A Free Spirited Educationist

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  •  Dec 12, 2013
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Dr Rajan Saxena chose to break free and become the free flame of higher education

It is hard to imagine Dr Rajan Saxena, Vice Chancellor of NMIMS University, in any other avatar, least of all that of a policeman. Its surprising then that this don, at one point in his childhood, aspired to be a superintendent of police. Saxenas mother hailed from a family of bureaucrats, and it was her hearts desire that her son follow the family tradition. She played a pivotal role in his life. She impressed upon him early the benefits of a secure government job. Visits to his maternal family showed Saxena just how cushy and respectable the life of an Indian civil servant can be.

But Saxenas mother ended up influencing him more profoundly than even she thought. She was a teacher at the prestigious Cambridge School in Delhi, where Saxena studied. The final call that Saxena took on his career choice had this subtle stimulus working upon it.

A Free Spirited Educationist

Growing up in the national capital, Saxena had access to fine educationists who shaped his thinking and influenced his choice of career. Foremost among these figures was Professor Devdutt, Saxenas coach for the civil services examinations. While preparing the young man, he put forth a question that forced Saxena to introspect and changed his life plan.

What would you like to be known as? was the query, and the professor listed a few possible answers to set Saxena thinking: You could become known for your thought leadership, for influencing the actions of others, or for being a person who functions according to the whims and fancies of another.

The last of these options gripped young Saxenas attention. His teacher went on to elucidate: On the one hand, you could be a firefly, free to fly about in the forest yet boasting of merely a speck of light. On the other hand, you could be a blinding 1000W bulb that switches on (and off ) at the behest of a controller, he explained. No message could have been more timely or relevant. In a moment of awakening, Saxena realised his true calling lay in education and not in the bureaucracy. Nothing can replace the freedom to make yourown decisions, he says, reflecting on that momentous choice.

Another strong influence was the Cambridge School Principal who was also Saxenas English teacher. The way he taught left a huge impact; he encouraged a spirit of enquiry and instilled in me the value of respect. The fact that he was not overly concerned with marks but wanted students to grow into good human beings also went a long way in endearing him to me, shares the vice chancellor.

This wisdom helped Saxena learn to see the bigger picture. When as a forlorn teenager he approached the principal for advice after scoring low in the mathematics examination in his school leaving year, he was asked, Why bother about it? Is mathematics going to make your life? An incredulous Saxena could not believe what he had heard.

I thought he was kidding. But no, the principal had meant every word he had said and advised his protg to drop the one subject he had not fared well in and play to his strengths in his future studies. That is precisely what Saxena ended up doing.

Politics and More

College life was a lark, says Saxena, I enjoyed every moment of it and avidly participated in campus politics. During those busy years at the Shri Ram College of Commerce he met his first mentor, Professor YK Bhushan, a gentleman who continues to inspire Saxena. When as a student leader he lost the coveted presidency of the students union after holding the position for some time, it was Professor Bhushan who stepped in playing the role of Speaker of the House, and taught him the importance of getting along with his opponents.

For all the interest in politics during his student life Saxena was quick to conclude that he would not teach for long in Delhi University, where he picked up his first assignment after his masters. There was too much politics in the University, is his frank observation.

Pursuing a doctorate at the Delhi School of Economics was his next priority. Saxena thoroughly enjoyed the subjects, to add to which, the facilities were excellent and he had the opportunity to interact with luminaries like Dr Manmohan Singh, he says.

Around this time, his life took a turn on the personal front. Saxena got married to Preeti, a doctor from a family of educators. Their daughter Shruti teaches at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in the USA, and son Shishir, is studying Indian hilosophy and religion in Benaras.

Getting the Word Out

Saxena headed to XLRI Jamshedpur in 1980, and was offered temporary assignments at IIM Calcutta and the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) in addition to the regular teaching position at XLRI. At the ASCI, he came in close contact with Dr Dharni Prasad Sinha, then Director of the Management Development Division. Sinha had been selected Director Designate of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavans fledgling SP Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR), one of the first few private management schools to be affiliated to Bombay University. In 1982, he invited Saxena to relocate to Mumbai to help shape the new institute.

The idea seemed exciting. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had laid the foundation stone of the institute, which suggested the board had big things planned for SPJIMR. Also, by then I had realised there was no opportunity for me to grow in Jamshedpur, which was primarily an industrial base. Major brands were headquartered in Kolkata or Mumbai, and the latter was undisputedly the Mecca of marketing in the country, Saxena reminisces.

This invitation marked a turnaround in Saxenas career as an academician. He no longer needed to look out for better prospects. Golden opportunities came to him on a platter and he was sought out by boards of leading management schools to add value to their education programmes. Word had got around that he was committed to upholding excellent teaching standards. Word of mouth publicity is the best sort, as they say, and who would know that better than a seasoned professor and consultant and researcher of marketing.

So Saxena moved West, only to find that Sinha had changed his mind about joining SPJIMR, not that it made any difference to his rising career trajectory. Dr Ram Tarneja, managing director of Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd and chairman of the Managing Committee of SPJIMR at this time and he went on to play a significant role in his life. In 1984, when his book in International Marketing was published, Bombay University offered Saxena the position of Professor of Marketing at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies. In the summer of that year, Professor Bhushan, now director of the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) invited Saxena to be dean and the first and youngest occupant of the Parle-sponsored Thums Up Chair in Marketing at NMIMS.

Saxena was excited to accept this offer, because he saw the opportunity to work with the brand. Remembering some exciting projects he steered, he says, Parle had just launched Thumbs Up and Maaza Mango. I had done a lot of brand positioning and brand-building work for the company, and those campaigns had gone down very well.

Shifting Gears

Saxenas prospects continued to brighten. In the late eighties, he had received feelers from one of the IIMs but rejected the idea of joining outright. My view was that the best management minds in the country do not need to be part of the IIMs. I believed that nothing can hold back a man with the passion to excel.

The suggestion came up again at a meeting of heads of management education in Bhutan in 1998. This time, it was followed by some action a nomination committee proposed his name for the directorship of one of the IIMs. Saxena learnt of this the day he received a surprise call for his CV.

He went along with things but someone else was selected instead after the interview. The matter did not end there. Two months later, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Human Resources called and asked him to consider taking up the directorship of IIM Indore.

Saxena weighed his options and finally asked to see the campus condition in Indore before making a final decision, I was in two minds about joining until an industrialist friend said, Sometimes in life you should do things for the nation, not yourself, he recounts. So Saxena took up the new assignment and gave it his best shot, but things didnt match up with his expectations. I left after serving one term.

In September 2003, Saxena joined the ICFAI Business School in Gurgaon, as Director and Senior Professor. Two years on, he was back at the SPJIMR, this time as Director, and in 2007, he rejoined NMIMS, now a deemed university, as Distinguished Professor and Senior Advisor to the Chancellor. It was a matter of time before he was invited to take over the top job. It happened in 2009.

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