The American College: A culture of excellence

For more than 135 years, The American College in Madurai has consistently innovated to deliver the highest quality education to one and all.

Published : Mar 02, 2020 07:00 IST

A view of the main building.

A view of the main building.

More than a centuryafter it was established, The American College, Madurai, a rare institution of its kind to be established at that time outside metropolitan India, is setting the standard for education and innovation that cater to present-day needs and challenges.

From mulling the introduction of disability studies to using flash mobs to capture the hearts and minds of people across the city to helping the local corporation in studying the water channels, the college, located in the heart of the city, has been at the forefront in tackling social issues and making serious attempts to include in the curriculum learnings from the immediate social and cultural environment.

“The college has maintained its contemporaneity by offering courses in biochemistry, biotechnology, microbiology, computer science, business administration, and social work,” said the Principal, Dr M. Davamani Christober.

Elaborating on how the college has constantly introduced innovative courses, Dr Christober said: “The Department of Religion, Philosophy and Sociology contains in itself a rare combination of subjects seldom found elsewhere. It was started in 1985 and this is the only college in Asia to have such a department. Besides, there are innovative courses such as gender studies, Dalit studies, folk arts, and epigraphy.”

It is clear that each of the courses was introduced after a great amount of deliberation within the campus and in consultation with the people in the locality.

Dr Christober is quick to point out that the college has been lucky to receive great support from its academic council, the governing body of the college, the Madurai Kamaraj University and the University Grants Commission (UGC) in all its endeavours.

“There are so many good people in all these institutions to help shape our ideas to cater to the needs of the local community. I have to also mention here that the support of the alumni has been tremendous over the years,” he adds, listing some 50 names from memory. Most of these people occupy important places in government or society.

The list has Shiv Nadar, founder of HCL & SSN Trust, G. Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Hospitals, the actor Major Sundararajan, Ashok Chakra award winner Major D. Sree Ramkumar, Karmega Konar, a great Tamil scholar, and many others.

Alumni and the College

Alumni events are held often in the college. One such event a couple of years ago, on the occasion of The American College’s 136th College Day celebration, featured M.S. Jaffar Sait, Director General of Police (CB-CID), the film director Karu. Palaniappan and the actor Vivek.

Sait, who was the chief guest, told the gathering that he would not have become an IPS officer but for a professor from the college who took a personal interest in convincing his father to let him prepare for the Union Public Service Commission examination.

“I attempted several bank examinations. I did not succeed,” Sait said. “Around that time I got a teaching job in a leave vacancy. My father insisted I should join. It was my professor who came to my house and pleaded with my father to give me just another year to try for the civil services. He even offered to pay one year’s salary I would have received in the teaching job,” he added.

The actor Vivek had a similar experience. In those days, it was not common for students from a prestigious college to concentrate on pursuits other than core academics. He recalled how some of the professors pushed him to focus on his creative skills when he was just another student going through the motions.

Alumni share similar stories. “I stay on campus,” Dr Christober said. “The teachers are here before 8 a.m. Most of them stay beyond their call of duty and help students with any of their problems,” he added.

Hence, the teachers are available for the students through the day if they have any issues with their studies or daily life. Dr Christober said that he could not have asked for a better team of compassionate but firm faculty in each of the departments.

Little wonder then that The American College is known for its focus on academic excellence and social relevance. Its pioneering role in the development of college autonomy in India, its successful early implementation of the choice-based credit system in 1978 and its completion of 135 years of service bear testimony to the position the college currently enjoys.

The march from 1841

Originally founded as a missionary activity in 1841, The American College grew into a collegiate department in 1881 at Pasumalai through the initiative of Rev. G.T. Washburn, the Founder-Principal of the college. In 1906, the college was shifted to the present campus during the time of the second Principal, Rev. W.M. Zumbro.

It became independent of the mission in 1934 when an autonomous governing council was formed to manage its affairs. Earlier, it was affiliated to the University of Madras and later it came under the jurisdiction of Madurai Kamaraj University.

“The emergence of missionary education spreading across the wider parts of erstwhile Madras Presidency at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century saw education reaching the unreached spaces. One such defining moment was the establishment of The American College in Madurai,” Dr Christober said, underlining the fact that an institution for education was established much before a church was created by the American missionaries.

W.M. Zumbro made a proposal in 1903 to the Missionary Fund in the United States to shift the college to Madurai.

The college today is a huddle of beautiful Indo-Saracenic buildings set in about 40 acres of greenery, well-preserved in the middle of the bustling Madurai city. The grandiose structures represent a synthesis of Islamic patterns and Indian materials developed by British architects in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The hybrid combined diverse architectural elements of Hindu and Mughal styles with Gothic cusped arches, domes, spires, tracery, minarets, and stained glass, in a wonderful manner. The architecture signifies the arrival of modernity in Madurai.

The idea behind shifting the location was to give a new vision to Christian higher education. By this, Rev. Zumbro intended that education should be made available to the common man in spite of divisions based on caste, creed and religion. Rev. Zumbro envisaged that once Christian education went public, the people of Madurai would acquire a character that would be beneficial for the city in the long term. In his words, Madurai should grow with The American College and The American College should grow with Madurai.

The Main Hall of the building was indeed a central element in the major intellectual shift that took place then in the form of public lectures to the citizens of the city. Eminent literary scholars and international figures like Rabindranath Tagore and French Premier Georges Clemenceau visited the college and delivered lectures in the Hall. In fact, Tagore gave public lectures in 1919 and collected Rs.2,365, out of which he gave Rs.365 for starting an endowment in The American College.

Heritage structures

The buildings of The American College tell a history of the development of architecture in this part of the country. This was recognised by the UGC itself nearly a decade ago; it made efforts for the conservation of history-rich buildings in colleges and universities.

There are a few buildings in the college that are more than a hundred years old. The Main Hall was the first building on the campus. This was opened in 1909. The Principal’s office, the Vice Principal’s office and a few other offices are on the ground floor of this building. The first floor is a massive hall.

The next to come up was the James Hall, for which the cornerstone was laid in 1912. It is the only building on the campus to be named after a woman—Ellen James. Construction of the Binghamton Hall began in 1929. This Hall is named after a small U.S. town with the same name because it was a gift from the parishioners of that town. The Stoffer Hall was built in 1957. The Flint House, named after the sixth principal of the college, Edgar M. Flint, housed the principal for quite a long time before it was converted into a hostel.

Interestingly, the chapel was thought of much later—in 1931—although worship was integral to those who established the college. Professors pointed out that this was an indication of the emphasis the missionaries placed on teaching and learning. The architecture of the chapel with its lofty Indo-Saracenic arches also incorporates elements from the local milieu. Even when there is no service the chapel is open to people and it has been so for the past 75 years.

Many firsts

The American College has many firsts to its credit. It was the first in India to use computers. G.T. Washburn Hall is the first on-campus student hostel in south India. The Daniel Poor Memorial Library is the first library in the southern part of Tamil Nadu to be fully automated. The college also pioneered the use of bar codes in libraries. The college began the choice-based credit system when it was granted autonomy in 1978.

The library named after Daniel Poor is among the best in this part of the country. It has more than 1.46 lakh books and a collection of artefacts dating back a few centuries, a coin collection predating the Mughal era, and well-preserved palm leaf writings. It is a treasure trove for history students and offers a glimpse of how weaponry and coins developed over the past few centuries.

Spread over 7,200 square feet, the first floor of the library houses the rare books section, an archive of journals and magazines, a reading/reference space and a small museum. A 1720 edition of the Holy Bible in Hebrew is among the rare books in the library. A century-old edition of The Mahabharata in Tamil and in English are also among the rare books here.

But what takes one’s breath away is a small rack displaying original palm leaf manuscripts of 21 Tamil titles: there are over 1,500 individual inscribed leaves. The manuscripts are: Grantha Suvadugal , Kathirkaama Maalai , Seevaka Chinthamani , Thiruparangundrathu Maalai (an anthology on Thiruparankundram) and Thirupugazh by Arunagirinathar. The museum section displays a collection of iron swords of various shapes and sizes, knives, armours, helmets and shields used in war, brass collections, wooden carvings and coins, currency notes and stamps.

The college was one among the seven colleges to be given autonomy by the UGC in 1977-78. Today, it offers 30 undergraduate and 16 postgraduate programmes. There are seven research centres offering MPhil and PhD programmes in various disciplines. Two autonomous centres, the Department of Applied Sciences and the Study Centre for Indian Literature in English and Translation (SCILET), are receiving national and international attention.

The SCILET library is unique in many ways. It has more than 10,000 volumes relating to Indian literature in English. Started in the 1980s, the aim of the library has been to acquaint Indian teachers, researchers and students with the writings of all genres—novels, poetry, dramas, essays—written by both resident and expatriate Indians. SCILET has a section devoted to gender studies and this is also one of the focus areas of the library.

In 2014, the college administration, which recognised the fact that spending three years in an educational institution was not within everyone’s reach, decided to experiment with a community college. The community college offers diplomas in aquaculture, medical laboratory technology and a few other select disciplines. A student is not compelled to complete the entire course in one go—he or she can take time off to work or attend to other important exigencies and return to complete the course.

“The idea is to keep the course flexible so that we make sure that each student who enters this campus leaves with a diploma and knowledge of the subject when he or she leaves the campus,” Dr Christober said.

The courses are also dynamic because there is constant interaction with industry and it is industry that determines the course content. The skills imparted are based on the guidelines of the National Skills Qualification Framework and the National Occupational Standards to make sure that students fit into the job roles that are defined.

Moving with the times

The American College is sensitive to the environment in which it is located and has made several contributions to the local community. Sometimes, it is as simple as a flash mob. This was done recently at a local mall to spread awareness about suicide prevention. The people of the city, unused to such performances, stopped their work and crowded around the flash mob. Some joined in the dancing too. The students carried colourful placards and banners to create awareness of suicide prevention.

“Through this performance, we wanted to convey that there was medical help available for those who were struggling with anxiety and depression,” Dr Christober said.

The college does not stop at that. Throughout the year, multiple activities keep the people focussed on various aspects of mental health and general well-being. For students, it is a platform to showcase their creative energy while for teachers it is entertainment with a message. They believe that learning is easier if concepts are also enacted in this manner.

There is widespread concern that many among the younger generation have a low level of emotional intelligence. Hence, such acts in public spaces assume importance. It is essential that people realise that help is at hand and that it is not abnormal to feel low. At the end of the performance, R. Shahid Afridi, a student, recited a poem on why people commit suicide.

“Friends and family must support people who have suicidal tendencies and help them in seeking medical help. If you see someone who is depressed, speak to them and listen to their problems,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum there are students who are fascinated by the skies. Two research scholars from the college, B. Arul Pandian and L. Ganesh, have developed a low-cost radio telescope using custom-made components with the help of the Raman Research Institute (RRI). Incidentally, the college has a C.V. Raman connection: His associate for many years, K.S. Krishnan, graduated from The American College.

According to professors, the telescope, which costs about Rs.20,000, is designed to detect and analyse the Hydrogen Line (also called the 21 centimetre line, a reference to the electromagnetic radiation triggered by change in the energy state of hydrogen atoms) and is meant for educational purposes. It has the potential to be used for research work too.

The scholars had visited the RRI in Bengaluru and were fascinated with the facilities there. They had met Nimesh A. Patel, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the U.S., during their visit to the RRI. He encouraged and helped them in the effort.

It is not always easy to keep students away from trouble or from expressing their views on events happening in the country.

For instance, when students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi were attacked, students of The American College, like students from institutions across India, protested. It was a non-violent protest and it happened with the knowledge of the college authorities. The students were reassured knowing that the college administration too was on their side. Keeping 9,000 plus students across various courses and streams and different levels of maturity and understanding engaged round the year is a Herculean task. But the dedicated team members led by Dr Christober believe it to be their calling and are engaged in it day after day.

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