Asia Society’s Vishakha Desai to Join Columbia as Special Advisor for Global Affairs and Faculty Member

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger has announced that Vishakha Desai, former president and chief executive of the New York-based Asia Society, will join the University as his special advisor for global affairs while also serving as a professor of practice at the School of International and Public Affairs, effective January 1.

Columbia News Staff
October 03, 2012

“Vishakha Desai has had wonderful success leading the Asia Society,” said Bollinger. “This is, in part, due to her abilities both to understand people from the many sectors involved in globalization—the arts and academia to business, government and NGOs—and to develop a fine grained understanding of the way deep cultures are interacting with the powerful economic and secular forces in our society. Her insights and experience will contribute greatly to Columbia both here on our campus and around the world at our Global Centers.”

Desai spent 22 years at the Asia Society, an educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships in Asia and the United States, the last eight years as its president. She steered the organization to significant growth in its education, art, business and public policy programs, including the establishment of a Center on U.S.-China Relations and major new facilities in Houston, Hong Kong, South Korea and India. Asia Society’s global reach now includes a presence in 11 cities in Asia and the U.S.

“I am excited about working with President Bollinger and others to develop a coordinated approach to Columbia’s global ambitions,” said Desai. “I admire the University’s distinctive commitment that combines intellectual, geographic, in-person and virtual connections to prepare globally competent and globally literate students. I have been privileged to work on similar projects at Asia Society and I hope to bring that experience to Columbia.”

She has been a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, a board member at the Brookings Institution, the Bertelsmann Foundation USA, India’s Auroville Foundation, Berlin’s House of World Cultures, and New York’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission, as well as Senior Advisor for Global Programs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. She is the editor of "Asian Art History in the Twenty-First Century" (Yale University Press).

“I’m delighted to welcome Vishakha to the SIPA community,” said Robert Lieberman, interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. “Her work on the cultural underpinnings of international relations will enrich both SIPA and Columbia Global Centers.”

A visiting professor at Columbia in 1995-96, Desai has taught at Princeton University, Williams College, Boston University, College of Charleston and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In addition to early work in education and public programs at the Brooklyn Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, she was assistant curator of Indian, Southeast Asian and Islamic Collections at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She has published catalogs of major exhibitions and holds five honorary degrees.

Born in India, Desai received her B.A. in political science from Bombay University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from the University of Michigan. She joins a group of scholars and administrators at Columbia focused on enhancing faculty research and student learning that cut across traditional academic boundaries and national borders—both on its home campus in New York and at recently established Columbia Global Centers around the world.

For example, former New York Public Library president Paul LeClerc, long a proponent of international education as president of Hunter and Baruch colleges in the City University of New York, recently became director of Columbia’s European Global Center in Paris. It is one of eight centers now operating in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and renowned urban sociologist Saskia Sassen co-chair the University’s Committee on Global Thought, and economist Jeffrey Sachs directs Columbia’s Earth Institute, a leading center of interdisciplinary research and teaching in environmental science and sustainable development around the world.

“Vishakha Desai is one of the world’s most distinguished and innovative historians of Indian art and architecture, and she is also a pioneer in conceptualizing the cultural dynamics of Asia’s history up to the present day,” said Nicholas Dirks, vice president and dean of Columbia’s faculty of arts and sciences. “Building on her success in expanding the reach and impact of the Asia Society, Vishakha has become a leading thinker on the intellectual and institutional dimensions of the new global environment and will join the outstanding group of scholars and administrators working together to chart Columbia’s global course.”