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Past Issue • Jul-Sep 2011

Foundation on Education: A Conversation With Dr Judith Rodin

Rockefeller Foundation President and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr Judith Rodin spoke with ISB Founding Dean Pramath Sinha about the evolution of higher education and the role of technology in education while also giving details on the Foundation and its direction in the 21st century.

Given your experience with Yale and with Penn, how has the higher education evolved? Have you observed any trends?
There are two trends that have really been transformational – the use of technology in education and the interdisciplinary perspective. Worldwide, technology in higher education was seen as creating virtual courses and I think the early stage showed that that was not as interesting as using technology on campus and creating what we ultimately call the “24-hour classroom,” where every course had its own Web site and interactive technology. It is no longer the didactic classroom where you are with a professor for six hours a week. Now it’s occurring 24/7. The students are interacting with one another over the material while virtually they are interacting with the professor. The whole quality and nature of education has been transformed by technology in unimaginable ways. Now with the technology improving, virtual instruction is creating another groundswell for globalisation as well. But it’s not replacing the physical campus. It’s not replacing the importance of the physical interaction. Technology is just amplifying, extending and accelerating the learning and that has been profound and it’s really a mega trend in education.

What implication does it have for educators on campus or the more traditional environment?
The role of a faculty member in this new environment is no longer to impart information because information is available everywhere. The professor really ought to be exciting you with knowledge, teaching you how to learn and utilise knowledge from this cacophony of information. So teaching is no longer just delivering information; it has become a robust creative activity. Knowledge learning became the role of the student and wisdom learning and innovation learning – the things required to utilise and transform the information – became the new role of the professor and it’s very exciting! I have lived through both phases and can really feel the difference.

In India, technology is touted as a great enabler for increasing the reach and accessibility of education. Do you see technology creating greater leverage? For example, will the teacher-student ratio change because of technology?
I think the benefit of the reach and the capacity of technology may be greater in the younger grades of education for two reasons – one, because the quality of teachers in some rural classrooms may not be very high so technology can be used to provide materials, information and approaches that would not be available in rural classrooms. Secondly, whether the population is urban affluent or rural poor or any combination in between, younger students of the same age develop differently. Technology allows students to develop at their own pace. And that is important to keep younger children intellectually engaged and feeling able in school. So many children fall by the wayside because they aren’t ready yet and there is no mechanism without technology to enable them to get ready the following year because they have already been passed by. So, often with technology, the child can learn at his or her own pace and stay motivated.They really feel a sense of accomplishment and it’s very empowering. We didn’t expect that to be a part of what technology would allow so I think those are the two most important elements.

One of the interesting things about ISB is that we don’t have traditional departments. We have centres that encourage interdisciplinary education and research. Are there such models or interesting innovations on structure or form that you have seen that work?
It is working. I think ten years is long enough to know that it is working. In many of our longer-lived institutions, we have had to cut a graft and sew it. We have created interdisciplinary centres and cross-disciplinary programmes. You know that in many of our undergraduate programmes, we don’t create majors that you do at the end of the second year. But you are admitted to Penn now to do these three-degree or four-degree undergraduate programmes. So that is still unique among the Ivy League institutions. And those students who are in our multi-school programmes live together their first year so that they have a complete experience and I think that one is quite successful. We experimented in the college with a first-year curriculum that was completely interdisciplinary and had a theme. One year it was “time.” Whether it was physics or art or psychology, it revolved around the theme of time. That may have been too avant-garde, but the empirical question was not whether the students liked it – they actually did – but whether it made a difference to the students at the end of four years. Would they get their grades later on, or would they pick more interesting careers? There is no evidence that it did that. So, on that kind of experiment, I think the jury is still out. But certainly you can see in many universities across our country and I think increasingly across the world that the interdisciplinary centres and programmes are being seen as producing a different kind of knowledge, maybe not better, but different.

Technology is just amplifying, extending and accelerating the learning and that has been profound and it’s really a mega trend in education.

Could you tell us something about the Foundation? What does the Foundation focus on? What are the trends in philanthropy?
We are very privileged to be America’s first global foundation. Rockefeller was founded in 1913 so we are about to celebrate our centennial. John D Rockefeller created the Foundation for the betterment of mankind and he envisioned that each new generation of the board running the Foundation would determine what the “betterment of mankind” meant for that generation. I joined in 2005 in the beginning of the 21st century. In order to define the betterment of mankind for our era, we began a very deep strategic planning process examining our history and our strengths. We examined the external context: What is this world now in which we are working? What are the opportunities? What are the challenges that John D Rockefeller would have wanted us to take on? He believed in “scientific philanthropy,” which meant to get in there, experiment, test, and if it worked, to double down but if did not work, to move out because resources have to be leveraged effectively and large-scale change has to be created. As a scientist, this is very sympathetic to the way I think. We have developed a motto that allows us to do the same thing. During a strategic analytic period called “search,” we look at the problems and determine the points of leverage for the whole system. By bringing in some factors or changing public policy, you can unleash the whole system that appears locked in some way. The next phase of our work is “hypothesis testing.” We ask fundamental questions: What transformations are we really trying to effect? What is the theory of change? What are the outcomes that we hold ourselves accountable for?What is the ultimate impact we are trying to achieve? If we pass through that phase with our grantees and partners, then we move into “execution.” We develop big initiatives and invest significant resources and really try to hold ourselves accountable for outcomes and impacts. So that’s the transformation in the way we work. That’s different from traditional philanthropy. The problem that we decided, the strategic interpretation of John D Rockefeller’s initial mandate for us is really around “globalisation.” But as one examines globalisation, it is clear that it has enormous strengths and opportunities but also challenges. So we would like to help produce marked globalisation, which is to bring the opportunities created by globalisation to more people in more places around the world while hoping to mitigate the risks. And for us that means working under two strategic pillars – first, to build more equitable growth. In an imperfect market, we try to make sure that as growth occurs, we help in tilting the benefits of growth to more people at the bottom of the pyramid. We have seen from history that this does occur eventually but can we seek to accelerate it. Second, to build resilience. The chronic and acute stresses of the 21st century induced by climate, financial systems or social upheaval can have devastating impacts. And so, we attempt to build resilience in people and communities.

We would like to help produce marked globalisation, which is to bring the opportunities created by globalisation to more people in more places around the world while hoping to mitigate the risks.

I would like some perspective from you on how Rockefeller Foundation works, considering that the Foundation is almost 100 years old. India is at the threshold of people getting wealthy enough to create foundations. Everybody is building a university and naming it after themselves. But, there is a huge disconnect between this individually-driven model of philanthropy, as opposed to the foundations that have endured for a long time. Is it just a question of time? Was the Rockefeller Foundation like this when they started or do we need to be educated that real philanthropy is not just about giving money but also about allowing the foundation to have broader ownership and agendas?
Yes I do. I think that the history of foundations is that when they have living donors, they are driven by the experience, desires and interests of the living donor. So in the Gates, Omidyar and Dell foundations, the behaviour of the foundation is driven by where the founder obtained his wealth from and what his interests are. When foundations exist past the lifetime of their donor – and Rockefeller elected to have his Foundation exist in perpetuity – that creates certain advantages and also constraints for us.

How do you ensure that the Foundation can exist in perpetuity?
Well, we are doing the same things that universities do, which is talking about inter-generational neutrality. We don’t overspend in any generation because we know we are protecting the resources for the next generation. There are American philanthropies where the mandate is to spend down. The Gates Foundation, when Warren Buffett gave his gift to them, agreed that the foundation would exist only 50 years after the last of the three (Warren, Bill and Melinda) died. So, knowing that they will not exist in perpetuity, they are giving massive amounts of money now. The Atlantic Philanthropies is another foundation that is in the final spend down. But most of the large American foundations were set up to exist in perpetuity. And the older they get, their personalities move away from the personality of the founder. So it does vary.

I think that the history of foundations is that when they have living donors, they are driven by the experience, desires and interests of the living donor.

In your case, does any of the funding now come from outside sources other than what the original family allocated for the Foundation?
No, we don’t fundraise. There are no outside sources coming directly into the Foundation. But, if we were only using our money, we would be doing things that were too small for our ambitions. So most typically, we partner bilaterally – we partner quite a lot with the British aid agency, we are partnering right now with the German aid agency and we have partnered with Asian cities for our Climate Change Resilience Strategies. We also partner with The World Bank, the private industry and other foundations. With the Gates Foundation, we are spearheading the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. So our appetite for huge resources is very significant and I find that I am using the same fund-raising skills that I used as the university president because we are always looking for partners.

We don’t overspend in any generation because we know we are protecting the resources for the next generation.

Can you share information on the Foundation resources? How many projects are you currently working on? What is the size of the Foundation?
The Foundation’s endowment is almost $4 billion and we are spending about $200 million a year of our own money. When we look at the money and partners we are bringing in, in terms of what we are spending, it is a couple of billion a year.We are doing quite a lot in India right now, with three major set of initiatives. The first is in health. The notion of how health systems transform themselves financially and how the economic elements of healthcare delivery get reorganised to give more health to more people more effectively is partly quality but also partly reorganising financing. Within India and elsewhere, this is a role model for almost the universal access to healthcare. Andhra Pradesh is a partner. Several grantees at ISB and in other places are heading toward a “joint learning network,” which is an alliance of Brazil, Thailand, Ghana, Vietnam, Rwanda and a few other countries to share learning about how to transform health systems in order to gain universal access.

The second major piece of work is that we have an Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network being built in four cities within four countries – India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. In those cities, we are building both soft and hard infrastructures to build climate resilience. They share everything – knowledge and best practices. Those cities will be resource cities for 50 more. This is also strategic because urbanisation in second-tier cities in South and South-East Asia is about to explode. This can create enormous challenges because so many of them are around fragile ecologies. Now before that demographic explosion occurs, can we build infrastructure and early warning systems? For each city it is different, so for Surat it’s about up-country damming. In other cities we need different kinds of interventions. But there is a chance to prevent the kind of flooding you get in Mumbai.

The third major area of work is urbanisation. We are very interested in the new McKinsey report on urbanisation (if this launches) on how urbanisation, from municipal governance to new kinds of housing, will and should develop in India. A lot of that will revolve around what the creation of metropolitan areas and metropolitan governments will look like so we have been really involved in helping to think through that or funding grantees who are working on that.

At Rockefeller, we also promote innovation. I think it’s very clear that there aren’t enough resources to fix all the problems in the world using traditional approaches. So, the other element that we are really pushing is innovation and not just product innovation, which I think all of us feel comfortable with and have knowledge about, but process innovation, organisational innovation and markets innovation. We have been funding and working on those three kinds of innovation. It has been really very exciting because we are not only working on substantive topics but also processes that enable new kinds of things to occur – whether it is capacity building, innovation processes or developing the new field of impact investing. All of these create an enabling environment for real transformation in the 21st century and we are very excited about that work.


  • Judith-Rodin

    Judith Rodin

    Rockefeller Foundation President and former president of the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Pramath-Sinha

    Pramath Sinha

    Managing Director and Founder, Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, New Delhi; Former Partner of McKinsey & Company; Founding Dean of the Indian School of Business and the Young India Fellowship; and Founder Trustee, Ashoka University.
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