MHC Welcomes Scholar-in-Residence

Posted: October 27, 2008

For Kavita Ramdas '85, the 2008 Carol Hoffmann Collins Global Scholar-in-Residence, returning to Mount Holyoke at autumn's peak is an almost magical experience. Greeting students in her first class of the week, she recalled being at Mount Holyoke for the first time in 1983 as a student: "When the leaves turned color, I literally thought someone had painted the trees."

Ramdas is president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, the world's largest foundation dedicated solely to advancing women's rights around the globe. Before taking charge of the fund, she spent ten years in Chicago working on anti-poverty initiatives for the MacArthur Foundation. She serves on Mount Holyoke's board of trustees and on other boards and councils, including the Global Development Program Advisory Panel to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the African Women's Millennium Initiative on Poverty and Human Rights. She has a master of public affairs degree from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.


Ramdas spent a busy four days at Mount Holyoke talking about a host of issues surrounding poverty and inequality worldwide. With candor, warmth, and enthusiasm, she shared her thoughts in classes, gatherings with faculty and students, and a public lecture. In the course History of Global Inequality, taught by Holly Hanson, associate professor of history and chair of African American and African studies, Ramdas talked with students about poverty, inequality, and global development. Among other things, she advocated spending for social activism rather than economic development as a means to alleviate inequality.

"The Global Fund wants to give people tools to pursue their well-being," she said. "We want to strengthen people's voices so their governments will hear them and be responsive."

In the course Muslim Politics in Modern South Asia, taught by assistant professor of history Kavita Datla, Ramdas spoke about the complexities of feminism and Islam. As a Hindu married to a Pakistani Muslim, Zulfiqar Ahmad (a former Hampshire College student whom she met shortly after coming to MHC), Ramdas brought her personal and professional insight to bear on the subject. She answered questions students had prepared beforehand on a wide variety of subjects, including the definition of feminism, goddess worship, her views of Islam and Mohammed, and why gender equality has advanced in certain cultures and not others. At the end of class, she thanked the students for their thought-provoking questions.

"The questions were so deep," she said. "It took a lot of time to answer them."

Ramdas greatly enjoyed her time in the classroom. "I have a secret fantasy to become a teacher," she said. "The Mount Holyoke students are amazing. They are not shy about asking difficult questions."

She admired the diversity of the student body, adding, "It makes teaching more exciting when there are people who actually live in those cultures [we teach about]."

Students found much to contemplate in Ramdas's presentations. Sarah McKnight '11 said, "Ramdas had so many powerful messages. I remember her advocating for the importance of connecting human rights to the fight for gender equality. For me, that message opened new possibilities of what feminist outreach could be."

Politics professor Kavita Khory '84 was especially pleased to welcome Ramdas to her class on world politics.

"We go back a long way," explained Khory. "We were at MHC at the same time, and both of us lived in Ham Hall, where we were referred to as big Kavita and little Kavita."

After the class, Khory commented, "Kavita has a remarkable ability to connect with students and engage them in conversations in a thoughtful and lively way. Rather than pander to them, she pushed them to think more carefully and critically about their assumptions, whether on the topic of women in American politics, religious fundamentalism in South Asia, or the Global Fund's advocacy for women's rights. She was very effective in linking theory with practice by giving concrete examples from projects initiated by the Global Fund for Women. She inspired our students in a way that very few of us can. Kavita is a terrific example of what a tough, ambitious, and very smart woman, armed with an MHC education, can accomplish."

Ramdas concluded her visit with a public lecture, titled Gender Equity in a Global World: Who(se) Rules?, in Gamble Auditorium Thursday evening. Addressing an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd, she spoke about equal rights for women in the broader context of achieving a just, fair, and impartial world for all. Women want equal rights, she said, but do we want equal rights in a society that tortures and exploits people? She praised the achievements of women "social entrepreneurs" who have, for example, worked to end domestic violence in China, to educate boys and girls in Afghanistan, and to curb pollution of the Ural Sea. These women, she said, have taken on "a bigger cause than their own individual equal rights."

She concluded by singing a verse of "Bread and Roses," a song that has inspired generations of Mount Holyoke women to work for social change. Answering questions from the audience, she urged women and men to work together to achieve equity within the family and broader community.

"Equal does not always mean the same," she said. She also emphasized the importance of being open-minded and listening to those with different points of view.

"So many liberals are intolerant and judgmental of others," she said. "We must really listen and examine our own perceptions. If we don't, we become 'secular fundamentalists.' "

Eva Paus, director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, expressed profound admiration for Ramdas. "Kavita has a unique ability to draw out complexities in a simple way. In all the different interactions with members of the community, she made us think beyond dichotomies, whether it's in the male/female context, the liberal/conservative context, or the NGO/Wall Street context. Her personal and professional path has made her truly a global citizen. She has impressed us with her wisdom, insight, down-to-earth approach, realism, and hope. Her visit this week has been truly inspiring."

Previous scholars-in-residence include Rami Khouri, executive editor of the Beirut Star; Gro Brundtland, former director general of the World Health Organization and three-time prime minister of Norway; Guy Standing, an expert on labor and globalization; and Dr. Gerald Caplan, a leading authority on genocide and genocide prevention.

Related Links:

AudioDirect MP3 Audio - Part 1: Intro by Eva Paus(2 MB, Time: 4:15)

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audioDirect MP3 Audio - Part 2: Kavita Ramdas(19.4 MB, Time: 42:15)

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McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives