“The pandemic has changed everything as we know it. No one has ever witnessed anything like this,” says Dr. Virinder Moudgil, the president and CEO of Southfield-based Lawrence Technological University (LTU).
As soon as stay-at-home orders were put in place in mid-March to combat coronavirus transmission, Moudgil and his colleagues worked around the clock to develop a new plan to keep their students aligned with the changing face of the education industry. “We had several meetings with the IT staff, VPs, deans as well as enrollment management and we were able to quickly shift classes online so no students missed on their curriculum,” Moudgil says. “As an educator, we don’t want to be cavalier; it’s our responsibility to set a good example.”
While most professors were pros at navigating technology, some were more old school. “It’s incredible how training has brought them up to speed with the ever-changing education system, especially shifting the mindset to teach online,” Moudgil says.
Born and raised in Ludhiana, Punjab, Moudgil’s academic career began when a professor and mentor at Chandigarh University suggested he study at Banaras University if he wanted to pursue academia. He took the advice. While pursuing his doctorate in biochemistry in 1972, Moudgil met a professor from Scotland who was so impressed with Moudgil’s thesis on the effect of steroids on the aging process that three of Moudgil’s papers were internationally published (two in the United States and one in the U.K.). The momentum grew; he was soon awarded a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular medicine at Mayo Clinic, where he worked from 1973 to 1976.
“My father always said education is first. That is the only route to making something meaningful out of life,” says Moudgil. Moudgil’s father was a prominent lawyer amid the Indian freedom struggle in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Life in India was interesting,” Moudgil says. “While India was celebrating its freedom, it was a horrendous time for migrants and there were times that my father would actually let people stay at our home for weeks and months to protect them from getting killed.” In the family, integrity was seen as paramount. “Even as my father’s role in Indian politics became more prominent as an attorney, he would constantly instill in us to never accept any freebies, gifts or even a free car ride.”
Moudgil has carried those lessons long since. As vice president of academic affairs at Oakland University, where he served in a number of positions between 1976 and 2012, he says, “many times I had to make some decisions at the University which were difficult, but easy at the same time because they were high in integrity.” A 2006 graduate of the Harvard Institute for Educational Management, Moudigl played a central role in expanding Oakland’s curriculum.
Academics were not always his focus. In high school, Moudgil was captain of the cricket team, and also developed a taste for poetry and ghazals (an inclination he says he got from his father.) He was drawn, too, to drama and theatre, so much so that he produced and directed a play called Shama nahin bhujegi. “One day my mother told me, ‘You’re wasting your life with these hobbies. There is no future in the arts, so stop and get to your books now if you want to become something. People you call friends are your friends because of who your father is. We don’t have a family business, but your career is on you. And once these friends become CEOs, things will be different.’ That’s when I dropped everything and studied hard,” he says.
Still, Moudgil’s creative side hasn’t entirely disappeared. He hopes to produce a movie, something “biographical, to narrate my father’s experiences and how that shaped me as a person. It is a means for me to live my dream beyond education.”
After completing his postdoctoral work at Mayo Clinic, Moudgil received several officers to join professors as an assistant. But he knew wanted his own lab, an opportunity he ultimately found at OU, where he spent the next several decades working his way from professor to department chair to provost, a tenure that culminated in his most significant achievements: the creation of new programs in law and medicine. “When that was accomplished, I felt like my time was to move on to achieve something different and that’s when LTU happened.”
In July 2012, Moudgil became president of LTU, whose student body includes learners from 45 countries and 32 U.S. states. Asked what the biggest joy of this role is, he says “some of my biggest joys is always seeing my students graduate. When I see the pure joy and happiness in students and their families and that contentment of accomplishment, I often come home and sit by myself and internalize that joy I feel as well.” He adds that some graduates are following in their parents’ footsteps in graduating from LTU, and boasts that 90 percent of LTU graduates have a job before commencement.
As the new normal changes, so must higher education. “The future of education is going to be very different. We are in the process of finalizing how fall classes will happen. All options are on the table: all online, all in-person or a hybrid of online theory classes and socially distanced on-campus practical sessions,” he says. Life at Lawrence Tech will be very different for a while. “Maybe not forever, but for a significant amount of time.”
During the pandemic, Moudgil says LTU has worked to support entrepreneurship on campus — particularly in PPE production — through its business incubator program, which allows students to learn directly from small manufacturing businesses based at Lawrence Tech.
“Students in this time and age are more technologically inclined than my generation, but at the same time students are also very social beings,” Moudgil says, referring to the challenges that await universities this fall. “It’s almost impossible to mechanically make them stay apart. The social distancing is a not a politically motivated act; it’s about health,” says Moudgil. He wants students to know that “life is more valuable than completing degrees sooner or later.”