Sitting in a lounge chair in the corner of his 19th-floor office in Michael Paul Galvin Tower, Raj Echambadi, in the midst of answering a question, pauses and interrupts his own train of thought. Then, without missing a beat, he asks me to follow him into the conference room that connects to his office via a closed door no more than 10 or so feet away.
Inside the room, softly lit by the cloudy mid-October sky, Echambadi points to framed photos that hang on its walls.
“These are our students,” the new Illinois Tech president says. “This is our community.
“It is important for us to help them accomplish their potential so that they can become impactful leaders in their communities”
— Raj Echambadi
The pictures were hung shortly after his arrival on campus at the direction of Echambadi, who took office in mid-August. Each of the photos features Illinois Tech students—some posed for portraits, others working in a lab—from all races, genders, and nationalities. This representation highlights Echambadi’s ethos built on empowering and providing opportunities for everyone to receive a quality education. It’s a worldview that helped Echambadi stand out among the candidates for the position.
“This is a daily reminder for all of us who make decisions in this room that it is not about us. It is fundamentally about these students from all different walks of life, as you can see,” he says, alluding to the photos. however we define it—and consequently, through them, we accomplish our potential and our impact as well.”
Echambadi, who served as the Dunton Family Dean at D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University most recently, compares his role to that of a symphony conductor. In the analogy, he says he is providing the platform to help others find success.
That perspective was instilled early in Echambadi’s life. Growing up in Chennai, India, he remembers the impact of his father, Ragavan, and his voracious reading habit, one that touched on a variety of topics ranging from spirituality and history to cutting-edge issues in science. Echambadi, too, embraced the practice, and he says it helped open his eyes to a variety of perspectives and ideas.
That inquisitiveness further developed in college, where he chose to pursue engineering despite being accepted to both engineering and medical school in India, and ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Anna University. While the idea of conceptualizing and building things attracted him to engineering initially—he briefly worked for Massey Tractors and Castrol in his home country after earning his bachelor’s degree—Echambadi says he was drawn more to the deeper lessons that the discipline taught him and how those dovetailed with his other interests.
“The interesting thing about my experience in engineering school was I was exposed to people from all walks of life. It taught you humility, because you’re surrounded by brilliant people and you realize early on that collaboration is key to success. It taught me to work with all types of people,” Echambadi says. “But the critical thing I remember was how, if you marry talent with passion, good things can happen….While I was talented in engineering, I was more passionate about learning how organizations work. That’s why I decided to pursue a graduate degree in business.”
Echambadi went on to earn an M.B.A. from Anna University and, after coming to the United States, a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Houston. From his time as a doctoral student and the more than a decade he spent working as a professor at the University of Central Florida through his time as a faculty member and administrator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Echambadi focused his research on strategic innovation within organizations.
It was through his academic work that his philosophy as a leader began to crystalize, specifically in understanding the importance of empowering others and helping them, and the organizations they worked for, find success through their ideas.
Having been the beneficiary of an accessible and affordable education, Echambadi says pursuing a career in higher education was important to him—allowing him to give back to something that impacted him so profoundly. When he became an administrator, though, two of his mentors, longtime Illinois faculty member Paul Magelli Sr. and businessman Ed Hajim, further influenced his passion for higher education by instilling in him a powerful purpose: to live your values every day, to promote diversity, and to embrace the “moral obligation” that universities have to educate people from all walks of life and to make them feel like they belong.
One of his biggest achievements at Illinois highlights how those ideas started to manifest. He developed the iMBA, a scaled, unbundled, and stackable online degree program, which allowed students from around the world to access an education that was a fraction of the cost of a normal M.B.A. program and to pick and choose the courses that they needed.
“What was there from day one—and we were completely aligned on this—was that we wanted this program to be about access, that we wanted everybody to have an opportunity to get this M.B.A.,” says Deanna Raineri, vice president and senior vice chancellor for experiential digital global education at Northeastern, who worked with Echambadi on the development of the iMBA program at Illinois. “That’s actually the reason why we took this to Coursera, because we knew, if we were successful, we would achieve scale with Coursera, which meant that we could dramatically lower the cost.”
That work continued at Northeastern, where he helped create interdisciplinary M.B.A. programs; partnered with businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations to bring education programs to people in all walks and stations of life; and spearheaded diversity and inclusion efforts, including the development of the Office of Student Engagement, Affinity, and Inclusion. The impact was felt beyond the classroom. A program that Echambadi helped develop with PwC sought to provide an opportunity for Black and Latinx students who had already earned bachelor’s degrees to work with the firm while pursuing master’s degrees in management at Northeastern, allowing those students both to start their careers and pursue an advanced degree and hours that counted toward professional licensure, like for a certified public accountant.
“One of the most unique aspects of Raj’s vision is that if you’re going to really be inclusive and expand educational opportunities, you have to also believe that the university is not the only place that people can learn, that learning can happen everywhere,” says Kemi Jona, assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern. “Rather than pushing back against that, he truly embraced that idea.”
His colleagues say that such accomplishments as an educator and administrator speak for themselves, but it’s Echambadi the person—his humility and his commitment to others—that make his move to Illinois Tech bittersweet: they’re happy for him to receive this deserved opportunity, but sad they no longer get to work with him.
“There’s not an elitist bone in his body. He welcomes students and colleagues from all walks of life,” Jona says. “He is truly someone who embraces the power of education to change lives, and truly embodies the motto I really like: lift while you climb.”
Adds Raineri, “I don’t call him a colleague. I don’t even really refer to him as a friend. I refer to him as my family. He’s like a brother to me, I’m that close to him….Raj cares about people. His kindness, it’s really exceptional.”●
Pillars of Strength
New Illinois Institute of Technology President Raj Echambadi aims to push the university forward by looking to its past and, specifically, its founding purpose—to liberate the collective power of difference to advance technology and progress for all—to serve as its guiding light.
Here are the four guiding pillars that Echambadi will adopt as the university’s leader:
- Opportunity Engine: As Chicago’s only tech-focused university, Illinois Tech will build upon its historic strengths, embrace the opportunities arising from the interweaving of technologies into every facet of our lives, and seize this vital moment to advance technology as a force for good and an opportunity engine for all.
- Reimagine Education: In an emerging world where digital platforms meld with physical locations to create new markets and new possibilities, Illinois Tech will build the hybrid capabilities to meet the needs of all students and learners with flexible offerings that produce the best return on investment in Illinois and among the best in the nation.
- Empower Students: The university will create a curricula and culture that kindles curiosity and sparks the innovative spirit of its students to prepare them to be impactful leaders in their communities and empower them with the knowledge, competencies, and human-centered skills to solve the grand challenges of our times and to shape an equitable world.
- Purpose-Driven Citizenship: Illinois Tech will work with the passion, commitment, and talent of our neighbors in Bronzeville and Chicago, as well as with our friends, donors, and alumni, to establish itself as a valued citizen in all of our communities through pursuing a philosophy to develop people to fulfill their potential.