New board chair sees universities as vital change agents

by Brenda Branswell

Ram Panda, MEng’71, MBA’77, the new chair of McGill’s board of governors, explains his deep commitment to the University in two ways. The first relates to the important role that a leading research university like McGill plays. In his view, there is no better change agent in society – none that enjoys quite the same moral standing and public trust.

His second reason is far more personal. He evokes the Latin meaning of alma mater – “kind mother” – likening McGill to a second mother.

“My life in Canada started because of McGill and through McGill, so it’s almost like I was being given birth a second time to a country that became my country.”

Panda’s connection to McGill dates from 1968 when he arrived in Montreal to begin a master’s in electrical engineering. Even though Montreal was worlds apart from his native India, Panda felt very much at home.

“The cold never bothered me… I found the society was very welcoming, very accommodating.”

He struggled in his first year at McGill as he adjusted to a different educational system and credits his master’s supervisor, emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering Eric Adler, for helping him along until he found his rhythm, and with getting him a scholarship and teaching assistantship.

“He was incredibly pivotal in my life. I still keep in touch with him,” he says of Adler.

Panda co-founded a global software company in 1978 that became a leader in the metals industry. Panda is still actively involved in Invera Inc., which employs about 100 people in Montreal and is now in its 40th year.

“In information technology, that is like being 100 years old as a human being,” Panda laughs.

“So many companies became so big in front of our eyes and died… We have been extremely fortunate that we had the team and perseverance and focused on a very small niche. That, I think, helped us through.”

Over the years, Panda has focused his philanthropic and volunteer efforts on his alma mater, in particular the Faculty of Engineering.

He provided the initial funding for McGill’s Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design, an initiative that has since grown with a major gift from the family foundation of Lorne Trottier, BEng’70, MEng’73, DSc’06. (It’s now called the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design.)

In addition, Panda’s endowed gift to McGill created the Panda Faculty Scholar in Sustainable Engineering and Design award, which supports innovative research on sustainability.

The modern, post-Industrial Revolution world hasn’t provided very sustainable products or processes, Panda says. “Mostly it has led to probably an over-consumption of everything” and a disposable-oriented society.

“I believe universities have a special place in terms of orientating their thinking and research and knowledge base toward finding processes that will truly preserve our planet for the future.”

His own awareness of the environment increased over time.

“In our generation it was always you wanted to grow, you wanted to become bigger, you wanted to consume a lot, that was the generation I came up from… The millennials don’t think that way… They want minimalistic living, which is really laudable. We didn’t have that level of awareness.”

His own awakening may stem, he says, from when he became a grandfather.

“I suddenly woke up one day and I said ‘my god, is there going to be a world for our grandchildren?’ I said there has to be some generational imperative to ensure – to have that responsibility to preserve the planet for the future.”