Media Speaks
In India a Top Private University Supports a School for Tribal People

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Global Edition, (Accessed on 2nd November 2010)

By Shailaja Neelakantan
Bhubaneswar, India

As the Founder of KIIT University, a top private institution here, Achyuta Samanta has built an institution that occupies dozens of buildings across 350 acres of plush land. Yet he has no office.

He prefers to do his work at a desk under a fragrant Kadamba tree, in a garden outside a University building where he meets foreign diplomats, Indian movie stars, journalists, and other visitors. Many treat him with reverence; some even touch his feet as if he were a modern-day Buddha.

Mr. Samanta politely waves away such adulation, but to many local people and higher-education officials, what he has created is nothing short of remarkable.

With little more than $100 and 12 students, Mr. Samanta in 1993 established a technical-training institute, the Kalinga Insitute of Industrial Technology, that eventually earned approval to provide undergraduate courses in engineering—the Holy Grail for a private Indian college. Later the government granted it University status in record time.

The courses at KIIT University have expanded to include management, biosciences, and law,. To build his teaching staff, Mr. Samanta attracted high-quality professors from across India, as well as a few from the United States and Canada, by offering two to three times the salaries they would earn at other top Indian institutions.

Today the University has 16,000 students and consistently ranks in the top 30 to 40 Indian private higher-education institutions.

KIIT University "is definitely the top University in Odisha, and we rank them among the top private universities in India," says Premchand Palety, Chief Executive of the Centre for Forecasting and Research, which ranks universities in India.

But Mr. Samanta says he did not start KIIT University to make money or earn personal prestige. He started it as a means to support the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a charitable effort to aid the desperately poor, indigenous tribal people of this southeastern state by offering them free education. (There are 62 tribes in Odisha and about 700 in all of India.)

"After 63 years of independence, they are so neglected and in such a wretched condition, they don't get one square meal a day," Mr. Samanta says. "Poverty in Odisha is more than the poverty in Congo."

While the social-sciences institute and KIIT University are separate entities, they are fundamentally tied together. Mr. Samanta founded them at the same time, and he uses the $3,400-per-student tuition he charges at the University to support the institute. The University provides the institute with 5 percent of its annual profits, and faculty members voluntarily donate 3 percent of their salaries to it.

The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, known as KISS, has 10,000 students, and offers a full range of educational services, including primary and secondary school, vocational education, and undergraduate and graduate courses. It's what Mr. Samanta and his staff like to call "a KG to PG" institution, that is, kindergarten to postgraduate. (In India, graduate programs are referred to as postgraduate programs.)

For the past nine years, all his tribal students entering grade 12—many of whom had probably never seen a chalkboard before they enrolled in KISS—have graduated. By comparison, Indian public high schools graduate only 60 to 70 percent of their senior classes, on average.

KISS's vocational, undergraduate, and graduate programs complement one another, Mr. Samanta says, because the vocational courses teach students how to "earn while they learn." While they study in college, he says, they can continue to send a third of their earnings—about $15 to $20—to their parents. For people who may be living on as little as a dollar a day, it's a significant amount.

KIIT University and the social-sciences institute are housed on a vast campus that is on par with the best Indian universities, with air-conditioned buildings, wireless Internet, multimedia classrooms, laboratories, and conference halls. The campus feels like an ashram with walkways connecting airy buildings and small ponds scattered throughout the grounds.

Despite the idyllic setting, for Mr. Samanta, the road to his success was anything but peaceful.

He grew up destitute in Odisha. His father died when he was 4, and he had to work to support himself from the age of 6 while attending school. Eventually he earned a graduate degree in chemistry.

In the early years of building the Kalinga institutions, debt collectors hounded him for the money he borrowed to start them. In 1995, he resolved to kill himself out of despair because his dream of helping the poorest of the poor was crumbling. "I had no way to pay it back, and people wanted their money back," says Mr. Samanta. At the 11th hour, a sympathetic loan officer from a local bank bailed him out—not only for the $32,000 he owed, but also giving him $56,000 to continue his efforts.

Now a spry 45-year-old, Mr. Samanta chuckles at the suicidal despair of his younger days. While he is still owes money for loans he's taken to build the University's top-class infrastructure, his efforts have offered assistance that observers say is crucial for Odisha's future.

Many tribal people in Odisha and in other poor states are joining a Maoist rebellion in droves—helping the rebels to gain control over a vast swath of eastern India. Many tribesmen join the rebels out of ignorance and because their lack of education leaves them with no real alternatives, Mr. Samanta says. "See, poverty creates illiteracy and literacy eradicates poverty. The moment one is literate all problems will be over, and I'm the best example."

The word about KISS has grown steadily in Odisha's poor interiors, and for the past three years the institute has been getting about 50,000 applications a year.

"I had financial problems, but I wanted to be self-dependent, so I was tutoring some students when I heard about this free institute," says Subhakar Singh, a second-year college student from the Mayurbhanj district, who entered the social-sciences institute in his junior year of high school. "This is a great institution, and now I also want to teach tribals," says the chemistry major.

KISS is also known for providing personalized attention to its students. "In school, it was each to his own, nobody cared about you," says Basu Hembram, from the Dhenkanal district, who entered KISS in eighth grade. "Here they care about each one of us," says the second-year sociology major.

True to his original vision, Mr. Samanta has big plans for KISS. He wants to start sending 30 or 40 students per year to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and another 30 to the competitive Indian Administrative Service, the country's civil service.

As for KIIT University, he doesn't have big changes in mind, saying that expanding it could threaten its quality.

Says Mr. Samanta, chuckling: "With its reputation, I can open a KIIT University branch in every state, but I'm not like that."

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Global Edition Media Speaks