It was a celebration 70 years in the making.
While each of the Indiana University events of the past week here in Bangkok brought their own waves of excitement, energy and enthusiasm, members of the IU delegation – from the very start of their trip to Thailand – had Friday on their minds, knowing it was going to be extra special. And it was.
The buzz surrounding us actually began many hours before Friday morning. Slowly but surely our hotel was transformed into a palace-like setting, with purple flowers, flags, drapes, valances and other adornments placed all along the lobby, as well as a staircase leading up to the second-floor event space. There, where there were even more violet decorations, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who is the third child of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit and whose birth color is purple, would grace our presence at a grand gathering of IU’s Southeast Asian and other alumni to celebrate the university’s extraordinary seven decades of engagement in Thailand.
It turns out that purple and IU cream and crimson make for a perfect match, which would surprise no one who knows even a little bit about the university’s long and storied history here.
Amidst all the craziness of the massive preparations for the princess’s arrival, which included more than 200 security staff, there was time to reflect on how IU reached the point of honoring 70 years of this landmark partnership, one of the longest official relationships IU has with an international partner.
We could also take stock of recent university-led activities and initiatives that have strengthened IU’s relations with Thailand and Southeast Asia, more broadly, as IU rapidly approaches its Bicentennial, which will commence in July and which promises to be a truly global celebration.
Spurred by a number of classic old photos framed outside Friday’s event space, one could only wonder what IU’s legendary 11th president Herman B Wells might’ve been thinking when he struck up a friendship with Mom Luang Pin Malakul, then the permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Education, when the future minister of education and culture was visiting several Thai graduate students who were studying at IU.
As visionary and worldly as he was, could Wells have imagined that IU teachers and scholars would have such a transformative impact in Thailand, essentially creating the foundation for the country’s current system of higher education? Future IU presidents Joseph Sutton and John Ryan visited Thailand often in the 1950s, at a time when the Royal Highness’ father, His Majesty King Bhumibol, sought better tools and data to inform important policy decisions. Could they have predicted that the fledgling Institute of Public Administration at Thammasat University, which IU helped build, would’ve led to another IU-established institute, the National Institute for Development Administration, which is now in its second half-century? Could they have foreseen that IU’s academic partnerships here would blossom across such a wide span of fields, including business, public affairs, law, optometry and dentistry?
And what might have been going through the minds of the first large class of Thai students who touched down in the mid-1950s at the small strip of land in landlocked Bloomington that is now Monroe County Airport? Could they have known they were making history and setting the stage for decades of student exchanges? Could they have ever envisioned a time when there would be over 1,000 Thai alumni of IU living and working around the world? Could they have foreseen a day when IU graduates would be among the most prominent members of Thai society, serving as leaders in business, government, health care and higher education?
IU’s great global ambassadors
Here once again, I’m quite certain I can speak for other members of the delegation when I say that meeting up with and celebrating our international alumni is one of the best parts of any trip, and it’s always nice to save the best for last as we did on Friday.
Before greeting Princess Sirindhorn, Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie, along with several other senior IU representatives and leaders from a number of partnering Thai universities, took time to honor four of IU’s most esteemed Thai alumni for their distinguished careers and for their service to IU and their home country.
After introductory remarks from IU Alumni Association Board of Managers Chair Robert Johnson and a short welcome from President McRobbie, awards were handed out to:
- Thanpuying Petchara Techakampuch, former dean of dentistry at longtime IU partner Chulalongkorn University, who served as the personal dentist to the late King Rama IX. A 1959 graduate of IU, she is renowned for establishing many innovative medical procedures. (She introduced Thailand’s first porcelain bridge and crown procedure.) She also helped initiate a number of influential educational and research programs and organizations, such as the Royal Dental Unit, which she has directed since 1976. She received the IU School of Dentistry Award. And this week, the IU School of Dentistry is co-hosting an international conference in Thailand.
- Khun Paiboon Nalintrangkurn, who received an MBA from the Kelley School of Business in 1991 and is a successful entrepreneur working in the field of investment and securities. He is the chairman and CEO of Deutsche TISCO Investment Advisory, the chairman of Investment Analysts Association and chairman of the Federation of Thai Capital Markets Organizations. A member of the Kelley Global Dean’s Council, which is holding its spring 2019 meeting here in Bangkok, he was presented with the Kelley School of Business Dean’s Medallion.
- Khun Pakkaphon Ngamlak, chief operating officer of Charoen Pokphand Group, Thailand’s largest private company and one of world’s largest conglomerates, operating in agribusiness and food, retail and distribution, and telecommunications. A 2004 and 2005 degree holder from the IU Maurer School of Law, which is also holding a meeting here with its Dean’s Global Advisory Board, he received the school’s William J. Hicks Award for Distinguished International Alumni.
- Saisuree Chutikul, who received a master’s degree and doctoral degree from the IU School of Education in 1957 and 1962, respectively. As a senator, cabinet minister, representative to the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, advisor to the Thai prime minister and global activist, she has mounted several successful social policies and laws to protect the rights of women and children. Her recent groundbreaking research covers the areas of early childhood care and development, addressing violence against children and anti-trafficking. While at IU she also studied piano under the legendary Menahem Pressler at the IU Jacobs School of Music. She received the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion for Distinguished Achievement, which fellow School of Education alumna Pusadee Tamthai accepted in her absence.
Of course, each of these individuals, who were accompanied by proud family, friends and colleagues, deserves his or her own story for how they have scaled the highest heights, inspired their peers and acted as great global ambassadors for IU in Thailand and across Southeast Asia. For now, I’ll just report that the state of Indiana and its flagship public university are well represented among the most influential people contributing to the economic vitality and quality of life in the region. (But please stay tuned for a forthcoming “IU in Thailand” media project that will bring to spotlight even more of these remarkable people!)
The princess and the power of education
At last, it was time for Her Royal Highness’ highly awaited entrance into the Grand Hall. More than 250 IU alumni, partners and friends, representing an extraordinary 17 countries, gathered in hushed silence as Princess Sirindhorn was escorted by her security detail into the room, followed closely by IU President McRobbie; IU first lady Laurie Burns McRobbie; IU Vice President for International Affairs Hannah Buxbaum; IU Associate Vice President for International Partnerships Shawn Reynolds; and Peter Boonjarern, director of the new IU ASEAN Gateway office and IU Thai alumnus. (A royal shout-out to Peter, who spent countless stressful hours in the weeks before our arrival making sure the IU delegation knew where they were going every step of the way during this highly scripted, highly monitored event that would be broadcast on all the Thai news stations later that evening. If you’re reading this now, Peter, please go to sleep!)
For their part in the procedural, McRobbie, Buxbaum and Boonjarern presented gifts to the princess, including a special stole commemorating the princess’s honorary IU alumna status and expressing gratitude for all she has done to foster the longstanding friendship between IU and Thailand, as well as a copy of the book “Indiana University Bloomington: America’s Legacy Campus,” written by former IU vice president and distinguished alumnus Terry Clapacs and published by Indiana University Press.
McRobbie then took to the stage to share a little about the history of the IU-Thai friendship, which is still mind-boggling in its scale and scope no matter how many times I write about it. He also delivered an update on IU’s recent successes, including its record international engagement, the continued growth of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and how IU has expanded its presence in the princess’s home country and all throughout Southeast Asia through the establishment of the IU ASEAN Gateway office, which McRobbie formally dedicated earlier this week.
When IU presented Princess Sirindhorn with an honorary degree in 2010, it was in recognition of her efforts, which continue today, to expand and improve public education all across Thailand, especially in remote and rural areas. She truly is a living embodiment of the power of education to improve lives and make a difference. She graduated with honors in history from Chulalongkorn University, the oldest and top-ranked university in Thailand and a longstanding partner of IU, and she has amassed advanced degrees in oriental epigraphy, Pali and Sanskrit, and developmental education. She teaches at the history department of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, where she is the nominal head of the department. In addition to Thai, she speaks fluent English, French and Mandarin Chinese, and she has studied German and Latin. She also translates Chinese literature into Thai and is a skilled performer of Thai traditional music.
In addition to performing daily royal duties, Princess Sirindhorn, 63, has worked on a number of important initiatives in Thailand, including providing basic education for school children in remote border areas, promoting plant genetic preservation and gene bank projects, instituting IT efforts to help the disabled achieve independent living, and developing nutritional campaigns to improve the well-being of Thai people. Some of these projects, which she began when she was in her 20s, continue to this day.
One of her active passions is philanthropy. She has established a number of philanthropic foundations, public service organizations and humanitarian charities, including the H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Charity Fund, which supports projects that improve quality of life and help those suffering from catastrophe. She has also supported royal scholarships for students in countries she has frequently visited, such as China and Tibet. Proceeds from her written accounts of her overseas travels support the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Foundation, which was established in 1979 to help needy students in schools, vocational colleges and universities.
Thus it was fitting that the celebratory event included a “Women in Leadership and Philanthropy” panel, hosted by IU first lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, a master’s degree-holder from the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The panel featured three remarkable women, who, like Princess Sirindhorn, exemplify the ways in which female leaders are shaping the economic and civic landscapes in Thailand today. They included Pusadee Tamthai, a leading figure in government and education in Bangkok who served as deputy governor of Bangkok and director of both Women in Politics and of the Democratic Party here in Thailand, among her other civil society roles; Duangjai Asawachintachit, secretary general at the Office of the Board of Investment in Thailand, where she has performed a variety of roles over 30 years; and Juree Vichit-Vadakan, director for the Center for Philanthrophy and Civil Society at the National Institute for Development Administration, former NIDA president and a longtime advocate for civil society and gender equality. Besides all of their long list of honors and achievements, all three women are IU alumna.
As the princess watched and intently took notes, the panelists had an illuminating discussion on the state of women’s leadership in Thailand, the challenges female leaders face and potential strategies for reducing barriers to women rising to leadership positions and exercising their power through philanthropy. Despite many considerable cultural and political differences between the U.S. and Thailand, both countries have strong traditions of women achieving top leadership positions in business, education and government and exercising major philanthropic giving. As first lady McRobbie noted, Thailand, in particular, has enviable levels of women in chief executive roles compared with other countries, at 40 percent, and it has been among the leaders in women’s higher education.
All three guest speakers talked openly about the major hurdles still facing women seeking a level playing field with their male counterparts, but they said progress is being made.
“Things are changing in favor of women … much slower than we would like, but they are changing,” Tamthai said.
“In high society, in business and education, women are acquiring prominent leadership positions,” Vichit-Vadakan added. “There are quite a few women who are now university presidents, but in politics and other areas we still have had a difficult time. There is still an old boys’ network, and in Thai society, women are still expected to maintain family relations and social relations. But younger women are now much more aware of gender issues because of the internationalization of our society.”
Each of the panelists concurred that building confidence in women at the earliest ages, providing strong female role models and mentorship, and opening more pathways to education are the keys to seeing more women advance and fulfill their career and philanthropic goals.
When the princess finally spoke, she talked proudly of her strong “link to IU” and shared a story about a life that has been transformed by education and the colleges and universities that have played such a major role in her personal and professional development over more than four decades. “What I’m doing now, it is all because of my interest, beginning as a young woman, in education,” she said.
With that and a few more words, the princess departed, making way for what has quickly become a fun and exciting tradition at IU international alumni events: the presentation of commemorative stoles to graduates going back many decades. On Friday afternoon, IU alumni from the 1950s and onward, who had been glued to their seats while the princess spoke, raced to accept their stoles from senior IU leaders, catch up and laugh with old friends, take selfies and group photos in front of the large IU banners in the room and completely fill the large grand ballroom with IU spirit.
Just as I was leaving, happily drained by all the festivities, I happened to run into Chris Kusovski, one of our three Kelley School of Business students studying this spring semester in Bangkok, whom we met earlier in the week during our trip to Chulalongkorn University. Though he still has some work to do before graduating, someone had draped a stole over him, causing him to think about what it might be like, many years from now, when he could call himself a veteran alumnus. Chris’ crystal ball might still be hazy – and his career ambitions could take him anywhere in the world, possibly even back to Bangkok – but looking around at all of the proud alumni in the room, the future business analyst had no problem making one strong prediction.
“I know I’ll always stay connected to IU.”
A final postcard
Early Saturday morning, in a much calmer, more casual and more intimate environment, President McRobbie addressed members of the Kelley School of Business Global Dean’s Council, which was holding its spring meeting just a few yards away from where the Her Royal Highness held court just a few hours prior. (In attendance was Patrick Decker, a Kelley alumnus and president and CEO of Xylem, whose company played a major role in the dramatic 2018 rescue of a dozen members of a youth soccer team and their coach, who had been trapped in a flooded Thailand cave.)
After a whirlwind week of meetings with universities, educational institutes, businesses, government agencies, cultural organizations and alumni groups, you might think we had exhausted all of the important information about IU’s continuing international engagement we hoped to leave with our friends and partners this week. But President McRobbie had a few more facts in his data arsenal – highlighting how IU’s Bloomington campus has seen a whopping 43 percent increase in applications from potential students from Thailand and a 28 percent increase in applications from the ASEAN region overall. Around 430 students from ASEAN are currently enrolled at the university, and they hail from eight of the 10 ASEAN countries.
What’s more, McRobbie added, we continue to see dramatic increases in IU domestic students choosing to do a period of study abroad in Thailand and Southeast Asia. These students, many of whom call the Hoosier state their home, are increasingly drawn to an area of the world that is expected to exert enormous influence on economic and geopolitical affairs of the world in the years to come – the years in which they will determine whether we meet humanity’s most vexing problems.
As we prepare to leave Thailand and the kind and wonderful people we have met up with here, including our many loyal, enthusiastic and supportive alumni, I can proudly report that the seven-decades-long story IU continues to write in Southeast Asia is having an extraordinary impact on educating our students, supporting our world-class faculty and strengthening the communities back home in Indiana and all around the globe that we serve as we pursue our core missions.
Thanks to all who have followed our travels, and here’s to the next 70 years of IU engagement in Thailand!