“I have been deeply influenced by Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India initiative and want to bring in digitisation in my office processes.
At 9am on the dot, Professor John Varghese, 50, enters his office. Spotting me and the photographer Aayush Goel waiting outside, the principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi, one of India's best and oldest educational institutions, invites us in and welcomes us with warm handshakes. Punctuality and sincerity, he says, are qualities he learned from his publisher father.
Having recently completed 100 days in office, Varghese is on a mission to make the college even better. A few points on his agenda are—increasing academic activity and making the college campus more environment- and disabled-friendly.
Varghese was born and brought up in Chennai, though his parents belonged to Kerala. “My father’s idea was to get me into engineering and have me join his printing and publishing business,” says Varghese. “However, I realised I was quite bad at science. I felt I had a strong inclination towards the English language, particularly literature. So, I enrolled for an undergraduate course in English literature at Loyola College in Chennai.”
After completing undergraduate and postgraduate courses in English literature from Loyola, he decided he wanted to teach. “When I told my father about it, he was initially unhappy,” says Varghese. “But he did not force me and gave me a free hand to pursue whatever I wanted to do.”
After doing his MPhil in English from Madras Christian College in Chennai, he joined as an ad hoc English teacher at the Loyola evening college. In 1991, after a six-month stint, Varghese saw a classified advertisement for temporary lecturers at St Stephen’s. He applied, got selected and moved to Delhi. “To build a close rapport, I used to make coffee for the students and use to call them regularly for a cup of coffee,” he says. “My style of making coffee was a little different; some enjoyed it and some did not. None of them, however, gave any feedback. During one such coffee-making session, a student, Vinod Keshwar, told me that my coffee-making style was very bad and that he would teach me how to make it. He made the coffee in his own style and offered me a cup. Though I was taken aback, I liked his critical comments about my style of making coffee.”
After a two-year stint at St Stephen’s, Varghese pursued a PhD at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad. During his time there, he was offered a job at the institution and started teaching media and communications. Soon, he married Saira, the daughter of a defence officer from Kerala. He has two children—daughter, Maria, 18, and son, Varghese, 13—who live in Hyderabad.
In his time in Hyderabad, Varghese had varied stints, including teaching at the offshore campus of the George Mason University, near Dubai, from 2006 to 2009.
In his off time, Varghese used to go on long bike rides with friends. With age, he says, he switched to a car. “I like driving and I do it with family. We take breaks and halts in between and enjoy every bit of it,” he says. Also, whenever time permits, he likes to paint watercolours.
In early 2016, Varghese saw an advertisement looking for a principal at St Stephen’s. He applied for it and, after a grilling two-round interview, was selected. Now, at the helm of affairs, he wants to fully nurture the potential of the students who, he says, have been and will be one of the best in the country. “The potential of the students needs to be fully channelised and harnessed to bring out the best in them,” he says. “Classes can sometimes be held in a different ambience. Many a time, our teachers take students to places such as Qutb Minar or other historical monuments and hold classes there. Sometimes classes are held in an industrial setting or factory. I want to encourage this kind of exposure.”
He wants to use technology to improve efficiency at the college. “I have been deeply influenced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative and want to bring in digitisation in my office processes,” he says. “I want to see a paperless office.”
Varghese also wants to promote institutional social responsibility, which he says is a platform to give back to society. “As part of this initiative, we welcome distinguished educationists, experts and even the general public to be part of the lectures and discussions,” he says.
And, in the near future, the college could have departments for Hindi and Urdu, and also a course in political science.