Dr. Ajay Nair is the first person of color to be appointed president of Arcadia University, one of the first university presidents in the United States of Indian heritage who was born and raised in Philadelphia and one of the first leaders in higher education to be called a disruptor.
Nair credits his parents, who are community leaders and advocates in Philadelphia through the Kerala Art & Literary Association of America, for influencing his desire to serve the community. “At an early age, I was able to better understand that cultures are fluid and dynamic and that we do not and should not live in cultural boxes,” Nair states.
Nair’s book, Desi Rap: Hip Hop and South Asian America, co-edited with Murali Balaji, is a collection of essays from South Asian American activists, academics and hip-hop artists who write about racial identity, class status, gender, sexuality, racism and culture.
“In many ways, my own unique identity development shaped my interest and scholarship in race and ethnicity.” In the introduction to Desi Rap, Nair writes, “Hip-hop was the language for those of us who rebelled against both the expectations of the Anglo society and of our South Asian parents. Through this genre, we were able to carve out our own identity that allowed us to exist – quite vocally – in the expansive gray area between Black and White.”
In the afterword, Nair and Balaji adeptly summarize the essays, “Our voices and actions ultimately yield a kaleidoscope critique of our racial ambiguity and invisibility; we are empowered to evoke our multiplicity through action, reflection, debate and dialogue.
Nair entered college in the early 90’s “during turbulent times – racial uprisings in L.A., Mount Pleasant, Crown Heights, Washington Heights, Eastside Lexington, among many political challenges. “Racial and social justice became a primary focus of my work in college and beyond. I wanted to seek positive transformation for our world and I saw higher education as a vehicle for change.”
Changing the landscape in higher education has been Nair’s career mission. With leadership and faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia and the World Language Institute in Kwangju, South Korea, Nair has carved his role to be “a difference maker in the lives of students.”
Most recently, Nair served as senior vice president and dean of Campus Life at Emory University and has served on a wide range of university and civic boards including as director of the Division for Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice for NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators for Higher Education).
“We have a unique opportunity in higher education to discover new ways of knowing and understanding, and we should apply these ways to various societal issues domestically and internationally.”
Since his days as a student, Nair admits that today’s students face other challenges.
“There is increased scrutiny on higher education because of rising costs, lack of access, poor retention of students, among many things. The value of higher education has been called into question. Many students and families ask, “Is College worth it?”
Nair believes Arcadia’s value proposition is clear. “We will help students become both work-ready and life-ready.”
Nair was attracted to Arcadia’s bold history, which dates back to 1853 in Beaver, Pennsylvania formerly known as Fort McIntosh, created by General McIntosh of Washington’s Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. In December of 1853, a charter was granted and Beaver Female Seminary was founded. By 1872, the school was named Beaver College after receiving its college status. In 2000 the board of trustees made an historic decision to change its status and become Arcadia University.
Today Arcadia University delivers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs to over 4,000 students and holds its number one ranking for its study abroad program.
“Arcadia has always been forward-thinking. This is exciting. This is what we need to build on, and we must continue to be bold through academic, international, extracurricular and campus opportunities.”
Nair’s vision for Arcadia and the future of higher education is clear – he sees it as a global destination that delivers an “affordable, distinctive and relevant liberal arts experience. He answers his own question, “How will we get there?”
“Arcadia will get there by creating and maintaining a community in which scholars of all cultural backgrounds and thought perspectives are welcome and encouraged in their academic pursuits; a community that attracts and retains the faculty and students that are the best-fit for Arcadia and for whom Arcadia is the best-fit for them. I see a University that doesn’t simply follow best practices, but creates them.”
Moving back home to Philadelphia to become the 22nd president of Arcadia University was a dream-come-true for Dr. Ajay Nair.
“The rich and diverse heritage of Arcadia, Glenside, Cheltenham, and Philadelphia, as well as the global communities in which Arcadia serve, provide us with an extraordinary platform to be change agents. I feel I’ve been awarded the world.”