Spring 2013

First Person from Prof. Hari Singh

Why I Became a Professor, and Other Musings

Hari SinghNovember 1980: The apartment is cold … my first winter in Chicago after coming from India. I am a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago working on a doctorate. I am shivering and reading a great book, Goodbye, Mr. Chips about a British teacher who dedicates his life to teaching (one of my favorite actors, Peter O’Toole, played the role in the 1969 movie) … when a thought flashes through my mind:

If I read some books (which I would read anyway) and mumble what I have read in front of some unwitting students somebody would actually pay me to do it.

The impact of the epiphany is so powerful I almost fall off my chair. I decide to be a professor and continue to read a wide range of books. My favorite newspaper becomes the New York Times. It is my daily bible and my touchstone about the reality around me. My colleagues tease me, “If Hari has not read about an event in the New York Times, it has not happened yet!”

July 1989: I am undergoing language training in Hawaii … at the Manoa campus before my Fulbright deployment to Malaysia. A colleague asks, “do you want to go for an island tour early tomorrow morning?” I nod my head. However, in the morning I get lazy and I don’t wake up in time. The plane with my colleague in it crashes … one of the worst small air disasters in Hawaii. I call my wife and point out, “Don’t tell me my laziness has no value … it saved my life today!” Another insight hits me:

Do what you need to do right now …
the time to check out might come at any time.

I make a bucket list of nine things I need to do for sure. I make sure that all of them are completed within the next two years.

April 1994: I am a consultant at the World Bank during a sabbatical, writing a paper about foreign direct investment in the International Economics Department. You know the routine, collecting mounds of data … running regressions … trying to find a significant pattern in the data. The result is interesting but not really exciting: It appears countries with low political risk attract more foreign capital. I decide to take a coffee break and talk to some other economists on the lower floor in the International Finance Department. They are trying to solve a complex problem in Indonesia about food subsidies. I ask them if they have read the papers on this topic written by the International Economics Department. They look at me as if I am from another planet. I swallow another epiphany with the coffee:

How are we economists going to solve the world’s complex problem when we don’t read each other’s papers?

The thought is so disturbing that I stop working on my paper for a while. Eventually I have to complete it … otherwise the World Bank would not have paid me.

September 2006: Another sabbatical is coming up … have to find something exciting to do! I am reading a great book, Sophie’s World, a fantasy novel about the history of philosophy. I get an idea … how about writing a book about solving a murder mystery on campus? Students would be taking a class about decision strategies from this crazy professor and they apply these concepts to solve the mystery. By some fluke, this book I write is featured in the New York Times. I go outside my front door to pick up my copy of the New York Times, and a sacrilegious thought goes through my head:

I am going to pick up my bible and I am going to find my
name in it … it does not get better than this … ever.

Because I am an unknown author, Amazon.com stocks only seven copies of my book. On that day they are out of copies by 6 a.m. and a message flashes “Available for order within 3 to 6 weeks.” My dreams of writing a bestseller grind to an abrupt halt.

October 2012: We are having a vigorous discussion about how to teach sustainability in the redesigned MBA program at Humboldt State University. How do you teach in an area that is changing every day? Even the case study method sounds static and stale. We come up with an innovative idea. Why don’t we profile some cutting edge companies and teach all the functional aspects of business based on the data/information from these companies? This will force us to be current and it will create a dynamic platform that will be changing … as these corporations frequently react to new challenges. We can teach students how to integrate different elements of a business … finance, marketing, accounting, management, strategy … all in real time. A nagging notion pops into my head:

Normally university curricula lag by several years …
we will be lucky if we are a few months behind!

For some mysterious reason these epiphanies seem to come once every five or 10 years … and when they do … they tend to wreak havoc.

Hold that thought! Don’t give me another epiphany. I want tomorrow to be a normal day.