By Raymond Hardie
Khosla has always set and attained lofty goals.
One of three brothers growing up in Mumbai, India, Khosla attended a Catholic school from kindergarten through 11th grade, and then spent two years at Parle College in Mumbai. He originally wanted to study nuclear physics, but his parents urged him to pursue engineering or medicine. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, in 1980.
After working for two years in the area of power systems, at TATA Consulting Engineers, and then with Siemens in India, he decided to pursue research and advanced engineering in the United States. “India at that time is not what India is today,” he says, and so he applied for, and won, a prestigious Inlaks scholarship and arrived at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 1982. He had planned to work with a professor who was using computers to control power systems but, by the time he arrived, he discovered the professor was working on robotics. Khosla quickly plunged into this new area of research.
After completing his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, Khosla joined the CMU faculty in 1986 and worked in areas ranging from reconfigurable and distributed robotic systems, to distributed information systems and security of cyber and cyber-physical systems. Recognized for his years of research, he is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the Indian Academy of Engineering, an honorary fellow of the Indian Academy of Science, and a fellow of the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. He is also well known as a committed and popular teacher. In 1999, he received the George Westinghouse Award from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) for his outstanding contributions to engineering education.
Khosla was appointed dean of the College of Engineering, also known as Carnegie Institute of Technology, in 2004. He reformed the curriculum, increased diversity efforts, started multi-college research centers, defined new unique Masters degree programs, and launched international programs—all with the goal of positioning the college as one of the top engineering colleges in the United States and the world.
Khosla is also a strong believer in the student experience—both educational and social. At CMU, he created the endowed “First Year Experience” program for incoming freshmen to introduce them to college life as soon as they accept admission. He also instituted the Dean’s fellowship program, so that all first-year Ph.D. students are given a tuition fellowship. When asked what accomplishments he is most proud of, he points to his efforts that resulted in increasing the diversity of the faculty, and the undergraduate and graduate populations. He is also proud of improving the freshman retention rate to more than 98 percent, and doubling the number of graduate students.
Khosla is married. His wife, Thespine, is a writer and has a Masters degree in writing from Carnegie Mellon. They have three children: Nathan, 22, currently studying engineering and international relations at Carnegie Mellon; Alex, 14; and Nina, 11.
Khosla sat down for an interview with Raymond Hardie, editor of Triton Magazine, earlier this summer.
E: You’ve had a distinguished international career as a scientist and an engineer. What motivated you to become a dean, and then a chancellor?
K: I originally wanted to be a professor so I could teach and do research, and everything after that has been icing on the cake – an opportunity to do something different, to work with amazing people, and to positively impact academia and research. The real turning point in my life happened around 1994-96. I had just been promoted to full professor in 1994, and out of the blue I was offered an opportunity to work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). I spent nearly three years there, and I was responsible for defining programs in design, manufacturing, robotics and software, and investing a lot of money to give people in universities and industry an opportunity to do research and develop cutting-edge technology. During that time, I realized that I really enjoy putting big ideas together, building and leading organizations, motivating people and seeing the fruits of their labor. I took personal satisfaction in their success. So when I came back to Carnegie Mellon University, I knew I wanted to do my own research. I therefore created a new institute, and that was the start of a new career that led me to where I am today.
E: What is your leadership philosophy?
K: I am a strong believer in enabling people to succeed. I like to create an environment where people are empowered to do the right thing for themselves and the institution. I also believe in motivating and supporting people, and helping them accomplish their dreams and ambitions. And when you put all of those things together, good things emerge. Finally, I must say that I like to lead by example and that, in my mind, is a strong form of leadership.
E: What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing our planet and how is UC San Diego poised to address them?
K: UC San Diego has the bright, creative minds and the resources to address global challenges. From our world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography to the power of academic medicine we have with our Health Sciences and Health System, we have strengths in many disciplines, such as medicine, engineering, arts and humanities, and the social and physical sciences. I am impressed with how faculty, staff and students come together in a very seamless interdisciplinary way to solve problems, each bringing their own distinctive expertise and perspective to an issue. This places us in a unique position to further our research and education, address global challenges, spur economic development, and improve the quality of life for humanity.
One of the challenges our planet faces is the environment, and specifically the way we are consuming natural resources. Over the long term, this is not sustainable. Another challenge is the economic disparity between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots.’ I can’t imagine a world of 7 billion people where only 2 billion have a good quality of life and the remaining 5 billion don’t. I don’t think this is any way to maintain a stable society. Energy is also a challenge. Our seemingly insatiable need in the advanced industrial world to consume more energy does not leave a lot of possibilities for a good quality of life for the rest of the world’s population. Food supply and water are also looming problems. Fresh water tables across the world are falling. This is something we are aware of in San Diego where water is a big challenge.
Healthcare is a challenge—in two different ways. First, good healthcare is not available for most people in the world. And second, when it is abundantly available, it is often unaffordable for many.
As I mentioned, I don’t see any of these problems being solved by individuals. They will be solved by groups of individuals all bringing their own deep knowledge of their domain and collaborating effectively. To achieve this, we have to develop, in our students, the ability to solve problems using both the left brain and the right brain. We have to give them the skills they need to be active listeners. Then they will be able to work together successfully and address these issues of great importance and consequence and make the world a better place.
E: What kind of university will UC San Diego be in five to seven years?
K: UC San Diego will continue to be one of the top public research universities in the nation, with the best and brightest students, stellar faculty at the forefront of their fields, and hard-working, collaborative staff members. We will continue to make the world better by addressing and solving problems of societal consequence, and educating the next generation of leaders and problem solvers. This is a campus community that has already achieved so much in its first 50 years, and we will build on that momentum, and strengthen our position and our partnerships. In only five decades, UC San Diego has risen in stature and is now ranked among the best universities in the nation and in the world. In the recent Academic Ranking of World Universities released by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, UC San Diego was ranked fifteenth in the world. Amazing, but not a surprise, right? Having said that, I think there is a difference between what our impact is, and what the perception of our impact is. And I would like that disconnect to be driven down to zero. It will be my responsibility and my goal as chancellor to work with our campus community to develop a plan to take us to the next level.
E: What attracted you to UC San Diego?
K: In addition to being one of the nation’s finest public research universities, I identify with the mission and values of this campus. There is a unique collaborative, interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial spirit here; people work together seamlessly without departmental boundaries. And that makes this a special place. This University has an amazing can-do attitude that has propelled it to such great heights during its 50 years of growth.
It was the quality of this University that impressed me and persuaded me to come here.
I think a research university has a responsibility to do research both in the context of education and in the context of discovery and innovation. Equally important, we have the obligation to serve our society, to transform our education and discoveries into technology and practical applications that will lead to a better quality of life for us all. There is no better place to do that than UC San Diego, with our strengths in so many disciplines as well as our number one ranking in commitment to service.
I also must say that I cannot imagine working at a place where I would not send my son or daughter. And I think it says a lot about UC San Diego that I would be proud to send my children here.
E: Do you believe that part of a university’s mission in our modern times is to be an engine of economic growth?
K: I personally think it is. Just look at the role of our campus in the development of the high-tech and bio-tech cluster in San Diego. Our faculty, staff and alumni started many of the companies on the mesa. This has fueled the local economy by creating jobs and new industries. And if you look at Silicon Valley, it emerged out of university research, which created the electronics and software industry here and around the world. A university should pursue knowledge for the greater good, for improving our quality of life and environment, for training our future leaders, and that, in turn, creates fuel for the economic engine.
E: What role do you see UC San Diego playing in the local community?
K: A university cannot impact the world without first thinking about its neighborhood. That means supporting or enhancing programs during the summer for K-12 kids and thereby augmenting the local school system. It means making sure that community college students have access to some of the great brains and talent of our faculty. It means ensuring that there are faculty involved in community activities beyond their immediate research. And it means transferring our knowledge to enable economic growth in the region and the world. We have to be global citizens, while supporting our communities in La Jolla and San Diego.
E: How can UC San Diego continue to maintain its high profile in the arts, humanities and social sciences while, of course, continuing to strengthen the sciences?
K: I think we have to do two things. First, because we are seen as a science and engineering campus, we should not lose sight of the fact that there is another side of the University that is equally important and strong, and relevant to our mission. Half our undergraduates pursue degrees in the arts and humanities and social sciences. I think we have to maintain that excellence.
Second, we have to let the world beyond UC San Diego know about our many strengths across disciplines. We have to communicate that we are developing the University in a holistic manner, in addition to enhancing individual areas like physics or psychology or neurobiology or theatre or visual arts. That is what makes us unique in our work and education, and enables us to have a positive impact on our community and our world. We train well-rounded graduates who are capable of using their left and right brains to solve problems, who work collaboratively with others, who are comfortable in diverse, multi-lingual environments, and who will make this world a better place.
E: How does a top research university like UC San Diego ensure that undergraduate education remains a priority?
K: Being both a top research university and also one that provides a very high-quality undergraduate experience are not mutually exclusive; they are integrated. In fact, our research enterprise is an attraction for many undergraduates who are looking for opportunities early in their academic careers to work side-by-side on research projects with world-renowned and award-winning faculty members. This is an undergraduate university with an extremely high profile in research. And I think it’s important to remember that a university exists because of the students.
E: What, in your experience, are the elements that help create a sense of community on a campus?
K: A sense of community is developed when people have a shared vision and shared goals, and they recognize that they have a role to play on the team. If you look at the UC San Diego community on campus, we are all individuals. But if we all share a vision of what we want to be, and if we know what our goals are in five, 10 or 15 years, we can figure out how we, as individuals, can contribute to the goals of the organization, and also live happy and fulfilled lives. I think that is really important.
E: Our 150,000 alumni serve as brand ambassadors. How can this community help you advance your vision for UC San Diego?
K: The achievements and successes of our alumni reflect who we are as an institution of learning and how people see us. They are a significant part of who we are. They have done extremely well in their professional pursuits, and it’s important that we support the goals and aspirations of our alumni. And I know they are proud to be Tritons, and proud of the education they received at UC San Diego.
I also think we have to get them more engaged with the University. We have to continue to persuade them to contribute to the education and training of the next generation. This is not just for their sake, or for the sake of UC San Diego, but for the sake of humanity. Because if we do not educate the next generation, we will find that decision coming back to haunt us in the very near future.
E: Last question. What three words come to mind when you think of UC San Diego?
K: Excitement. Opportunity. Entrepreneurship.
E: What are your favorite books?
K: I love Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. He is a great writer.
E: Do your children keep you up-to-date on contemporary culture?
K: Absolutely. They keep me current with contemporary culture from Lady Gaga to Ke$ha.
E: What was the last movie you saw?
K: I haven’t seen a movie in a theatre for many years. Most of my movie watching is done on an airplane when I’m traveling abroad.
E: What music do you like?
K: You know, I like Indian music a lot and music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I like music where you can listen to the words and they make sense.
E: What are your favorite foods?
K: There are very few types of food that I don’t like. When I travel, I like to eat the authentic food of that country.
E: Are you interested in American sports?
K: Yes, but I’m not a big fan of any team. I watch football during the playoffs.
E: How do you usually spend your days off?
K: I hardly take a day off. You can ask my family—I’m usually at work.
E: What do you do to relax and maintain a healthy balance?
K: I walk as much as I can, except in the winter. I like time alone, to sit, think and read on my own. I also like to watch the Science Channel or the History Channel.