Don’t Forget South Asia

Harvard should dedicate resources to the modern study of this region

The flurry of curricular changes proposed by the Harvard College Curricular Review all share a recognition that, in today’s society, a basic understanding of global forces—international markets, developing regions, cultural and religious exchange—is a vital intellectual pursuit. This eye towards globalization has helped shape a proposal of general education that emphasizes world cultures and interdisciplinary study. In light of this focus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) should begin to address what has become one of its most serious deficiencies: the study of South Asia.

The study of modern South Asia—its politics, economics, culture, and history—has become a profoundly important academic endeavor, especially in light of the region’s growing influence in the international arena. However, Harvard has yet to put forth the effort to strengthen the study of South Asia. Despite encouraging rhetoric from the previous Mass. Hall administration and a consensus among students regarding the need for South Asian studies, little has been done to concretely improve this much-valued area of study. The administration must begin to address this deficiency if it means to provide the sort of global and relevant education toward which it aims.

Many of Harvard’s peer institutions have already made substantial investments in this field. And although the mere competition with comparable universities should not motivate Harvard’s action, the investment of each of these institutions certainly points to a broad recognition in the greater academic community that this region deserves our attention and study. That attention should take the form of broader course offerings, more grant money for research and study-abroad initiatives, an increase in the number tenured faculty, and the hiring of more visiting and non-tenured professors.

Currently, FAS offers roughly 15 courses that cover regional studies of South Asia, many of which fall under the auspices of the Core Curriculum. The only survey course focused exclusively on modern South Asia, Historial Study A-16, “The Making of Modern South Asia,” is a Core course. Languages do not fare much better: though the number of courses in South Asian languages stands at 69, the distribution favors ancient languages like Sanskrit, while contemporary spoken languages are often relegated to a few small language tutorials.

The current courses offerings in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies are concentrated heavily in the study of ancient language, and for those courses that begin to address regional study, focus lies in ancient India, with courses such as “History of South Asia to 1200 C.E.” and “Indian Philosophy.” Courses such as “Hindutva” delve into contemporary political issues, but such courses are the exception. While the department should not abandon its current strengths (that is, ancient languages and ancient studies), it would be negligent for it to simply ignore the need for scholarship on contemporary South Asia. Similar deficiencies lie in the availability of grants, research, and study abroad opportunities—all of which many Harvard students seek, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the South Asian Studies Initiative, an advocacy group at Harvard which aims to increase the size and scope of South Asian studies here.

Most striking is the dearth of faculty when compared to Harvard’s peer institutions, especially those in the Ivy League. Including non-tenured faculty members, FAS currently has a total of 17 professors under the aegis of what we could broadly call South Asian studies. Meanwhile, Yale boasts 55 such faculty, Cornell, 45, Columbia, 34, and the University of Pennsylvania, 41. Attracting a larger corps of committed faculty is a prerequisite for much of the functions of a flourishing department: more courses, more research, and more grants.

In an ideal world, the Faculty would have the resources to prioritize an integral but underdeveloped field, but we recognize that it must act within its own financial constraints. Hiring a new group of tenured faculty alone costs tens of millions of dollars. Yet, to leave South Asian studies so neglected is to disregard an essential area of academic inquiry. As such, the University should at least begin the process of development with some “seed money” to demonstrate concrete commitment to the development of South Asian studies. This seed money can provide enough to kick-start intermediate measures—the hiring of visiting professors, a certificate or secondary field program, and an increase in grant and research opportunities. Importantly, such a measure would also demonstrate Harvard’s commitment to the field to potential donors.

Once the Faculty commits its resources, the Sanskrit and Indian Studies department (which, incidentally, will benefit from a new name consistent with other regional departments, such as “South Asian Languages and Cultures”) must draw on alumni resources to fund it. (This is how other regional departments at Harvard have successfully grown.) Former University President Lawrence H. Summers was committed to such fundraising efforts, as exemplified by his organizing an alumni conference in Mumbai last year. Yet, the conference failed to raise much support, partially because donors rescinded their offers in light of Summers’ departure. (At least one major donor expressed such sentiment outwardly to the South Asian Studies Initiative.) Despite initial setbacks with alumni funding, we encourage the Faculty, Interim President Derek C. Bok, and the next president to reassure donors by demonstrating commitment to South Asian Studies through the provision of initial seed money. Moreover, it is imperative that the current and future University presidents continue with aggressive fundraising efforts.

That financial constraints exist is an undeniable reality, but to ignore the development of this regional study is unacceptable—especially for a University that seeks to redirect its undergraduate curriculum toward a more global perspective. Such perspective cannot be achieved without an eye towards South Asia, which as Summers described at an October 2003 conference, is “enormously important to the future of the world and of the United States, and yet, the attention that is paid in American media and academic life is substantially less than is paid to East Asia. There is an enormous need for us to enhance our understanding of contemporary South Asia, and the development of our study of the region will be a major priority in the years ahead.” Despite Summers’ departure, we ask the Faculty, as well as Harvard’s alumni, to heed his call and prioritize the modern study of this field and this region.