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Indira Nair retires, ending esteemed 32-year tenure

After 32 years of service, Vice Provost of Education Indira Nair will retire. (credit: Courtesy of cmuTV) After 32 years of service, Vice Provost of Education Indira Nair will retire. (credit: Courtesy of cmuTV)

When faculty members leave Carnegie Mellon, it is often instructive to reflect on what they’ve achieved throughout their tenure at the university. Indira Nair, who will be retiring from her position as vice provost for education after 32 years of service at Carnegie Mellon, is no exception.

Nair was born in Trivandrum, Kerala in southern India. Since her father was a member of the army, she moved a total of 10 times before completing 12 years of education. She attended the Institute of Science in Bombay, completing her bachelor’s degree in physics. She then moved to the United States and received her master’s degree from Kansas State University and, later, her Ph.D. at Northwestern University.

Nair first arrived in Pittsburgh with the intention of pursuing a career as a high school physics teacher. After spending several years teaching not only physics but also other sciences, including chemistry and geology, she took a small job in the engineering and public policy department here at Carnegie Mellon. Eventually, she joined the Office of the Provost and accepted her current role as the vice provost for education.

At Carnegie Mellon, the provost is the chief academic adviser at the university and is one of the most powerful positions outside the university’s president. The provost oversees all of the faculty and deans in the various schools. One of the major offices underneath the provost is that of the vice provost for education, which has several organizations of its own working beneath it.

“The curriculum itself is divided on a department level, but I look at common needs,” Nair said from her office in Warner Hall. “[I ask my department] what can we do to enhance that experience.”

Beneath Nair is a host of different organizations aimed at making education an integral part of the school and community. The Leonard Gelfand Center, for example, is part of the vice provost’s responsibility and focuses on educational outreach. “Carnegie Mellon reaches 10,000 students every semester,” Nair said. One program within the center is C-MITES, helping to foster math and science skills in gifted students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Classes are taught during the summer for these students, and in the years to come, students from Qatar will also begin attending these classes.

Other important offices under Nair are the assistant provost for graduate education and the director of Undergraduate Research and Fellowship Resources.

Nair has helped organize several large projects aimed at enriching the undergraduate experience.
One of these programs, Odyssey, is aimed at college sophomores and what they will do with their scholarship to fulfill their citizenship duties. The faculty nominates students that they find to be intellectual seekers and host a three-day workshop right before spring semester.

Another project is the acclaimed University Lecture Series, which runs year-round. Every Monday and Thursday, the faculty invites accomplished individuals — sometimes faculty, sometimes guests — to give a lecture about whatever topic they are currently working on. A recent speaker, Allan Meltzer of the Tepper School of Business, discussed the Federal Reserve and money supply in the United States.

Nair has also made revolutions in courses offered at Carnegie Mellon, beginning with a course titled India Today, a weekend course worth only three units but requiring over 40 hours of class time and writing papers. Iit was first created in fall 2008 in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, and the class studies different countries every year, including China, Brazil, and Russia. “These countries are considered the most emerging countries today,” Nair said.

Qatar has also been a target of interest for Nair since she arrived. Her course Global Issues, Local Solutions, created in the spring of 2009, addressed the question of how to solve global problems depending on a country’s current economic, political, or geographic situation. Recently, Carnegie Mellon hosted the Global Issues, Global Solutions conference, which further addressed these issues.

Nair’s role as chair of the University Education Council has also been influential. The council’s role to approve university-wide courses has been an important one; thanks to Nair and the council, interdisciplinary classes on urban farming and materials science, energy, and the environment are now available.

Nair has a great respect for interdisciplinary action. “Different disciplines are different lenses,” Nair said. “The same thing you’re thinking, someone else is thinking from a different perspective.” To help with interdisciplinary relations, Nair helped to organize 1905 = mc2: Photons and Relativity, a course focused on studying how different ideas in science developed.

Other faculty members have praised Nair’s influence across all areas of the university. “Indira’s service to the Pittsburgh and global community, to science education, and to Carnegie Mellon’s history and its future are immeasurable,” said Provost Mark Kamlet, according to a Carnegie Mellon press release.

“Her passion is contagious,” said history professor Nico Slate. Slate, who first met Nair in August 2009 through other faculty members of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, found a mutual interest in India and undergraduate education. Several of the students in one of Slate’s history courses raised funds for an environmental project in India, and the money was donated in Nair’s name. “It’s been a real honor working with her,” Slate concluded.

For the students she is leaving behind, Nair offers these words of advice: “Look around and find opportunities.” She points to the rising number of Carnegie Mellon students taking a foreign language as a positive sign of inter-school participation. She also advises acting on these opportunities. “If you have an idea,” she asserted, “you can find a way to carry it out.”

After retiring, Nair plans to move to New Mexico to be closer to her two daughters. She said she plans to do much “thinking, writing, and reading.”