Jamilur Reza Choudhury: The man who built institutions

Professor Jamilur Reza ChowdhuryProthom Alo

Everybody who knew JRC Sir has a story about he touched their lives. This is a story of how he touched mine and those around us at Brac University and the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad.

One of the most unique qualities of JRC Sir was his photographic memory. This helped him achieve academic honours as a student, but it also meant that he never forgot the items on his ever-increasing task list. With so many things on his mind, he became involved in numerous initiatives and nation-building activities. That is how he became an integral part of the story of Bangladesh’s success, while many of his brilliant contemporaries achieved personal success abroad.

What most distinguished JRC Sir was his appreciation of quality. It is hard for even highly educated people to rise above the academic standards of the educational environments they grew up in. JRC Sir was able to quickly identify exceptional people, put them in the right places, and give them the environment to succeed. Consequently, where others improved organisations, he built them.

He helped found Brac University and helped turn it into the best private university in Bangladesh. He took over an underappreciated Asia Pacific University and helped turn it into one of the leading private universities in the country. He helped turn a dream of Professor Kaykobad and Professor Zafar Iqbal – the Bangladesh Math Olympiad – into the only world-class educational initiative in Bangladesh by protecting it from outside influence and placing the right people in the right place.

He helped turn another dream – the Padma Bridge – into reality. In fact, he was involved in nearly all major infrastructure projects in the country– from major roads and highways to electronic voting machines. He was respected by academics and government officials and the richest of businessmen. Consequently, as the face of the BUET Alumni Association he could call up the most powerful industrialists. Within minutes they would happily accede to his requests for funding for BUET’s graduates and alumni events. The fact that the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad is the only Math Olympiad in the world that is privately funded by a commercial bank, is largely due to JRC Sir’s influence.

It is safe to say that without him Brac University would be nowhere today. For example, he recognized the importance of building up a strong computer science faculty in a time when computer science enrollment was no more than twenty and everybody wanted to study business administration. Today, the BracU computer science department has over 4000 students. He sheltered and protected talents that others refused to recognise. For example, when one very bright faculty member coming from abroad was only given an entry-level lecturer rank by the HR department, he personally intervened and made him a senior lecturer. That person has since played a pivotal role in the university’s development. JRC Sir fostered the university’s growth by not only identifying outstanding people to hire but by also protecting them from internal and external politics so they could do their jobs.

He built the country of Bangladesh. That’s what makes JRC Sir’s loss most jarring. Where will we find the next set of JRC Sirs willing to sacrifice, stay behind, and use their genius to build Bangladesh, not other countries?

It was a great loss for BracU to lose JRC Sir in 2010. But he paved the way for better things. Without the strong foundations he laid, the university would not have been able to attract its current MIT educated Vice-Chancellor, Vincent Chang. He is a natural progression from JRC Sir and has pushed for quality in the tradition of JRC Sir.

My own first meeting with JRC Sir was jarring. He told me “Mahbub, you should leave the country.” I was an extremely confident young person who believed that I didn’t need the environment of a Cambridge, MIT, or Imperial College. I believed that I could write the kind of important papers I had done there, in Bangladesh. He disagreed with me. And he was right to some extent and I wish I had taken his objections more seriously.

But, given my stubbornness, he involved me in interesting projects such as the Math Olympiad, and thus tried to help me make the best of what he thought was a youthfully naïve decision to return to Bangladesh. And together, with the help of many others, we built the Bangladesh Math Olympiad into something the whole country is proud of.

Everybody has a different story about JRC Sir. But all of us know that in a country the size of Bangladesh there should be many JRC Sirs. If we look around however, we don’t find many. The reason of course is that people with JRC Sir’s qualities left the country long ago and are building countries like the USA and Canada. JRC Sir was different. He stayed behind even during the war of independence in 1971 when his colleagues had fled. He then built institutions. He built the country of Bangladesh. That’s what makes JRC Sir’s loss most jarring. Where will we find the next set of JRC Sirs willing to sacrifice, stay behind, and use their genius to build Bangladesh, not other countries?

Mahbub Majumdar is the National Coach of the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad Team. He is the Chairperson of the Computer Science & Engineering Department and the Dean of the School of Sciences at Brac University. His work in string cosmology is well known.