Academics and Research

Korbel Professor Haider Khan to receive University’s highest award at Convocation

Haider Khan will be recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at Convocation on Oct. 2. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Haider Khan will be recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at Convocation on Oct. 2. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Editor’s note:  Read profiles of the other faculty honorees at Convocation here.


Although he has made his name and reputation in what wags call the “dismal science,” Professor Haider Khan of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is downright exuberant about human potential.

“I am, on the whole, a very optimistic person. Realistic, but also optimistic,” he explains. That optimism translates into a belief that human problems can be, if not solved, at least ameliorated.

As a scholar, Khan has spent much of his career in pursuit of ways to address persistent poverty and income inequality. His work as an economist — assembled in countless journals, monographs and books — is hailed for its qualitative and quantitative analysis, as well as for its bold policy suggestions. He has studied everything from the effects of economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Most recently, he has examined development and women’s rights as human rights, using what he calls “a theory of deepening the democratic framework.” He also is the world’s leading expert on the social accounting matrix — SAM, for short — a tool that represents flows within an economy.

In his spare time, he is equally productive — a student and connoisseur of, well, everything. Of poetry, of languages, of postcolonial literature in Africa and Asia. Of human societies and culture, of music and art. He has produced prize-winning translations into Bengali of Mexican poet Octavio Paz and has penned thought-provoking essays, also in Bengali, on everything from Picasso’s “Guernica” to the correspondence of poets Yone Noguchi of Japan and Rabindranath Tagore of India.

For these and many other scholarly achievements, and for his service with such international organizations as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the Asian Development Bank, Khan will be recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at Convocation on Oct. 2. The Evans Professorship is the highest honor the University bestows on a faculty member. It is awarded to scholars who have attained international distinction for their research and whose achievements have significantly affected their field.

“I can go in too many different directions at once,” Khan says, acknowledging his diverse passions and polymath pursuits. Perhaps, but that’s certainly not the assessment of his peers.

“In our era of disciplinary specialists, he has, in contrast, multifaceted gifts,” notes the letter nominating him for the Evans Professorship. So it’s not surprising that, in the course of a single hour:

  • He quotes 18th-century poet Thomas Gray, laments the passing of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, references American writers John Steinbeck and Mark Twain and cites philosopher John Dewey’s views on education and modernist T.S. Eliot’s insight into public personas.
  • He marvels over the linguistic complexity of Japanese—“It’s the most difficult language I’ve tried to learn”—and the richness of American English: “I’m a very ardent partisan of the American version of English, because I think it is so dynamic, so close to the people in many ways.”
  • He ponders the responsibilities of public intellectuals: “The first and foremost duty is to speak truth to power—because we have the freedom to think at a distance, to try to look at the world somewhat objectively.”
  • He reflects on his experiences in the worlds of practical policy making and higher education, where his heart is most at home: “Especially as I get older, I want to transfer some of the knowledge and the experience to younger people so that they can carry on.”


For all their diversity, his interests are supported by a single foundation: “They help us understand the way of being human in this world.”

A native of what is now Bangladesh, Khan came to the United States at age 16 to live with a host family and to participate in the Herald Tribune World Youth Forum, established after World War II to promote world peace by bringing youth from all over the globe to New York to build bridges and understanding.

Khan so took to his host family — and to the philosophy embodied by the World Youth Forum — that he stayed in the United States to study, eventually enrolling at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where he dove into the liberal arts curriculum. At the urging of his host family, he then pursued master’s and doctoral degrees in economics at Cornell University.

“Early on [as an undergraduate], I studied philosophy and literature and physics and mathematics,” Khan recalls, but as a graduate student, “I decided to focus on economics because I decided economic problems really are fundamental. … Why are there so many economic problems? Why is there so much poverty in a world that is more wealthy than ever before? Why is there so much inequality? … My concern with human well-being is what propelled me in that direction.”

And it is what propels him still. He plans to spend the next year joining the emerging on-campus discussion of income inequality and exploring the ways that education can address the problem. He’ll also continue his research, public speaking and consulting on ways to fix the world’s financial and monetary system.

“We should not shy away from thinking big,” Khan says of public intellectuals and academics. “But we should also realize that human beings need help right here and now.”

He brings this preoccupation with the big picture and with the here and now to the classroom. In his course on global poverty and human rights, Khan aims to help students think of poverty as a problem with solutions. “If we don’t misallocate our resources too badly,” he says, “we can tackle all these problems.” Just as important, he hopes that students come to see the poor not as “objects of pity,” but as embodiments of potential, “as persons who deserve better.”

“As humans we share things in common,” he tells students. “But we are also individuals with particular ways of being and looking at the world — including all kinds of idiosyncrasies, which I think is so gratifying, which gives color and meaning and verve to our world.”

His own idiosyncrasies? “I like to sing, almost everywhere,” Khan admits. And then he references the music that inspires his awe, from spirituals to jazz, from folk music to Indian classical, from mile marker A all the way to mile marker Z.

Once again, Haider Khan is going “in many different directions at once.”



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