It’s a big year for Indiana University Indianapolis — and the university’s inaugural chancellor, Latha Ramchand, is well aware.

She started as chancellor on Monday, Feb. 12. Her appointment comes as IU Indianapolis prepares to sever ties with Purdue on July 1. Ramchand also will serve as executive vice president of IU and teach as a professor of finance in the Kelley School of Business. 

Prior to coming to IU Indianapolis, Ramchand most recently was provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Missouri. Prior to that, she was at University of Houston for more than two decades, where she started as an assistant professor and worked her way up to dean of the business school.

In a first-day interview with Mirror Indy, Ramchand spoke about her experience as a college student in India, her plans to support prospective and current students and how she sees IU Indianapolis’ role in a changing higher education landscape. 

Here’s that interview, edited for brevity and clarity: 

Ramchand is a first-generation college student

Question: I just wanted to ask — first day, how are you feeling?

Answer: Good, I’m excited. Honestly, I’m inspired by what I’m hearing from students, staff and faculty. Being with good people is perhaps the best way for me to pass my day, to feel good at the end of the day. It really is a big asset here, perhaps more so than people realize, because the commitment that people have to this institution is significant. That keeps me going, that’ll keep me going for a long time. 

Q: How did you get into higher education? How did you choose this path?

A: I’m a first-gen student and honestly, if it weren’t for a professor in India who just took interest and thought that I was capable of something and said, “Why don’t you go to the United States and study?” I was like, “Study what?” He said, “You can get a Ph.D.” (I said) “What is a Ph.D.?” and that’s how it got started.

After my bachelor’s degree, I applied for a master’s degree and I got admission into a university here, but my parents were hesitant. So then, they said, “You need to get married.” I said, “I don’t have time to go find someone or to date someone.” So my husband and I’ve been married for 40 years. It was an arranged marriage. 

But I came to the U.S. thinking, “I want to study here.” I got a degree in finance, worked in the bank and all that was great. And then someone invited me to be an associate dean. 

That’s when I realized the scope of higher education in this country. By far, we have the best system of higher education in the world. That’s why people like me want to come here. But what we have at institutions like ours is the ability to transform the lives of students in ways that nothing else can. Education has opened doors for me — there’s no way I could dream of being in this role if it weren’t for a degree. I almost got into it — not by accident, but not necessarily by intention. I just wanted to study. And then once you realize that you can serve thousands of students like yourself, then there’s no looking back. 

Building a brand for IU Indianapolis

Q: You’re coming into IU Indianapolis at a very unique time. How are you seeing your role and how are you seeing IU Indianapolis’ role in the changing higher ed landscape in the city?

A: What is inspiring to me is that there is a vision for this university, a vision that has been created by President (Pamela) Whitten and stewarded by the Board of Trustees. 

I see that vision as pretty compelling because it speaks to our strengths on this campus. We are in an urban location, we have the ability to serve the needs of the state and this region in very powerful ways through workforce needs, through training and grooming the talent that the industry needs. And the industries that are here are partnerships we can leverage given the kind of research we do — health care, bioscience, community medicine, community health — and those are the priorities they’ve set. 

That’s a compelling picture. That’s exhibit A. The second part of that is, yes, we are at a point where things are changing and change is always difficult. So in my role, I need to balance the excitement of that vision with the fact that we have to honor the legacy of the past. We are here today and we’re going to build on this thanks to a strong foundation that people who are here have helped create, and I should never forget that. So we need to respect and honor the past, but at the same time, know that we are looking toward a future where IU Indianapolis is going to be a brand here to stay that people will recognize and want to be a part of.

Supporting students 

Q: I’m curious what you think are some of the biggest challenges or barriers that college students face — or barriers to higher education — and how you plan to address them and support students. 

A: We have students who apply and we admit them. There are many out there who don’t apply because they feel overwhelmed, or their parents didn’t go to college, like mine (didn’t). What are we doing to reach out, to demystify this whole college experience? What else do we need to do to make that a little more transparent and user-friendly? You come on a campus — it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re coming from a small town or a small environment. So how do we make it easy for people to feel like, “No, this can be my home.”

As far as students who are already here, the question really is, what are their needs? What is it they want? It could be things like, “Hey, I’m not able to get into this course which I need to graduate next semester.” That’s a logistical issue, a transactional issue we need to be able to address. But I need for them to reach out and talk to us about it. We want students who feel comfortable saying, “This needs to be addressed.” Not all student needs can be addressed in a way that the student says, “That’s what I wanted,” because sometimes we have to make tough decisions. But listening to those students and understanding, what is it that you need right now? And how can we make your experience here more seamless, so that after you graduate you think, “Those were the best four years I spent in life.”

Building an institution for the long term 

Q: You mentioned a lot about your own experience and background and how that’s affected your journey in higher education. What unique perspective do you feel like you bring to this role from experience in India to your past experience in higher education to this role?

A: I look at all these roles. These are big titles given to people, but you have to earn the title every day. I serve our students. I serve our faculty. I serve our staff. And so my role is a service role, and I should never, ever forget that. The title has to be earned every day. I need to keep that service mindset front and center in everything I do. That means having the integrity to say, “This is not a popularity contest, and I’m going to make tough decisions because that’s what’s right for this institution in the long run.” That’s the kind of service I think about — not just service that will help me look good for the next year or the next five years — the things that will help this institution 10, 20 years from now.

On goals for her tenure at IU Indianapolis

Q: What is one goal or just some general things that you’re looking to accomplish in the next year? 

A: The immediate goal would be to get enrollment, research, to look at the vision that’s already been laid out to see how we can achieve those goals in a short period of time, bringing people together. Change is difficult, like we discussed. What is it that makes people uncomfortable about this change? And what can I do to help people understand that while it’s difficult, and while we honor the past, we have a vision, an exciting vision, ahead of us? 

I think we will get there pretty soon.

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.