Travel grant to support Mason faculty research in India

This story was originally published in the February 23 issue of Fourth Estate.

Mason’s Office of Global Strategy is looking at proposals for a grant that will send a university faculty member to India in the spring 2015 semester.

The grant is part of a faculty exchange program Mason organized with the Foundation for Liberal and Management Education, a private college in Pune, India. The selected faculty member will visit FLAME for two weeks, and in return, Mason will invite a professor from FLAME to northern Virginia.

“Any exchange program between two institutions is the beginning of an association and partnership, which provides to faculty members experience and exposure of two different cultures of academic institutions,” said Indira J. Parikh, co-founder and president of FLAME, via e-mail. “It creates spaces for sharing and learning about research. Faculty exchange provides exposure to different innovative ideas of teaching.”

The program was arranged by the India Advisory Committee, a group of faculty from various departments at Mason that creates initiatives to promote university interest in India.

“One of the points that George Mason has identified as part of its mission statement is that we are a global community and a global university and you can’t do that if you’re not engaging with the rest of the world,” said Robert DeCaroli, chair of the India Advisory Committee and associate art history professor who specializes in South Asia. “So in targeted ways, they’ve made decisions to try and allocate resources in terms of building connections with various parts of the world.”

India is just one region the Global Office has designated as an area of interest. Mason also has groups focused on China, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America.

In addition to organizing events such as speaking engagements and art series, the committee strives to develop long-term connections to Indian institutions and open up opportunities for students and faculty in India.

“We think of this initial FLAME exchange as a kind of seed grant, meaning we’re hoping we plant something that will grow and bear fruit in the future,” DeCaroli said. “The hope is that [the faculty members] find areas of common interest, ways to conduct research and work together, and from that, we’re hoping eventually we can include students in the process.”

While at FLAME, the chosen faculty member will conduct workshops and seminars in his or her field. This will allow the individual to interact with students, explore research possibilities and establish academic and professional networks, theoretically paving the way for future collaborations.

The grant consists of $2,500 to cover travel and food expenses. FLAME is responsible for providing residential support. When the FLAME professor visits Mason, the financial obligations will be switched.

The possibility of a faculty exchange between the universities arose when FLAME professor Himanshoo Bhatt visited Mason around two years ago.

“George Mason University has the same breadth of disciplines as FLAME,” Parikh said. “Both institutions are desirous of being global players and share a common interest in emerging areas. Also, FLAME is a niche campus and George Mason is ideal for FLAME faculty to experience the university campus in the USA.”

On Mason’s side, the program was spearheaded by Susan Graziano, who recently left the project to become Director of Development for the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Her duties have been taken on by Richena Purnell-Sayle, the new executive assistant in the Global Office.

Through several email conversations, Mason and FLAME worked together to draft an official contract known as a memo of understanding.

“These are semi-legal agreements where we just write to say, George Mason University wants to partner with this institution and we’re going to work on the following things,” Purnell-Sayle said. “They had a very clear plan of what they wanted to pursue. They actually included details of what the faculty exchange would look like and what each partner would be offering.”

One member of the India Advisory Committee visited the FLAME campus in January 2014. Marion Deshmukh, a history professor studying German art and culture, serves on the committee due to her many contacts in India, including some who teach at FLAME.

“FLAME is a residential college just outside of Pune and it’s a beautiful campus,” Deshmukh said. “I spent the whole day with faculty and administrators and got a tour. I was quite impressed.”

Opened in 2007, FLAME emphasizes interdisciplinary education, offering courses in subjects ranging from business to performing arts, and encourages experiential learning. Deshmukh compared its approach to Mason’s New Century College.

“FLAME was in a position where not only were they very eager to work with us, which is something we were happy to see, but they modeled their education system on a kind of Western-style university,” DeCaroli said. “If American students are going there, that might be a comfortable setting that they can experience and explore. So because of the fields they were interested in, their commitment to working with us and the type of university they run, we thought all of those things would work well together.”

The grant proposals were read by a panel of five faculty members from the India Advisory Committee. Candidates were assessed based on a number of factors, most importantly the potential impact their research would have on Mason’s relationship with FLAME.

The two highest-ranking applications have been sent to FLAME for further evaluation.

“They were all very well-qualified,” Deshmukh said. “It’s just a question of what [FLAME] would like that faculty member to do.”

The final recipient is expected to be announced sometime next month.

In the meantime, the committee looks forward to expanding the number and diversity of opportunities for students looking to study abroad.

“Students are really turning their interest away from the more traditional, Western places like France and England and wanting to try something different,” Purnell-Sayle said. “FLAME was chosen with that in mind and as a place in India that’s still comfortable enough for our students to want to go and their parents to be willing to send them there.”

Illustration credit: Laura Baker