Career educator Vishnu N. “Vic” Bhatia was a builder. Not with bricks and mortar, but with vision, drive, and diplomacy. He demonstrated this during his 47 years (1951-98) at Washington State University as a teacher, administrator, innovator, and ambassador. His efforts were not limited to pharmacy, his chosen field, but were interdisciplinary, as well as international.
His greatest contributions were as head of the Honors Program (1964-93) and director of International Education (1973-90). Shortly after his arrival at WSU, he and other faculty colleagues, including mathematics professors Sidney Hacker and Donald Bushaw, began laying groundwork for an academic program that would rank among the very best-one with a balanced curriculum, designed to promote intellectual curiosity and critical thinking long past graduation.
The Honors Program was introduced in 1960, initially under Hacker’s direction, and from 1964 to 1993 under Bhatia. He was very imaginative in how the program might be conducted, and rather paternalistic, according to Bushaw. Bhatia called most of the shots. “That was probably good, because he did it very well. He was very personable. He was the leader. The students were devoted to him.”
Some of the best professors across campus were invited to teach in Honors. Its small class size attracted many of the University’s top scholars, also by invitation. In 1979, Gene Maeroff, then education editor of The New York Times, wrote, “The extent to which an honors student pursues a deeper and more far-ranging education is seen at Washington State, where . . . the Honors Program . . . is widely regarded as one of the strongest in the country.”
Honors became a model for other U.S. colleges and universities. It flourished under Bhatia’s leadership, and that of his successors, Jane Lawrence (1994-99) and current Honors College dean, Mary Wack. In 1998 the Honors Program was elevated to the status of Honors College, which claims more than 3,800 alumni.
All of this pleased Bhatia, who died in Pullman January 16, 2003 at 78.
“The Honors curriculum gives students an opportunity to look at knowledge and civilization in the broadest perceptive,” Bhatia would say.
Paul G. Lauren was an example. The1969 Honors graduate in history and political science went on to become the founding director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, and write books on international history and diplomacy. Bhatia provided “a marvelous model of excellence, of the value of studying many disciplines, of compassion, and of deep commitment to his students and the program,” Lauren said.
A native of Lucknow, India, Bhatia was the youngest of seven children. After earning a doctorate in pharmacy, he joined WSU’s College of Pharmacy, where he held a faculty appointment for 41 years. Most of his efforts, however, were devoted to Honors and International Education.
Early on, Bhatia developed a fondness for Denmark, where the University developed a cooperative exchange program in business administration in Copenhagen. He liked Denmark, because it wasn’t on “the beaten path of international programs.” Over the last 15 or 20 years, more than 1,000 WSU students have studied in Denmark. In 1990, Bhatia was granted Danish knighthood for the decades he devoted to building bridges between the Scandinavian nation and WSU. His travels over the years on behalf of the University took him to Europe, Japan, China, South American, the Middle East and India. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, as many as 2,000 WSU students were involved in study abroad annually, three-fourths of them coming to the U.S.
“He was able to convey the importance of internationalism to the University and students, to have people look beyond their own little comfort zone, to look outside themselves, and discover how study abroad can benefit their lives,” says Uta Hutnak, Bhatia’s assistant in International Education from 1985 to 1990.
When Bhatia was considering retirement in the early 1990s, President Samuel Smith asked him to stay on as his special assistant. “Vic had built these two wonderful programs-and had a great influence on general education reform, and on the intellectual quality of our institution,” Smith said.
Memorial contributions may be made to the V.N. Bhatia Lectureship, c/o the WSU Foundation, 255 E. Main, Suite 200, Pullman, Washington 99164-1927.