Expressing gratitude to the school that exposed him to a well-rounded, liberal arts education more than 50 years ago and set him on a path of lifelong curiosity, Seifi Ghasemi, chairman, president and CEO of Air Products & Chemicals Inc., has endowed a professorship at Lafayette College.
The $2 million Air Products-Ghasemi Chair in Engineering for Interdisciplinary Teaching is the college’s first endowed chair made with a corporation, Lafayette President Alison Byerly said Monday evening prior to Ghasemi’s delivery of the President’s Entrepreneurship Lecture at the college.
The funding is comprised of $500,000 from Ghasemi and a $1.5 million contribution from the Air Products Foundation. An anonymous donor gave $1 million for associated capital improvements in engineering.
“This is an extraordinary endorsement of Lafayette’s particular approach to teaching engineering in a liberal arts context,” Byerly said.
The faculty member who will hold the position will collaborate with faculty in the humanities and social sciences.
Ghasemi said it is critical that the liberal arts be an integral part of an engineering education because it broadens the students’ world view and teaches them critical thinking skills.
Engineers need to know more than how to build a bridge, he said.
GAINING AN EDGE
Ghasemi said his years spent studying at the then newly formed Iran’s Abadan Institute of Technology were life changing.
The institute, which trained students to work in leadership positions in the oil industry, was established in the 1950s with Lafayette to incorporate the humanities into an education in engineering and other technical fields.
Ghasemi was taught by Lafayette faculty and exposed to Shakespeare, ancient Chinese history and other subjects in the humanities.
At the time, his fellow students questioned the relevancy of studying the liberal arts. But years later, when they were all at the top of their field, “Everyone agreed all of those liberal arts courses gave us an edge over people who attended conventional engineering schools,” he said.
“I clearly see the benefit of having an education in the liberal arts,” Ghasemi said.
He gave several examples from his own life where his intellectual curiosity and ability to think unconventionally were instrumental in helping him design a steam generator that earned him a patent, get a job at a top equity firm and win a $3.5 billion contract to build a coal gasification project in China.
Ghasemi is concerned that the education for engineers is becomingly increasingly more specialized, giving students less exposure to the humanities.
He cautioned against narrowing the requirements because computers can do much of the technical work.
Engineers need to be good thinkers, he said.
“They need to connect the dots and see the bigger picture … and act with compassion and humanity.”
Ghasemi also shared his responses to two questions he is asked most frequently.
What is the most important thing he has learned after 45 years in business?
What day changed his life?
To the first, he said, the most important lesson about creating a successful company is to create a culture where employees feel committed and motivated.
“Go out of your way to boost the self-esteem and confidence of people,” he said.
And the one day that changed his life: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 1957.
“I am a curious 12-year-old boy living in a remote corner of an ancient land,” he said of Iran.
That day, his school was visited by a group of people from the United States Information Agency. They talked about American history, democracy, freedom and immigrants and then showed a movie where Ghasemi saw pictures of New York City and other iconic American images.
“By the time it finished, I had just fallen in love,” he said. “America is an exceptional place,” he said.
No other place in the world would have given a political refugee like him the opportunity he has gotten here, he said.
“Thank you, Lafayette College, for educating me. Thank you, America, for giving me the opportunity,” said a tearful Ghasemi.