Columbia & Lee Bollinger vs. UPenn & Amy Gutmann – The Modi Saga

Rarely does an American University become the topic of vehement debate on India’s raucous television networks. That dubious distinction was earned by the University of Pennsylvania (“UPenn”) and its business school Wharton. Wharton runs an annual India Forum that until this year was very well respected and attended. The Forum had extended an invitation to Honorable Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat. Mr. Modi planned to speak via a Video Conference.

 Mr. Modi has been described as a polarizing figure in Indian politics. Some UPenn professors, students & alumni protested. So Wharton. reportedly under instructions from UPenn President Dr. Amy Gutmann, revoked the invitation. This created a backlash in India and among Indian-Americans and some speakers cancelled their participation in the conference.


1. Standards & Ethics – Columbia vs. UPenn

In their article about the UPenn decision, the Hindustan Times wrote:

  • “So, when the matter reached Gutmann’s office, the university leadership stepped in to diffuse what it saw as a potentially explosive situation, the sources said.”
  • ““Make no mistake, the move to not have Modi was a result of UPenn, not Wharton,” a senior Wharton official said, pointing to the fact that not a single Wharton faculty member had signed the petition demanding that the Gujarat CM’s speech be scrapped.”

This decision reminded us of a much more explosive situation, a situation far more emotional not merely to a part of a academic body but to the largest city in America. New York City is also the largest Jewish city in the world and no one creates more raw emotional outrage in New York than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran.

Back in 2007, the decision to invite President Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University created severe emotional backlash in New York City. It would have been easy for Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia, to revoke that invitation. Every newspaper in NYC and every major media organization in America would have supported or at least understood the need for such revocation.

But Mr. Bollinger stood firm and welcomed President Ahmadinejad’s participation in the following words:

  • “This day on our campus is defined by various forms of dialog, intellectual debate in a remarkable student-sponsored forum….For those of us in this auditorium, our responsibility today is to listen and offer questions in an atmosphere of civility and restraint. As you know, the rules of university conduct do not allow us to disrupt or limit the free exchange of ideas for that would undermine the core values of our institution and indeed of our society.” (emphasis ours).

Let us be clear. There is no comparison whatsoever between the words & actions of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Modi. Mr. Ahmadinejad has threatened at various domestic and international venues to “wipe Israel” from the Middle East. Under his Presidency, Iran brutally shut down the “green revolution” that sprang up after his last election. Ahmadinejad is probably the single most detested figure in New York. 

In contrast, Mr. Modi is the most successful of India’s Chief Ministers; his state has been the fastest growing in India and he is praised in very high terms by respected CEOs of Indian businesses. The major complaint against Mr. Modi is the behavior of his government in the 2002 riots. Mr. Modi’s personal involvement was examined by a special investigation team (SIT) of the fiercely independent & activist Supreme Court of India. This SIT absolved Mr. Modi of any wrongdoing.

This goes to show that the decision before Columbia’s President Bollinger was far more serious, emotional and traumatic than the relatively trivial decision before UPenn’s Amy Gutmann. Despite the intense pressures he faced, Columbia’s Bollinger stood courageously for “free exchange of ideas” that he considered to the core values of Columbia University. In contrast, UPenn’s Gutmann succumbed to minor pressure and resorted to cowardice. She felt it was more important to stifle potential protest than uphold the standards of “intellectual debate” and “free exchange of ideas” at UPenn.

The firm decision to let President Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia confirmed and raised the esteem in which Columbia University is held around the world. In contrast, the gutless decision to revoke Chief Minister Modi’s invitation has shown the world that UPenn does not belong in the tier of Columbia, Harvard, MIT & Princeton.

2. A smaller but revealing action against “free exchange of ideas” by Wharton

We were invited by Knowledge@Wharton in April 2012 to participate in a podcast discussion on corporate ethics with Dr. Mauro Guillen, Director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute at Wharton. In this pleasant and cordial discussion, we raised some questions about the ethics practiced by UPenn:

  • We asked about the ethics involved in UPenn charging approx. $60,000 in annual tuition fees without helping its students find jobs;
  • We also pointed out that UPenn students in engineering, science and business found more jobs with higher salaries than graduates of English, literature and humanities in general. Then we asked about the ethics involved in charging the same tuition fees to these two unequally situated student groups.
  • We also raised questions whether UPenn adequately discloses the job market to prospective students during their beautiful and enticing recruiting presentations.

It turned out to be a real exchange of views. In fact, the technician who recorded the discussion told us it was among the most interesting discussions he had heard. The Knowledge@Wharton editor told us he was very happy with the discussion and took us to a nice lunch on campus. Our discussion with Professor Guillen will be edited and published on Knowledge@Wharton website as a podcast, he told us.

A couple of weeks later, we asked about the status and received the following email from the editor:

  • “The podcast has not yet been published because it is still being edited, but I shall send you the link as soon as it runs….will be in touch soon.”

Well, it has been nearly 11 months since our
taped discussion on April 2, 2012. But still no word of when this podcast will be published. Clearly, a discussion about ethics of tuition fees charged by UPenn was not something that fit within “intellectual debate” or “free exchange of ideas” practiced at UPenn.

If our little discussion was muzzled by Wharton-UPenn, can we really expect Amy Gutmann, UPenn’s President, to support free exchange of ideas with Mr. Narendra Modi? That requires courage and dedication to intellectual debate, something obviously foreign to the character of Ms. Gutmann and of UPenn.

3. Religious Bias at Wharton?

We do wonder whether Mr. Modi would have received different treatment had he been of any other religion but Hindu. This is not an idle comment but based on Wharton’s history and our discussions.

We remind readers that Knowledge@Wharton had published a nasty article with anti-Hindu rhetoric titled Business vs. Ethics: The India Tradeoff? in January 2012. This article was written by four Wharton students under the leadership of the above-mentioned Professor Mauro Guillen, Director of the Lauder Institute. As we wrote in response:

  • “The
    basic premise of the Wharton article is that there are two sets of
    ethics, “Western Ethics” and Indian Ethics. The article sends the
    message that there is a structural, innate difference between these two
    sets of “ethics”….The authors then make an intellectual and
    metaphysical jump to argue that the “innate difference” between Western
    & Indian ethics derives from Indian religious texts like Ramayan
    & MahaBharat and from Indian cultural contexts….”

During our visit to Wharton, the student authors of
the defamatory Wharton article found excuses to not meet with us and Prof. Guillen, the Director of the students,
only spoke in generalities with us. This is another example of the standards of “free expression of ideas” practiced by Wharton & UPenn.

Based on what we know and felt then, we are convinced that the manufactured thesis against Indian Ethics and Indian Religious texts was published by Wharton only because it was anti-Hindu. Such a thesis would NEVER have been published by Wharton had it so defamed Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim texts.

This Wharton history makes us wonder whether President Amy Gutmann of UPenn would have revoked a similar invitation extended to a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or Muslim political leader?

  • Does any one think UPenn would have so treated President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka despite claims of atrocities against Tamils?
  • Does any one believe Amy Gutmann would have revoked invitations to Pervez Musharraf, Asif Zardari or Ashfaq Kiyani of Pakistan despite the brutal cleansing of Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims and now weekly massacres of Shia Muslims in Pakistan?
  • Does any one think UPenn would have had the guts to revoke an invitation to any Israeli minister despite UN’s allegations of human rights crimes in the Gaza strip?

Of course not.

4. One Reason why Indians are treated in the UPenn manner

We may annoy or anger many readers, but in our opinion, the larger portion of the blame for the Wharton-UPenn decision falls on all Indians, especially on the global Hindu diaspora. Let us explain why.

Every successful society unites when its people are attacked by a foreign entity. America is more polarized today than ever. Democrats despise and even hate Republicans & vice versa. But both parties and all Americans will unite if any Republican leader is treated with contempt in any foreign country.

This is just as true of Iran, a much smaller, weaker country than India. There is tremendous infighting in today’s Iran. Recently, Speaker Ali Larijani physically evicted President Ahmadinejad from the Iranian Parliament in the middle of the latter’s speech. That is like House Speaker Boehner evicting President Obama in the middle of an address to the Congress. But the groups within Iran always come together when an Iranian leader is treated with contempt in a foreign country. 

In contrast, groups in Indian society always run to a foreign entity for help against other Indian groups. In India, an affirmation or condemnation of an Indian leader by a European or American entity is considered a great win or loss in the intra-Indian rivalry. Indians do not have any collective self-respect and they never feel any collective shame when Indians are treated with contempt in other countries.

Look at how two prominent keynote speakers at the upcoming Wharton Conference, Montek Singh Ahluwalia & Milind Deora, reacted to the treatment of Narendra Modi by UPenn. Mr. Ahluwalia is Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission of India. He is a career bureaucrat who serves the Government of India in a non-political role. He role requires him to work with every state in India and with every political party to improve the conditions in Indian society. Milind Deora is Minister of State for IT & Communciations in India’s central government. Again, he is supposed to represent all of India and not merely his political party.

How on earth can these two “Indian” officials attend the Wharton Conference after the ejection of their colleague, a Chief Minister of Gujarat? Their counterparts in American Government would not attend a similar conference in any other country after a similar ejection of a Republican leader.

Ahluwalia & Deora are behaving exactly as their ancestors behaved in the past several centuries. In 1750s, different factions in Bengal ran to British Robert Clive for help against their ruler. Clive helped them and won the Battle of Plessey, a battle that began the conquest of India by a private British company. Before that, Indian kings used to run to Turko-Afghan & Mughal rulers for help against their neighboring kings. Today, Ahluwalia, Deora and the entire anti-Modi faction are doing exactly the same thing.

UPenn never considered Narendra Modi as an Indian leader. They knew that their preferred Indians like Ahluwalia, Deora and the numerous panel leaders would not protest as Indians but welcome UPenn’s decision as members of partisan factions. Read what a UPenn administrator said to Hindustan Times:

  • “There’s always a reluctance  — rightly so – to be seen as getting involved in internal political spats of other countries, and it’s even more so with India, given how critical the country is for us,” an administrator at the university said, requesting anonymity.

Doesn’t this show UPenn understands Indians? Doesn’t this show that UPenn knew Ahluwalia, Deora and other invitees would react as partisan squabblers and not as Indians?

Yes it does. And that is why President Gutmann of UPenn contemptuously tossed out Narendra Modi from the Wharton Conference. 


5. The Hindu Mindset & Behavior 

There is another reason why UPenn would never treat a Christian, Jewish or Muslim leader, the way they treated Narendra Modi.

  • Christians have been predominant in the world for the past 5-6 centuries. They have learned how to fight abuse against Christians.
  • Jews remained meek and defenseless for centuries until they woke up after the Nazi holocaust. Today, Israel and the global Jewish groups don’t wait to be attacked or abused. They engage in pre-emptive military, economic, academic and social ways to defuse and stop potential attacks on Jews regardless of their internal political fights.
  • Muslims began organizing themselves during the Iraq war and today, no American University will treat a Muslim leader the way UPenn treated Narendra Modi.

Global Hindus brag about being a billion in number. But they forget that even a trillion sheep get no respect. Hindus remain inward looking, focused only on their own families. This is how Hindus survived under literally 1,000 years of Muslim & Christian rule. Like pre-Israel Jews, Hindus have survived and succeeded individually or in narrow trade-focused communities. And like pre-Israel Jews, Hindus are always afraid to speak up for their religion, deeply afraid of consequences of such uppity behavior.

UPenn understands this Hindu mindset very well. They knew that Hindus would never be able to mount an effective protest. In their calculations, throwing out Narendra Modi posed lower risk than letting him speak. This is why UPenn characterized Chief Minister Modi as a Hindu leader and tossed him out.

6. Can Indians React Effectively?

Indians know how to react emotionally and stridently. Indian TV Media erupted in emotional tirades and angry hot discussions. Indian & American newspapers featured opinions about the Wharton action. This stuff simply lets out steam. The emotional energy dissipates quickly. Indians never come together in a serious manner to wage a smart tireless campaign. So the only result they get is a sense of defeat.

What could Indians do to punish UPenn? What could the Global Hindu Diaspora do to ensure this doesn’t repeat
either in UPenn-Wharton or in another University? Below are a couple of ideas:

  • The best and easiest retaliation is financial. Deutsche Bank is a silver sponsor of the Wharton Conference. Indians who care for a united India and supporters of Chief Minister Modi must approach Deutsche Bank (“DB”) immediately and demand cancellation of DB’s sponsorship. If DB management refuses to do so, then major Indian clients of DB should be asked to stop using DB for their transactions. There are many superior alternatives to DB in India and globally.
  • The second silver sponsor is Colors Viacom, an Indian TV network owned by American network Viacom. This network must be asked to cancel their sponsorship of the Wharton conference. If they refuse, their major advertisers must be approached for pressure on Colors Viacom.
  • Similar pressure should be applied on TV Asia, the American media partner for the Wharton Conference.

Traditional Indian social & non-violent methods should also be used against Deutsche Bank and Viacom. The BJP, Mr. Modi’s party, has a large number of party activists and supporters. In a blend of Gandhian & American tradition, they should occupy areas of entrance into DB offices & Viacom studios in India. The idea is to create awareness among Indians about DB’s & Viacom’s role in helping UPenn throw out their leader Narendra Modi. Financial & social pressure must be intense, persistent and determined.

The above is relatively straightforward and can be done without long term effort. Action against UPenn itself needs greater organizational effort. The objective has to be to alert every prospective student who is thinking of applying to UPenn and persuade them to consider other Universities. Why would they want to study at a school that practices deliberate & calculated anti-Hindu practices?

This is what Muslim organizations would do and do it very well. Once a University is branded as anti-Muslim, very few Muslim students would care to attend that school. But this is difficult to do and it may well be beyond the mental capacity of Indians.

An easier task would be to engage all companies that recruit at Wharton Business School and educate them about what UPenn-Wharton has done in the Modi case. These companies should be asked to stop or at least curtail their recruitment at Wharton. An equally important message should be to stop using Wharton faculty as consultants. All this will probably hurt faculty & students who may have disagreed with UPenn’s decision. But these well intentioned people are just as responsible for the Modi fiasco as the people who demanded it. If a fraction of these well-intentioned supporters had spoken out with the same intensity, UPenn would not have made the decision it did.

The above is the American way. It is not the way of today’s India. Today’s India and the loser India of the past 1,000 years doesn’t understand the importance of punishment. A few weeks ago, the Pakistani Army killed and beheaded two Indian soldiers, an act that enraged Indians. But the rage did not result in retaliation. Instead some journalists tweeted that Indian lack of response shows “India’s moral greatness“.

This pride in restraint to the point of appeasement, this pride in “moral greatness” as a reward for tolerating attacks is characteristic of today’s India. Indian Culture & Religion preaches just the opposite. Every Religious festival in India is centered around destruction of evil and severe punishment of evil-doers. This ancient Indian dictum is now the American way.

The decision by Amy Gutmann of UPenn is also indicative of a serious disdain of India as a whole. The euphoria about the Indo-US strategic partnership launched by President Bush has given way to a resigned conviction that India will remain a weak, indecisive country that is thoroughly incapable of achieving serious global stature. Yes, India will be a larger economy that can generate profits for American companies but that’s about it.

A society of sheep can bleat in a loud voice but it can never do anything to wolves that attack it. This Indian reality is what made UPenn decide in favor of cancelling their invitation to Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The actions of Modi supporters and Indian society will determine whether UPenn was correct in their calculations or not.

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