-industry-government collaborations. So while a Ph.D. student was doing fundamental research, they were also seeing the impact of that research. I was working with engineers from Ford and from Lockheed Martin, and others who came from many international venues, to spend time at the University of Delaware. I stayed on there as a faculty member for five years, and then got recruited to the University of California San Diego, where I spent about 13 years of my career, working in the area of composite materials and in the area of the application of composite materials to civil infrastructure. I’m one of the few that has a research impact that ranges from biomaterials for dental applications to the use of composites for aircraft and for ships, and then also in civil infrastructure. After being at the University of California San Diego for about 13 years, which was a tremendous academic experience growing as a faculty member and as a researcher, I was recruited to the University of Alabama at Huntsville to help them build a university that was already extremely good and had a few opportunities that had not been built on as much. It is actually opposite to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army R&D labs at Redstone Arsenal. The opportunity for the university was how do we get closer partnerships with these, not just in terms of research, but also in terms of student engagement and in terms of faculty engagement? Just think of the opportunity, if you have one of the major NASA centers that’s on the other side of the road, or if you have the R&D labs for the U.S. army that has some of the best scientists and engineers in the world on the opposite side of the road, if you have a space sciences division at NASA which is the best if you will and you have faculty that are at the university that are the best. But they need to work together. So it was a tremendous opportunity to do that and, for me, very fulfilling because a lot of the areas were actually my areas of research. Although I didn’t get to do the research myself, I was actually able to help other faculty and I was able to make it possible for other faculty to increase their opportunities. The University of Alabama in Huntsville also went from a Carnegie R2 to an R1 institution. We were actually able to attract some of the top faculty from across the world to join us, and we had a unique arrangement even with the Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee, a few hours away. We were at that point in time and I think still one of the only universities that had an Oak Ridge office on our campus so that people from Oak Ridge were able to come and join with our faculty to enhance innovation and transformation.

AB: You also must have picked up an interest in football, Alabama being a football powerhouse.

Vistasp Karbhari: I definitely picked up an interest in football while at Alabama. But the nice thing was the University of Delaware had a very good football team so I got introduced to American football as a graduate student.

AB: You are an academic who has written hundreds of articles and published in dozens of journals. If you get another chance to be part of a university administration, will you take it up?

Vistasp Karbhari: I think that’s a very valid question, and the answer is absolutely. If I got the right opportunity to make an impact and to make a difference, I would definitely do it. And there’s a reason why I’ve been very fortunate through my career, I’ve had some wonderful graduate students and undergraduate students. I’ve had some great mentors and my success as an academic has been because of that. They’ve enabled me to do some wonderful work and they’ve given me great experiences. If you look at my papers, a lot of them are written with undergraduate students and graduate students. And they do the hard work. But hopefully, I provided the guidance and the thought leadership that allowed them to succeed. And some of them now are in academia and in the corporate world, making names for themselves, which is truly rewarding to see. But I think more and more we need leaders in academia who are actually from academia but have also learned about business principles and have learned about engaging with the outside world. So I think the background that I bring in being a successful academic and a researcher actually helps me to understand academia a lot more in tackling some of the difficult topics that we need to look at today. Academia must evolve with the rest of the world. The world has evolved at a tremendous rate and it’s been accelerated through Covid. We are using more automation, more AI. But academia has to keep up as well. We have to be able to reach out to students where they are, instead of courting them to come to us. We have to engage in new partnerships. And I think that background that I bring, plus the administrative experience, gives me an advantage — the advantage of having someone who can spread across both areas. So, yes, if there was an opportunity that was the right one, that allowed me to have a greater impact on student education writ large, capacity-building, and being able to innovate absolutely I would look forward to it.

READ MORE:

The Top 10 Indian American educators in US universities (July 17, 2014)

A flood of Indian-born leaders at US universities (March 22, 2013)

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