In the book “Herman Wells Stories,” published by Indiana University Press in 1992 to commemorate the 90th birthday of IU’s legendary 11th president, Charles F. Bonser – the founding dean of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs – shares an anecdote about Wells’ uniquely close-knit relationship with Thailand. The story begins when the late Kelley School of Business dean George Pinnell and Bonser, then acting as Kelley’s associate dean, were visiting Bangkok in 1970.
Bonser writes, “The Thai National Institute of Development Administration held a reception and luncheon in our honor. During the reception we were brought over to a tall, distinguished gentleman who was introduced to us as Prince Wan Waithayakon. He was the uncle of the King of Thailand. His first words to us were: ‘How is Herman?’ We responded that he was quite well, thank you. Then he said, ‘And how is his mother?’”
Today, thanks to Wells and the many individuals who have worked to continue the friendships he famously initiated, IU is celebrating 70 years of close and lasting friendship with the people of Thailand. As IU rapidly approaches its Bicentennial celebration, the university’s ties to this historically, culturally and politically dynamic country – and to Southeast Asia more broadly – are as active and extensive as ever, in a way that even Wells – prescient internationalist that he was – would’ve been hard-pressed to fully envision.
A lasting and ever-evolving relationship
Seven decades have passed since Wells struck up a personal friendship with Mom Luang Pin Malakul, then permanent undersecretary for education in Thailand, who came to Bloomington in 1948 to visit with Thai graduate students who were studying at IU. Since then, the university has maintained a close institutional relationship with the Thai government, while also contributing greatly to the creation of the country’s modern system of higher education.
These educational and institution-building activities have led to a vast array of teaching, scholarly, research and service opportunities for hundreds of IU faculty and students. What’s more, they have helped a landlocked Midwestern public university establish itself as one of the United States’ leading educational institutions engaged in the study of one of the most economically and geopolitically important parts of the world.
Much of our international activity related to Thailand and the surrounding region is centered in our Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, which houses the recently established Southeast Asian and ASEAN Studies program. The program is home to new degrees and enhanced language offerings in Thai, Indonesian and other regional languages. It also seeks to foster a greater and more comprehensive understanding of the economies, governance, culture, languages and security of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of 10 countries in Southeast Asia and a growing global power. (Case in point: If it were a country, ASEAN would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. It would also encompass the world’s third-largest labor force.)
IU currently welcomes nearly 60 students from Thailand each year to its campuses, and they are integral members of our increasingly diverse community of scholars. In recent years, an equal number of IU domestic students, spanning a variety of academic disciplines, have traveled to Thailand to pursue study abroad experiences in a country of extraordinary history and culture.
This academic year alone, IU has more than 400 students from countries that are members of ASEAN, and in recent years the university has had students from every ASEAN nation represented at IU.
The university now has more than 1,000 Thai alumni living and working around the world, many of whom have gone on to positions of great distinction in business, education, government, health care, higher education and other important fields.
And IU’s history of institution-building efforts in Thailand is simply unmatchable. As one of the founding members of the Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities, IU was involved in the establishment of the Institute of Public Administration at Thammasat University in 1955.
A decade later, IU helped guide the development of the National Institute for Development Administration, now one of Thailand’s leading institutions of higher education. Since its establishment, NIDA has trained thousands of the Thai government’s top executives and diplomats for service across the country and around the world, and IU’s close partnership with NIDA continues today through exchanges of faculty and graduate students.
In the 1960s and 1970s, IU also helped establish 16 teacher colleges in Thailand, many of which are now four-year, comprehensive universities.
And in 2016, IU President Michael A. McRobbie stood alongside several of Thailand’s most eminent statesmen, transformative educational leaders and other important figures at NIDA’s 50th anniversary celebration. He was also the only U.S. college or university president asked to give a keynote speech at the special event.
Introducing the IU ASEAN Gateway
McRobbie, accompanied by IU Vice President for International Affairs Hannah Buxbaum, returned to Thailand on Tuesday morning for another ceremony – the ribbon-cutting and formal inauguration of the new IU ASEAN Gateway office – signaling the newest chapter in IU’s long and storied history of engagement with Southeast Asia.
Located just behind the old Australian Embassy in central Bangkok, the new office will serve as IU’s “front door” to the 10 ASEAN member-nations, including Thailand, linking IU students and faculty to opportunities in the region, while also connecting international students, alumni and partners to IU.
The office is directed by Peter Boonjarern, a Thai-American born and raised in Indiana and a 2000 alumnus from IU’s Kelley School of Business. Boonjarern, who is also president of IU Alumni Association’s Thailand Chapter, will spearhead IU’s on-the-ground work here in Bangkok to identify ways the new office can help facilitate new study abroad opportunities for IU students, help faculty conduct research on ASEAN and even help fellow IU alumni relocate to the region, as he did, and stay closely connected to the university. (Read more about Peter in an “IU Is Everywhere” feature story.)
Like its sister facilities in Beijing, Berlin, New Delhi and Mexico City, the IU ASEAN Gateway will also be expected to help expand and enhance the university’s global engagement through support for conferences and workshops, distance learning initiatives, executive and corporate training, alumni events and more.
Meeting with old friends
Like the aforementioned other IU global facilities, the new IU ASEAN Gateway would be put to good use almost immediately.
Fittingly, the first official meeting at the ASEAN Gateway was with IU’s friends at NIDA, led by their newly installed president, Kamphol Panyagoometh, who was quick to praise IU’s new space and suggest that it would result in even greater interaction between the Thai national institute and IU.
IU and NIDA have, in fact, had a very lengthy and productive partnership that has enabled numerous exchanges of graduate students as well as teaching collaborations among faculty, particularly in the areas of business and public affairs. Today’s meeting provided an opportunity for the leaders of both institutions to begin to envision the future of the IU-NIDA partnership. This includes rejuvenating successful existing initiatives, as well as exploring the potential for new collaborative activities in areas of strong mutual interest, such as alumni networking, institution-building, philanthropic giving, public health and online learning.
In its first day of operation, the ASEAN Gateway also opened its doors to NIDA’s former president and another longtime friend of IU, Sombat Thamrongthanyawong. Dr. Sombat, to whom IU awarded an honorary doctorate in 2013 for his contributions to higher education and to the people of Thailand, is now the president of Wailalak University in southern Thailand.
As members of IU’s delegation learned more about today, Dr. Sombat has been working aggressively to develop both the faculty and the physical infrastructure at the relatively new public university, which was founded in 1992, including the construction of a new hospital that will be a regional center. He also recently welcomed a delegation from the IUPUI campus, which was led by Chancellor Nasser Paydar, to explore the possibility of scholarly exchanges and other collaborative activities between IUPUI and Wailalak.
A final IU story
Since I began this blog with a story, I’ll end it with a quick one from the IU delegation’s enjoyable lunch with several proud and highly accomplished IU alumni currently living and working in Bangkok.
Seated across from President McRobbie was Caranee Thianthai, who received her IU bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1971, married a fellow IU graduate and went on to become a top executive at Nestle.
Thianthai’s mother was a member of IU’s first class of Thai students, who came Bloomington in the mid-1950s, arriving at what is now Monroe County Airport.
To our delight, Thianthai shared a photograph of that historic occasion, which we all eagerly passed around. As you’ll see below, it was truly a wonderful visual representation of how deep IU’s roots here in Thailand truly are.