Bish Sanyal New Faculty Chair
Bish Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning and former Head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (1994-2002), is the new Chair of the MIT faculty. His term runs until 2009.
Bish, whose full name is Bishwapriya in Bengali, credits contradictory forces in his life for his intellectual journey from Kolkata, India to his nomination as the Faculty Chair. Bish was born into an orthodox Hindu family, but attended a private Jesuit school for 11 years. He is deeply drawn to visual aesthetics – particularly of the kind exemplified by good architecture, which he studied as an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology – and yet he is equally drawn to social sciences’ analytical traditions, which inspired him to do his doctoral studies in international development planning at the University of California at Los Angeles. In between, Bish worked for his father’s civil engineering firm building bridges and managing a difficult business enterprise at a time of major labor unrest in India. Even though this labor unrest deeply hurt his father’s business, Bish was moved by the plight of the poor construction laborers – men, women, and even children – who relied on unpredictable daily wages, lived in ramshackle houses, and lacked the privileges Bish grew up with in India. Before joining MIT as an assistant professor in 1984, Bish also worked for the World Bank and was posted in Zambia in south central Africa to supervise five large urban projects to provide housing and services for the urban poor in Lusaka. His doctoral dissertation, which grew out of this experience, demonstrated a paradox: that a large percentage of the urban labor force relied on food they grew within the city as a stepping stone in the process of industrialization and modernization.
At MIT, as a young faculty member in a professional school, Bish was equally drawn to both outstanding scholars whose preoccupation was to better understand the role of cities in national development, and to innovative practitioners with experience in urban planning to make cities more efficient, equitable, and aesthetically attractive.
As a result, he engaged in serious research while simultaneously advising major international institutions, such as the UNDP (United Nations Development Programs), UNCHS (United Nations Center for Human Settlements), International Labor Office, United States Agency for International Development, The World Bank, as well as the Ford Foundation and national government agencies and universities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
The ease with which Bish holds opposing ideas in his mind helped him play a bridging role between scholars and practitioners, and that is why he was asked to be the Head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1994, when he was still an Associate Professor. Bish accepted the responsibility with apprehension, as he and his wife, who was then commuting between New York and Boston, were then expecting their first child. The dual strain of new administrative work and family responsibilities was difficult at times, but overall it was a memorable learning experience, primarily because of the collegiality of departmental colleagues and his parental love for his newly-born daughter, a new sensation Bish cherished despite the work overload.
After stepping down from the Department Head position in 2002, Bish enjoyed a peaceful sabbatical with short lecture assignments in Asian and European universities, and spending time with his family who, by then, were all living in Boston after 13 years of commuting to and from New York. The sabbatical allowed Bish to complete his third book, Comparative Planning Cultures, which had begun as a quest to understand the planning cultures of 12 nations. Working on this edited volume, Bish learned that there is no cultural nucleus, no social gene that can be decoded to reveal the cultural DNA of planning practice. Planning culture, like the larger social culture in which it is embedded, is in constant flux, because of the continuous process of social, political, and technological changes. Bish recommends that planning cultures be viewed in this dynamic way, in contrast to traditional notions of culture that are used to evoke a sense of immutability and inheritance, so as to go beyond “cultural essentialism” which, in essence, is an exclusionary, parochial, and also inaccurate representation of history.
Bish is currently probing this dynamic notion of interwoven planning cultures in a program that he directs for mid-career planning professionals. Known by the acronym SPURS, the program was created in 1967 at a time very different from now – politically, economically, and socially – with regards to the United States’ relationship to the rest of the world. Bish has been trying to construct a new rationale for the program since 9/11, which created an urgent need for better international understanding and mutual learning among the diverse but interconnected nations of the world.
Bish is looking forward to his two-year term as Chair of the faculty, which he considers an honor he shares with his fellow faculty officers, Prof. Melisaa Nobles from HASS (Associate Chair) and Prof. Bevin Engelward from the School of Engineering (Secretary). He is somewhat apprehensive, however, about his ability to continue conducting rigorous research, publish, and teach popular undergraduate courses such as D-Lab (which he co-teaches with Amy Smith) as he assumes this new role. But, as someone who is curious about how institutions plan, and in particular, how academic institutions plan to respond to social changes, Bish is grateful for having the opportunity to observe this first hand. He is also grateful that his new responsibilities will create opportunities for intellectual encounters with some of the most creative individuals in various fields other than his own urban planning. Where this intellectual journey will lead he cannot predict – because he is attracted to both rigorous research and academic administration, research and writing as well as managing innovative programs, and ultimately theorizing from practice. He hopes these somewhat opposite goals will continue to be a source of intellectual energy, and wonders if their resolution is necessary for a meaningful life.