Beyond Vassar

AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement

By Micah Buis '02

Jamshed Bharucha ’78, this year’s recipient of the fourth annual AAVC Award for Distinguished Achievement, doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the part Vassar played in helping to shape his career. “At Vassar I came to realize that I really belong within a college community and wanted to spend my life in the world of ideas,” he said.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in bio-psychology, Bharucha earned an M.A. in philosophy from Yale and a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, was a research associate at Cornell and a visiting scholar at both Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. By 1991 Bharucha had decided on an extended stay at Dartmouth, where he served in various departments and administrative appointments—including a professorship in psychology and dean of the faculty—until 2002, when Tufts University lured him away. There he is a psychology professor and also serves as provost and senior vice president.

Bharucha maintains that he felt Vassar’s influence through all of his collegiate moves. “The interdisciplinary ethos at Vassar set the standard for me as I moved through several institutions as a student, professor, and administrator,” he said.

All this time spent on college campuses has allowed Bharucha to fine-tune his area of academic expertise: the cognitive and neural basis of the perception of music. In fact, Bharucha’s research has attracted such widespread attention and acclaim that he has been called upon to edit Music Perception, the Psychological Review, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology. He has authored or co-authored more than 40 publications and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, Discover, and the NOVA program on PBS. Bharucha attributes his personal interest in music—he is a longtime violin player—to at least part of his decision to weave together the seemingly disparate disciplines of music, biology, and psychology.

The freedom and encouragement to think across boundaries, which he describes as a “Vassar standard,” has also “affected the way I approach decisions as a teacher, scholar, and academic administrator,” Bharucha said. “Most institutions of higher education confront students with hurdles if they seek to cross departmental boundaries .... Institutional boundaries are merely convenient mechanisms for organizing people and information; they should not be rigid, and they should not get in the way of teaching and scholarship.”

Through his college administrative positions, which have been as extensive as his research excellence, Bharucha has worked to bring that “Vassar standard” to the undergraduate students whose experiences are affected by his leadership. “My four years at Vassar were transformational, and that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about what an undergraduate experience should do—challenge you from different angles to stretch the limits of your conceptual framework and experience, and provide the intellectual, physical, and cultural spaces in which to explore and develop in response to these challenges.”

Because Bharucha firmly believes in the kind of transformational opportunity Vassar offers its students, his volunteer commitment to the college has been strong. He has served as a development volunteer and a member of the Career Advisory Program, and has been a member of the AAVC Board of Directors and the Vassar Board of Trustees. Now Bharucha continues his contribution through a position on the President’s Advisory Council; and President Fergusson’s appreciation of Bharucha’s place on the council is deep: “He brings wisdom, knowledge, and nuance to our discussions.... I think he is one of the most impressive people I know: calm, smart, always thoughtful, and inevitably interesting.”

In awarding Bharucha the Award for Distinguished Achievement—which honors an alumna or alumnus who has achieved the highest level of her or his field of endeavor, while exemplifying the ideals of a liberal arts education—AAVC joins the many other distinguished institutions that have already acknowledged his impressive career. While his r�sum� makes mention of awards from Stanford, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and Dartmouth, as well as grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Bharucha values this award from his alma mater just as much. “I am honored and overwhelmed. Vassar gave me so much, and I have tried to live up to the ideals that crystallized during my time at Vassar.”

Meg Venecek Johnson ’84, chair of the awards selection committee, admitted some difficulty in determining just which aspect of Bharucha’s career—administrative or scholarly—was more appropriate to dote on, since both are equally remarkable. “While one focuses on his current status as a top administrator, our committee did not lose sight of the distinguished scholarly career that moved him from teaching to administration in the first place. He is clearly a leader in his chosen academic field, and has demonstrated exemplary intellect, talent, and dedication.” She is certain, however, that “to achieve excellence in both aspects of university life in such a relatively short tenure is truly extraordinary. We know that his influence over matters of academic life will be considerable in the years to come.”