Dr. Nariman Farvardin received his B.S. ('79), M.S. ('80), and Ph.D. ('83) degrees all from Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering (ECSE) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He joined the University of Maryland as a faculty member in Electrical Engineering in 1984, and served as the department chair, Dean of Engineering, Provost, and Acting President until 2011 when he became the President of the Stevens Institute of Technology. He sat with ECSE head John Wen on Zoom for an interview on April 1, 2021. The following is an excerpt of the interview.
John Wen (JW): Hi Nariman, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, I know you must be very busy. We were fellow graduate students in the 80’s. It’s great to see you after so many years. You received your Bachelor, Master’s, and PhD degree all from the ECSE department. We are proud to count you as a distinguished alumnus. Could you describe the path that led you to RPI, to upstate New York?
Nariman Farvardin (NF): Yes, I'm happy to tell you about this. I was born and raised in Iran. I went to college in 1974 in Iran and I was scheduled to graduate in 1978. I started applying to a number of American universities, for my Master’s and PhD. My academic advisor in Iran was a graduate of RPI, and highly recommended RPI. I applied to four or five universities at the time, and RPI was one of them. Fortunately, I received admission from all the universities I applied to. But you may remember that in 1979, there was a revolution in Iran. For about a year prior to that, the whole country was in a state of chaos. And because of that, the University in which I was studying was physically shut down and I was unable to finish my studies. I contacted all of the universities that had given me admission for graduate programs to inform them that I was unable to come with an undergraduate degree because my university is closed so was it possible for me to transfer as an undergraduate student? Fortunately, all the universities said yes. But RPI was the only university that said yes AND that I could join them in the middle of the academic year in January. The other universities said, we only accept transfer students in the beginning of the academic year, which is the following fall. As the revolution was picking up steam, my father said, Son, you better go soon. So I contacted RPI, and I said, thank you, I'm joining you as an undergraduate transfer student.
JW: I'm so grateful to whoever at RPI at that time offered the flexibility, as it was the deciding factor for you.
NF: I should also give you the name of one faculty member who was immensely helpful to me. When I came from Iran, I didn't even have my full transcript because of the circumstances, so I only had an unofficial transcript. You remember Bruce Carlson? I have an enormous amount of respect for Bruce. Because when I came to this country, and I knew nothing, I was kind of homeless. I was helpless. He gave me the benefit of the doubt. He held my hand, and he gave me the guidance that I needed and the flexibility that I needed.
JW: Wow, that's an amazing story.
NF: Yeah, you know, giving a little bit of the benefit of the doubt to some people sometimes is good. If RPI had not been the first to give me that benefit, I would not have been where I am today.
NF: I came to RPI in January of '79. And I was determined to succeed. I finished my undergraduate program by the end of August, the same year, in eight months. Then I decided to continue for a Master’s and PhD.
JW: Did you decide right away on your field and your thesis advisor Jim Modestino?
NF: Well, the field, yes, I knew I wanted to work in communication; that decision was made when I was back in Iran. But not on Jim Modestino. When I came to RPI, I didn't know what is a private university, what is a public university. I was completely unfamiliar with the American system. I didn't know the culture. I didn't know the language. I didn't have a support system. I didn't have a friend, nothing. I came to the United States with $3,000, and I ran out of money by the end of August. I had received admission for the master's program from RPI. But I did not have any financial aid. And I was quickly running out of funds. If they were not giving me some financial aid, I would not have been able to stay. I would have had to go back. But it was Bruce Carlson, again, who arranged for me to become a teaching assistant for this course in linear systems which was a self-paced course. That's actually how I survived in the United States. That's what gave me the resources to stay in graduate school and be able to buy some food. In that first semester, I took a class in stochastic processes from Jim Modestino. And that was a very demanding class. I loved it. I just loved it. And Jim, if you remember, he would not take on new students lightly. He would wait until he was sure about the student. I had heard a lot of good things about Jim Modestino. I would have liked to be one of his students. But I didn't have any relationship until I took that course. In that course, I did very well. I was by far number one in the class. And when I had my first conversation with Jim Modestino about becoming his student, he immediately accepted me. That was the beginning of a new era.
JW: Do you have any other special memories about your experience at RPI?
NF: My four and a half years at RPI were total dedication to my studies. My undergraduate program was very tumultuous because of the revolution and I had lost about a year and a half. I was determined to make up for it. I really enjoyed my interactions with Modestino and my graduate program at RPI because from an educational point of view it was a very rich experience, so my best memories are the memories of interacting with my advisor, with my fellow PhD classmates, and with a couple of other professors that I really loved. In particular I remember Bill Pearlman. I had a tremendous amount of admiration for him, and I learned a lot from him, and John Anderson. These two people were very close to me. I had some math professors that I took classes with and I really liked working with them also.
JW: Maybe you can describe a little bit about your career path after leaving RPI. I think you went to Maryland directly?
NF: Yes. I defended my PhD in November of 1983 and immediately after that I packed up and moved to Maryland and joined Maryland’s department of Electrical Engineering as an assistant professor. I moved up fairly quickly, so I effectively started my Assistant Professor tenure in 1984 and then after three and a half years I was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and by 1993 I had become a full professor. It was in August 1994 one early morning that I received a telephone call from the department chairman's office. It was very early in the morning, maybe 7:30, and that was very unusual you know to get a call from the chairman's office so early. When I received this call, it was the chairman’s secretary and she said Bill [Destler] wants to see you. I panicked – I thought I must have done something wrong, so I went to the department chairman's office and what he told me was that he had been selected to become Dean of Engineering. So that was good news – I was relieved that it's not about me. I congratulated him and then he said but the reason I called you to my office is that I'm vacating this office now and I need an interim department chair and I want to offer that to you. Well at that time, I think I was the most junior full professor in the whole department and if I remember correctly the department had 42 full professors – I was number 42. I felt very good that the department chair had so much confidence in me. And I felt very scared, because I didn't know what that meant. I had zero administration experience. So I told Bill, thank you, I'm humbled and I appreciate it very much, but I need some time to think about it. I thought maybe I'll think about this for a couple of months, I'll talk to my colleagues and get their advice. He said, okay, you have 48 hours. So that 48-hour period changed the path of my career. Because I went back to him and told him I will do it. I'll give it a try. And that actually gave me the opportunity to learn about academic administration. Remember, this was August 1994. Now we are in March of 2021. And I have been on that trajectory ever since.
JW: Did you ever ask him why he made that decision, you know, out of 42 possible candidates?
NF: Well, yeah, I did. By the way, I am still in contact with him. It's a very interesting story, but that same department chair, who became Dean, later on became Provost. Then he became the President of Rochester Institute of Technology. And now he serves on the Board of Trustees at Stevens Institute of Technology, because he was a graduate of Stevens. So yes, I have asked him. And he basically told me that he had seen in me the kind of qualities that a successful department chair should have. And he thought that I'm younger and have maybe more energy, more ambition. Maybe I had more fire in the belly. Maybe I was complaining more about the problems that I could see, and he said take the problems on. I think those were the reasons. We're still very good friends. So, I became the department chair in 1994. First as the interim department chair for a short time, maybe six months. Then there was a search process, and I was selected to be department chair. I remained department chair for six years until 2000. And then 2000, I became Dean of Engineering, which was a very exciting experience for me. Really very, very exciting. That was the most rewarding part of my career at the University of Maryland. I was Dean for seven years, and I think I did a good job as Dean. The School of Engineering blossomed. So then after being Dean for seven years at Maryland, I became Provost, and now President of Stevens for ten years.
JW: So that must be quite a transition from a large public university, where you have to deal with the state legislature and the Governor, to a relatively small private university. How did you handle that transition? Why did you make that choice? You could have gone to other similar size public universities.
NF: Yes. For multiple reasons. One of the downsides of a large public university is that effecting change is very hard. For two reasons. One is just the sheer size. The larger corporations are much less agile, much less open to change, and they become very bureaucratic. Large public universities are just like that. And secondly, even if you don't have resistance from within, you have the political forces outside. Because I had been in academic administration at the University of Maryland, I had seen that negative aspects. And I kept thinking about how much more enjoyable it would be to be in a place that is somewhat smaller, and certainly not public. You have more flexibility. To be honest, I realize that I'm not going to be on this planet forever. And I asked myself, if I love my job, if I'm working day and night, dedicating a good part of my soul and my heart to my job, doesn't it make sense to see the fruits of your labor? So that was an incentive for me to be in a place where I could see the fruits of my labor more readily. In that sense, Stevens was an attractive place. It was somewhat smaller. It was definitely private. There were some aspects of it that looked very promising to me. First of all, the university had gone through a down period. I figured I can go there, make some improvement and get the gratification. Secondly, we are in a fantastic location, with great access to opportunities, truly unbelievable. Now we're taking advantage of our location. In summary, I believe I made a very good decision in that I am now able to see the fruit of my labor
JW: Even before the pandemic, there were increasing challenges to higher education, the changing landscape in terms of the delivery of the education and student profiles. The pandemic has compounded these challenges. At the same time there are also new opportunities with new federal investment in R&D. Where do you see the future of higher education?
NF: Let me preface this by saying I know that I don't have a crystal ball. But I will share my thinking. I've been thinking for quite some time, that a higher education program that provides some level of technical and technological literacy is going to be extremely important for the future of the country. It addresses the quality and longevity of educational experience of students. In that sense, a place like Stevens or RPI, or Carnegie Mellon or MIT, we have a leg up because technology is in our name, technology is part of our DNA. However, I think even our universities could do a much better job of incorporating a higher level of technological literacy throughout our curriculum. You know, for example, at Stevens, I can tell you with confidence because we are working on it, we are making sure that even students with a degree in English or Philosophy or History or Music or Finance are different from similar students in other universities in that they're more technologically savvy. I think the workforce of the future needs this. Either you provide it to your students, or you fall behind. I think the pandemic is going to accelerate that trend. The second thing that I would say is the modality of delivery of education. I think that modality is likely to change and change in a disruptive way. I think universities will be surprised. I personally think that what we call online education these days will convert to what I would call technology enabled education because online education really doesn't use that much technology. Online education only gives you the opportunity to take your classes from your office or from your home, but technology doesn't intervene in a big way. In my opinion future delivery of technology will include significant online components but also a significant amount of intervention by a smart artificial intelligence engine that is sitting somewhere personalizing the learning experience. I personally think that the tools will be developed not by universities but by the private sector but then the universities will embrace it. I may end up being completely wrong, but my feeling is that if this technology enabled education becomes a reality, there won't be 4000 universities offering that. There would be a much smaller number of universities.
JW: Why wouldn't everybody jump on the bandwagon and just adopt it when it’s available?
NF: They would try to adopt it, but just the same way that you don't need 4000 Googles because when you access Google you don't need to know where the data centers are sitting. All you need is your search results. So if you want to take a course in thermodynamics online, why would you care if it was 30 miles from you or 3000 miles from you?
JW: But maybe you could go to the lab in the residential college?
NF: Yes, the prediction that I make doesn't necessarily apply to everything. It only applies to those technology enabled online types of courses. For example, I personally believe that the undergraduate program will continue to benefit from an on-campus presence because as you know when you're 18 years old you don't go to college only to learn you go to college to grow up, to become an adult. You go to college to experience new experiences. You go to college to make mistakes and learn from them; an experience that cannot be obtained exclusively online.
But Master's programs can go entirely online at no loss.
JW: You and I both came to the United States from other countries, and we were the beneficiary of the openness of the American society and its education system. In the past several years, there is a trend to narrow that openness. Now with a pandemic, that trend has accelerated. How do you see the future and the importance of the international education?
NF: You're absolutely right, people like you and me have been the beneficiary of the openness in this country, the incredible opportunities that this provided us. But this country has also benefited from the people who are reasonably committed, ambitious, and have the wherewithal to learn and to succeed. We have come here, we have made this our home, and we've contributed to the society. And this country as a whole has benefited. That combination is a very good combination. Absolutely I hope our future politicians understand the value of this from both sides. Think about it. If you take the foreign born engineers, and scientists who are currently in this country, if you take them out, the entire R&D engine of the United States will come to a halt, for sure. Unfortunately, not too many politicians think about this. I'm hoping and praying that in the future, this country will remain open. I'm not suggesting that we just open the floodgates and let anybody in. But just be thoughtful about it. offer some openness, allow these brilliant minds, people who are determined to succeed, to join the country and continue to rev up the technological and economic engine.
JW: Finally, do you have any advice for our students, the young minds coming through today?
NF: I have only one advice. And that's the advice that I have used in my own personal life. We as human beings all have strengths and weaknesses. All of us do. Those strengths and weaknesses are different from person to person. But we all have some weaknesses. I have found one trick that helps me to compensate for my weaknesses. And that's by working hard. I always try to capitalize on my strengths. And I always compensate for my weaknesses by working hard. That combination has worked for me, and I think it will work for others.
JW: That's great advice. Thank you so much, Nariman. We hope that you will come back and visit us soon.