Beyond Vassar

Jamshed Bharucha '78

By Peter Bronski

On July 1, Jamshed Bharucha took the helm at the Cooper Union in New York City, becoming the 12th president in its 150-plus-year history. Bharucha comes to the presidency from Tufts University, where he held the positions of provost, senior vice president, and professor of psychology since 2002. The Vassar Quarterly sat down with the 2005 recipient of the Alumnae & Alumni of Vassar College Distinguished Achievement Award to talk about the nature of higher education in America.

Vassar Quarterly: You’re an accomplished violinist, with a diploma in violin performance from Trinity College, London, and your research has focused on cognitive neuroscience and how the brain responds to music. What have you learned?

Jamshed Bharucha: Music activates many different parts of the brain and shares some properties with spoken language, in the ways it communicates emotion. Some musical intervals (pitch patterns) typically used to evoke certain emotional states are also used in spoken language to do the same. For example, it’s well known that children all over the world, when taunting each other, will go “na na na na naaaa na,” which is a minor third. And yet, when you listen to music from another culture, it sounds alien. It’s similar to how you find differences in brain activity for familiar languages versus languages that are not. Your past musical exposure has impacted the brain’s pattern of neuronal connections, which in turn filters how you hear music in the future. We hear music through cultural lenses, just as we see the world through cultural lenses.

VQ: Has that informed how you approach leadership in higher education?

JB: Certainly my experience playing chamber music—string quartets, trios— has. One of the standard theories of the evolution of music is that it evolved in human history in part as a way to foster social cohesion. As the leader of an institution, you have to understand how you can create a cohesive organization. When you play chamber music, [musicians] have to adapt to each other. You can’t just charge ahead on your own and hope that others will follow. When you are a leader, you have to adapt to the people you are leading and create an ensemble.

VQ: You’ve spent time at Vassar, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Tufts, and now, the Cooper Union. What attracts you to them? What sets them—and their approach to education—apart?

JB: Vassar was transformative for me. I took full advantage of Vassar’s smaller size, of my contact with professors, of the encouragement to think originally. Because of that, I wanted to become a professor. Dartmouth, which was my first tenure-track job, also had a strong emphasis on undergraduate education. Tufts is the same, even though it also does a lot of research. The Cooper Union has a long tradition of undergraduates being at the center of the enterprise. That’s the thread. They all value research and scholarship, but they put their students and their educational experience first.

VQ: You’ve spoken before about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the educational experience.

JB: At Vassar I took classes in biology, psychology, philosophy, music. I tried to bridge the disciplines. Colleges and universities need to continue to find ways for students to bridge traditional disciplines. The disciplines are important, but departments—the vehicle around which disciplines are organized— have become way too rigid. We need greater fluidity across ideas and departments. Vassar’s always been a leader in that, and I’ve tried to bring that to my other institutions.

VQ: You’ve become known for your academic innovation at Tufts, where you launched programs such as Summer Scholars, University Seminar, and the Graduate Competitiveness Initiative. What ideas will you bring to the Cooper Union?

JB: I think that global engagement constitutes the next horizon in higher education. It’s essential today that all of our students graduate with a nuanced understanding of other cultures. They are going to find themselves inevitably working with people from other cultures, or working in other cultures, or work- ing on projects that are global in nature. I also think that academia needs to be less of an ivory tower and project more out into the world; to find better ways to communicate to people outside the academy the new ideas that are being discovered, created, or taught within it. Colleges and universities have not done a great job of doing that or of explaining to the American public why we charge as much as we do in tuition.

VQ: You mention the cost of education. The Cooper Union provides free tuition for all admitted students. Vassar has strengthened its own commitment to broader access with need-blind admissions and increased financial aid. How important is that perspective for America’s colleges and universities today, when higher education is more expensive than ever?

JB: It’s critical. We provide our students with an extremely rich and highly textured environment in which they can find what they resonate with. Doing that is very expensive. But we have to be sure that that opportunity is available to students regardless of their financial means. That’s going to be the big challenge going forward.

VQ: You have a long track record of public service, which has included serving on Vassar’s Board of Trustees and on its President’s Advisory Council. You noted in your departure letter from Tufts that you had been drawn to that institution’s culture of public service. How did you develop your personal commitment to public service and what would you say to encourage the next generation of students?

JB: When I was a student and then a faculty member in my early years, I was pretty much the focused academic. I saw learning as a value in and of itself. I still see the value of developing our individual potential. But I also now see the importance of inculcating in our students a sense of responsibility to do good in the world, a commitment to make the world a better place, and to use one’s position in life to do that. It’s a privilege to attend an institution like Vassar or the Cooper Union. I’m absolutely convinced that every recipient of an elite education, in addition to doing well for one’s self, needs to always be aware that they have the capacity to do good or to do harm to others in the world.