Q&A: Ramchand ‘excited’ to take reins as first IU Indianapolis chancellor

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Latha Ramchand
Latha Ramchand

The new chancellor for IUPUI took over her position Monday, just six months before the university is scheduled to split into two independent urban campuses: Indiana University Indianapolis and Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Latha Ramchand, who joins IUPUI after six years as executive vice chancellor and provost for University of Missouri, will lead IU Indianapolis and also be a faculty member and professor of finance in the Kelley School of Business. IU President Pam Whitten announced Ramchand’s hiring in December.

Ramchand, who succeeds interim chancellor Carol Anne Murdoch-Kinch, was selected following a national search. She will oversee more than 400 undergraduate, graduate, certificate and professional programs, growing research focal areas and an evolving urban campus that serves more than 20,000 students.

She spoke with IBJ in her office at University Hall on Monday. The interview, found below, has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you been spending your first day as chancellor?

I started my day meeting students. That was not just inspiring, but exciting, getting to listen to what they had to say about what makes this institution so special. It made me realize there is so much that this institution offers. That comes from the fact that we have what I call a locational endowment: By being in a city like Indianapolis, it gives them opportunities. So that opportunity to take their academic skills and convert them into career skills, right off the bat, I think is tremendous.

I also met with the staff council, and it’s just inspiring to me that so many people who work here—my colleagues—have been at this institution for many years. The collective wisdom of that group in that room was was over 120 years. But it’s even more than that. It’s the fact that many of them went to school here and are now back here to work. Change can be a challenge, but these are folks that are totally committed to the success of this institution.

I also met with representatives form the faculty council, and there’s a very similar story there. For every group, I asked what’s so special about this place? What are the challenges and what’s your advice for me? And one person on faculty council said that it’s the can-do attitude of our faculty. I think there is a lot to be said for that. We don’t quantify it, but the ability to say, ‘OK, we’ll deal with this no matter what it is,’ I think is huge.

So far, I’m really excited.

You spoke about the opportunities that students have by being located in Indianapolis, but you as the leader of IUPUI—soon to be IU Indianapolis—are also in a position to benefit, given the university’s proximity to the Statehouse and the mayor’s office. So, how do you in your role plan to leverage that proximity to benefit IU Indianapolis, especially as it reaches this new era of striking out on its own?

For me, it starts with listening. What is it the state is looking for from a public university? What is the community looking for, and are there a lot of areas where there’s the ability to partner with them?  It can’t be driven by me talking, it has to be driven by them. So it’s really a matter of, let’s reach out. Let’s listen to them and have them tell us what they think they need and see if there is an overlap.

We can’t do everything, but to the extent there is an overlap, we want to be at the table when those decisions are made. But it all starts with cultivating relationships, and I have to be willing to listen and listen carefully to what the community needs, to what the state needs, and then we build on that.

How do you expect IU Indianapolis will be able to make a name for itself and stand out from competitors in the academic space, particularly locally? 

There are two things that stand out to me. The first is going back to that location factor—that’s huge. Indianapolis is a world-class city, and how do cities grow and develop? Certainly buildings and developments make a difference, but it’s the people. You have the right people and you have the right leadership, the city will grow.

That’s where we come in. IU Indianapolis has the ability to groom the next generation of leaders for the city, the state and the region. We’re already doing that extremely well, as over 90% of our students choose to live and work here after graduation. That’s not something you can assume at other universities, right.

The second way to develop that brand and that position is really something that President Whitten and the board of trustees have worked on with the vision for this university, putting a focus on biosciences. I think that is absolutely the right focus, as not only does the region and the country need more of that, but we already have industry here. So, that’s going to give us a leg up when we work with them.

Cities develop when you have innovation, and innovations become inventions when they go into the marketplace. But all of that has to trace back to research, and at public research universities like ours, that’s what we do.

We’re setting up these two institutes focused on biosciences and human health and well-being research. And I think that just leverages what this region already has to offer, so our students can work for these companies, and our faculty can do research on precisely the things that will help grow partnerships with industry.

There is a historical rift between IUPUI and residents in neighborhoods to its north, largely because of how the university was established: By acquiring hundreds of homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods—either through purchase or eminent domain—to make way for the campus that is here today. Given the role of Indiana Avenue as a historic main street for Black culture in Indianapolis, what role do you hope it and the neighborhoods play in the future IU Indianapolis?

I’m just beginning to understand parts of that story … but they are our neighbors, and we have to be good citizens. We have to learn to work with our neighbors and listen to them, understanding how they feel about what happened.  What’s happening now, listening, is obviously the first step. I don’t know how those conversations will go, but I have to be willing to sit down with them and listen and to hear the concerns they may have, to see how we can work together. We cannot turn back the clock. I cannot redefine history. But what I can do is to start with listening and ensure that we treat everyone with respect. That is high up in my playbook: It doesn’t matter who you are, we treat you with respect.

What will ultimately make your time as chancellor a success, and what do you hope you can look back on as something the university is able to achieve on your watch?

There’s certainly several metrics I can talk about, such as increasing enrollment in areas like health sciences and technology and informatics. Not because I think it’s fashionable, but because that’s what the country needs. We’re also interested in growing our research so that it improves the lives of human beings in a very tangible way. We’d love for this nation and this state to look at IU Indianapolis and say that an item that fill-in-the-blank uses—my spouse, my partner, my child, whoever—would not have been possible but for the research that was done at IU Indianapolis. I think that would be the real testament to our success, making a real impact in the lives of others.

Is there anything else that you want our readers to know?

Just that I’m excited, and that excitement really derives from the people. I didn’t come here because we have $100 million in XYZ or we have a bunch of fancy buildings. It’s the people who make a difference, and it’s those relationships. I have received numerous flowers and plants to my office from colleagues at Houston and Missouri and that means a lot. I hope that that’s the same kind of culture we will build here, because when we have those relationships and we can work together, we really can accomplish anything we set our minds to—whether it’s healing some of those relationships across Indiana Avenue or it’s working with the state. Whatever the challenge, if we can bring people together and really think of this as a collective group, it will improve not just my life, but the lives of others I serve. I think we can get there.

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