Padma Desai

What are the qualities that make it possible for a scholarly life to leave an indelible mark on our store of knowledge and on society’s welfare? In this era, they certainly include an enthusiasm for working across traditional academic disciplines; a belief in the responsibility of world-class scholarship to helpfully address the world’s problems; and an understanding that true academic excellence requires engagement with different cultures, ideologies, political settings, and people. Or, one could simply say: the qualities personified by Professor Padma Desai. Your seminal research on emerging markets and comparative economic systems, applied masterfully to Russia’s transition from communism, offers insights that will loom ever larger as such research becomes more difficult to pursue in an increasingly homogenous global economy. A consistent hallmark of your work is an eye for the detail able to reveal the shortcomings of a promising theory’s practical application and your determination to dig more deeply into those difficult questions. Your disciplined academic approach and passion for the intricacies of economic policymaking, combined with a persistent focus on real-world effects, made you a partner sought after by the world’s most respected policy institutions, from the Brookings Institution and the National Science Foundation to the United Nations and the Ford Foundation. Out of your painstaking examination of arcane subjects such as weather patterns and grain yields in the Soviet Union emerged a proposed economic plan for the postcommunist Soviet state. Your early work would also play a guiding role in India’s journey toward a more market-based economy. More recently you provided a sweeping and authoritative analysis of the 2008 global financial crisis. In every instance, your intellectual inquiry was elevated by a keen appreciation for the full range of incentives driving the decision makers responsible for stewarding national economies. We thank you, as well, for applying your eloquence and wisdom to your own remarkable past in Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey, and From England with Love: An Indian Student Writes from Cambridge, a moving homage to your trailblazing father and the legacy you carry on. The generosity of spirit you have shown in creating these two beautifully rendered and deeply revealing memoirs is a gift greatly appreciated by so many here at Columbia and around the world. A beloved colleague among the Columbia faculty and director of the Center for Transition Economies, you exhibited an unwavering commitment to Columbia students by teaching the College’s introductory economics seminar, making certain that you came in contact with the largest possible number of our undergraduate students. Fyodor Dostoyevsky explained that humanity is a mystery: “If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time.” For serving us in the noble pursuit of puzzling life’s mysteries, as a legendary economist, global policymaker, Columbia scholar and teacher, and eloquent author, we award you, with utmost admiration and respect, the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.