|From an Educational Wizard to a Change Catalyst |
The inspiring story of Dr. Virinder Moudgil - President of Lawrence Technological University
Interviewed and Written by Anu Gopalakrishnan
As Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty”. Learning is what keeps the mind young. And every time we learn something, we leave ourselves with a question “how is this changing me?”
Welcome to the world of the entrepreneurial thought leader Dr. Virinder Moudgil – President/CEO of Lawrence Technological University overseeing LTU’s rapid growth in student enrollment, fundraising and community outreach.
Since July 2012, Dr. Moudgil has been working on the campus facility growth which includes collaborating with the City of Southfield and the Providence Hospital. Dr. Moudgil has been spearheading some very innovative programs bringing together the public-private and the academic sectors for growth and sustainability.
According to Dr. Moudgil, “the initiative to bring all the collaborators and partners took a lot of energy. It is like building a city and bringing courses and economic vitality to the people of Southfield. We want this ecosystem to allow our students to learn, inspire and live in Michigan”.
Dr. Moudgil through his work in Oakland University and LTU has established several partnerships with esteemed institutions in Israel, India, China, and Germany. Dr. Moudgil also chaired and hosted several distinguished personalities and former heads of state like Former President of Poland Lech Walesa (2001); US President George W. Bush in 2002; Former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam in 2009 to name a few.
LTU comes with a lot of history- what inspires you about the university?
85 years of history, the university was the ground for innovation that later changed the world. This is the home of the former Model T assembly plant revolutionized by Henry and Edsel Ford. Since the sands of time, LTU has enriched and through its alumni contributed some excellent work that has changed the lives of many. Some of our notable alumni are Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, Late Alfred Taubman, one of the nation’s leading real estate developer and innovator, owned the Sotheby Auctioneers and A&W restaurant chain. Lewis Veraldi who is an LTU alumni is also the father of the original vehicle models Ford Taurus and Sable. Every story we see has inspired many in the community and every LTU scholar feels proud and ignited just reading the many contributions. Our faculty is par excellence and the graduating students are well prepared for the real world.
It was a firm belief in the future that motivated Russell E. Lawrence to open a university in 1932 – during the economic chaos of the Great Depression. While less farsighted individuals made predictions of gloom, Russell Lawrence and his brother, E. George Lawrence (who led Lawrence Tech from 1934 to 1964), turned a dream of preparing students for leadership in the new technical era into reality.
What intrigues you about LTU?
LTU is a private university with funding generated from our generous donors, foundations, corporations, and students. Not all corporations give us funds. Some of the corporations provide us projects for students to gain real life experience. These could be in the form of internships, capstone projects etc. I call LTU as a project-based university with engineers, designers and architects learning and solving real world problems and not having to depend only on theoretical knowledge. Every undergrad at LTU is provided with a laptop loaded with software custom made for each program. There is documentation related to resources required during job search. This is a differentiating factor and so, 90% of our students have jobs when they graduate.
What was your childhood like?
My parents were my major influence. I have always followed my mom’s advice of changing and transforming the way we adapt and live over time. I still remember dialogs of Julius Cesar and other Shakespeare works taught by my high school teacher (around 1960) – such was the impact of teaching and education. I was very interested in liberal arts and wrote poetry in Urdu. Ghalib was such an inspiration to me. My father was an eminent lawyer, so reading and writing was stressed to a great extent. I used to write snippets of poetry in pieces of paper and then one fine day wrote a one-act play called “Shama Nahi Bhujegi” which won many laurels as it captured the Indo-Pak war. Apart from playing cricket and participating on stage, I had a fun childhood. I also danced to the tequila song with friends.
If you must go back in time, what lessons that you learned saw you through time?
I had a lot of students who hung out with me at home. My room was a haven for fun. In those days, there was no professional sports, no outlet to pursue your passion in a professional way. It was all academics. No room for arts, drama and dance. When my mom found me hanging out with my friends, majority of them who were from rich households, she gave me my first lesson that changed my entire perspective toward life. My mom said, “what value does your life hold? What if the family is unable to support you?”. My mom wanted me to drop all of what I was doing and start getting serious with my education. Her reasoning was that fun wasn’t going to take me anywhere. She also validated the fact that as students and friends, all are equal, but when we all graduate, rich people will not acknowledge the one who do not have the material wealth. The same friends might not speak to me unless I have a position and status in the community. That changed my thinking and I started putting a lock on my door at home so friends cannot walk in all the time. My best friend Vijay and I studied like there was no tomorrow. I lost touch with him. He used to teach at Jallandhar.
Was it your personal choice to be an academician?
Yes. When my teacher recommended me to attend Banaras Hindu University, I was very excited about the history of the place that has created many accomplished individuals. It was a God given gift to attend BHU. 20-40% of the professors were US/UK returned. This led me to publish many papers under their guidance and led my interest to join Mayo Clinic. Academic institutions do have a fair set of challenges. As researcher always aspires for a fully funded independent lab along with lot of paper publications. I had some good mentors, among them one who discovered the effect of radiation on DNA. I did three years of Endocrine related fellowship and then with my patriotic zeal, I went back to India.
And what brought you back to the United States?
I went to give a lecture at the Punjab Agricultural University, one of the very first started by Pandit Nehru in 1961-62. The dean offered my wife and I a job at the university. Since the university did not carry the program I wanted to pursue, I returned to Mayo Clinic. My mentor recommended that I seek an independent position owing to my passion in learning and education. He suggested I try out a smaller university in Michigan and thus began my career at Oakland University. I have always ensured that professors should put their research first to seek new knowledge and bring it to the classroom, introduce talented protégés to the richness of their disciplines, and vary their courses to stay up on the latest developments in their fields.
Dr. Moudgil’s Education/Professional Training
» The Harvard Institute for Educational Management, 2006
» Post-Doctoral - Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota (Molecular Medicine), 1973-76
» PhD Zoology (Biochemistry) - Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India, 1972
How did Oakland University happen?
I was thrilled when I joined Oakland. I stayed at the only hotel in Rochester, the Spartan Motel on Rochester Road in those times (around 1976). I loved the university ambience. It was small and personable. The department chair said he will give me a lab, my own curriculum – they were giving to me what I was always seeking. The department had the same equipment as Mayo. I was surprised. A lot of my peers and friends were shocked at me taking this opportunity. Looking back, this is the best decision I made.
Could you share you experiences and learnings from Oakland?
My Oakland experience happened at a time when I had the opportunity to see new ideas and execute them. When you start owning things, the perception of your vision and what you could do with it changes massively. Oakland gave me that vision. From a professor to a department chair, to a provost and then the transition to the chief academic officer gave me the ability and the resources to do something big. You need a passionate leader to make things happen. OU’s President at that time Dr. Gary Russi was very passionate and ambitious. It was a coming together of minds and that vision to take OU to the next level. For that, we pursued two big programs on the campus – Medicine and Law. That saw us involved and led the strategy of bringing Cooley Law School into the campus for seven years, supporting faculty programs. A little after that (with four years of groundwork), the negotiation with Beaumont Hospital happened and OU had its own Medical School. The school now has 500 students. Oakland University became a little bigger in its dimension.
Prior Professional Experience
» Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, Provost, and Interim Provost Oakland University, 2001-12
» Visiting Scientist, Boris Kidric Institute of Nuclear Sciences, Vinca, Belgrade, 1988
» Visiting Scientist, Lab Hormones, University of Paris Sud, Bicetre, France, 1983-84
» Consultant, United Nations Development Program (TOKTEN), Bombay, India, 1989
» Co-Chair, Steering Committee for Development of the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine
After such fascinating work, why did you move to Lawrence Technological University?
I loved being an architect of change. Once you build and put all the pieces together as a functional product, there’s nothing more to create. Given our culture and values of touching lives of people, I felt my calling was in education- building sustainable educational institutions. I had a great conversation with Dr. Russi who supported my decision to seek presidency. I was nominated in four different universities. Three of them were out of state. LTU was in Michigan, a state I call my home. It gave me the opportunity to explore, educate and mentor several students – I picked the university owing to its strong academic culture, its historical legacy and its capabilities of producing world class citizens.
With visa regulations, the international student growth has stagnated – what are your thoughts?
Yes. It’s not just LTU, all the universities across America are experiencing a slowdown with foreign student growth. We are continuing to speak to the Consul Generals of several countries, and we feel that the political climate with issues surrounding education will eventually change. We became a little innovative and started programs that would help see more recruitments. Out of 4,500 students, we had 1,100 International students from 45 different countries. 700 of them are from India. If you walk within the main doors of LTU, we have a Corporate Partner wall. These partners have funded students and are also stakeholders in several projects.
It takes more than a vision to be called a visionary. Dr. Virinder Moudgil has a dream that a day will come soon when Lawrence Technological University will be the only university in the world where “every” undergraduate student would graduate with applied research capabilities. The College of Arts and Sciences (in LTU) is the first chapter that has unraveled the dream as every student from the department is ready to take on the world. A huge accomplishment indeed! Dr. Virinder Moudgil is one of the very few presidents of an esteemed university who is of Indian origin. In fact, he likely is the first India educated president of a major US university. His visionary mind and execution skills have changed and touched many lives. Questioned about his lifestyle, Dr. Moudgil cheerfully says that he hardly uses the President’s Mansion except for University related events. Despite being able to afford all the simple luxuries, including business/first class travel, Dr. Moudgil stresses on personal integrity as he feels, as a custodian of university resources, traveling in first class can lead to several questions that might cause conflicts. You need a strong foundation, determination and the spirit to see your dreams through. And Dr. Moudgil has just that.
Miindia Exclusive 2019
Interviewed and Written by Anu Gopalakrishnan