As a teenager Bala Balchandran argued with his father over why he did not want to become an IAS officer and why he wanted to go to the US to pursue a career in academics.
“While IAS was a good alternative, a politician, who may not be as smart as you are, would always be your boss and you will have to do whatever he wants you to do,” he would counter-argue. Bala, now J L Kellogg Distinguished Professor of Accounting and Information Management Northwestern University, told rediff.com over the phone from Chennai recently.
Bala — his students fondly address him as Uncle Bala — finally reached American shores in 1967 on a scholarship to the University of Dayton to do his engineering masters in industrial operations. From there it had been a fruitful and satisfying journey as he went on to teach at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, where he also did his doctorate and to Kellogg School of Management.
Earlier, after completing honours in statistics Bala began his teaching career with Annamalai University from where he had graduated earlier. A bright student throughout his academic career, he completed his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in two years instead of four. He won a gold medal for his thesis –“Nobody got (a gold medal) in Carnegie Mellon before me or after me and until today,” he told rediff.com.
Bala strongly believes that what India today needs is a youthful leadership as older people don’t fit into scheme of things. “India’s youth between 25 to 45 years of age should take charge of the country’s destiny,” he says.
Bala discussed his life’s challenges, achievements, ambitions, inspirations, success mantras, what he thinks about India’s youth and why top-rung foreign schools and universities will never come to India with Prasanna D Zore.
“Harvard will not establish a school here (in India) no matter what,” he said.
Were you always interested in academics?
Yes. Actually, my father wanted me to go for IAS. I wanted to be totally independent and the job of a professor allowed me to remain independent.
But in between I was a second lieutenant of the National Cadet Corps because I am a very patriotic Indian. When the Chinese attacked India in 1962 I had decided to join the Indian Army without telling my family. So I worked full time as a Captain for two years managing a battalion from 1965 to 1967.
Then in 1967 I got my scholarship to go to the US to do an engineering course in industrial operations. I took advantage of this opportunity and went to the US.
What challenges did you face when you first landed in America as a student at the University of Dayton?
Fortunately or unfortunately I was married. I had a one-year-old child when I reached there at 28. The money I received from my scholarship was good only for one person so I had to leave my child and wife behind in India. I wanted to establish myself before I could bring them to stay with me.
Later I got a job as an assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, after finishing my masters in engineering at Dayton. This additional income allowed me to bring my wife there. But as she wanted to do her MS in Biology in US we decided to keep our son back in Chennai at his grandparents’ house for some more time.
After I went to do my PhD at Pittsburgh and by when my wife finished her MS, we decided to bring back our child to US when he was 5. At least one parent was in a position to look after the child then.