My wife and I were invited to participate in the Investiture Ceremony for Prof. Murugesu Sivapalan as the Chester and Helen Siess Endowed Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) on 23 April, 2015. Four generations of his happy family besides several friends were present, celebrating with the large university gathering at the high tea following the ceremony and a formal dinner.
It is noteworthy that UIUC’s CEE Department is rated No. 1 in Civil Engineering (Engineering Ratings being for postgraduate programs). The formality of investiture was performed by my friend Andreas Cangellaris, Dean of Engineering at UIUC.
How does UIUC, a state university that is international, retain its high status in the midst of corn fields far away from everything modern except itself? The answer is seen in those who were involved in the investiture and the process associated with it. The Provost (the highest academic official of a university) is from Nigeria. The Vice Provost is from Morocco. The Dean is from Greece. The Head of CEE is from Spain. And Sivapalan is from Sri Lanka!
While UIUC goes for the best wherever he or she might be from, in contrast we in Sri Lanka have a protectionist mentality where even Probationary Lecturer positions in our universities are in practice reserved for each university’s own graduates, shutting out better trained graduates from other universities. We advertise, pretend to search for the best and, voila, the Selection Committee finds internal applicants to be the best while excellent outside applicants are declared unfit! Could this explain why our universities are stuck in the past?
Sivapalan’s work grows in importance as water shortages are seen everywhere. He is widely reckoned as the father of a new field relating water to society: Social Hydrology – “to address critical water management challenges in the emergent anthropocene”. He privately expressed his view that although the collapse of Anuradhapura is attributed to malaria, the greater role of water in that collapse is probable.
Sivapalan was awarded the Queen’s Centenary Medal (commemorating the centenary of the Australian Federation in 2001) “for service to Australian Society in Hydrology and Environmental Engineering”, besides the Dalton Medal from the European Geosciences Union, the Horton Medal from the American Geophysical Union, and the International Hydrology Prize from UNESCO.
Not bad for a boy from Point Pedro’s Hartley College who grew up without lights or running water in his home at Karaveddy, and went to Peradeniya (from the 1969 A. Levels) because his mother did not go to bed till he did, and woke him up at 5:00 AM with a cup of tea to study! He also attributes his success in good measure to his dexterity with English. In my own observations that I made at the function, I stated that all Hartley products at the university from that period knew their grammar and wrote in neat script handwriting, thanks to one man, K. Pooranampillai, who as principal gave his personal attention to this important aspect that made or broke otherwise intelligent people.
There are lessons in this ceremony for Sri Lankans: 1) The importance of English to professional and academic success; 2) The importance of alumni networks that must tap into the wealth of knowledge, connexions and experience that people like Sivapalan can bring; 3) Making our youth dream big by exposing them to the achievements of Sri Lankan-trained personnel like Sivapalan (besides others like Indira Samarasekera née Arulpragasam of the University of Alberta and Ajit P. Yoganathan of Georgia Tech who were recently inducted into the prestigious US National Academy of Engineering); 4) Inviting the many ex-Sri Lankans who have achieved much and would teach even for brief periods if only visa restrictions were eased to open up the university to competition; 5) The further importance of removing protection for internal staff by not denying the substantial allowances which internal staff get to put them on much higher pay than often highly accomplished contract staff. Recent government policy to increase university salaries is sound but would be in the right direction only if it is used to attract better people from outside, and will do little to help as we can readily see if it is used only to pay more to those already in the system while paying less to people from outside coming on contracts; 6) And of course the importance of even one dedicated teacher like Pooranampillai with experienced insight in making a difference to an entire generation of students.
Before the Investiture Prof. Ciaran Harman of Johns Hopkins, a student of Sivapalan’s, was chosen to explain the reasons for choosing Prof. Sivapalan. His speech may be read elsewhere in these columns as can be Prof. Sivapalan’s response after his investiture.