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A Man of Many Parts: 7 Questions for Dr. Bennett McClellan

Dr. Bennett McClellan, Vice Dean at Jindal School of Liberal Arts, shares the secret to achieving excellence across disciplines.
BY Skendha Singh |   25-03-2015
“All the world’s a stage,  
and all the men and women merely players; 
They have their exits and their entrances, 
And one man in his time plays many parts. . .”

Shakespeare never met Dr. Bennett McClellan, but these lines sketch a fair portrait. As an actor, author, entrepreneur, and educationist, Dr. McClellan is a man of many parts, all of which he seems to easily excel in.

Currently, a Professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts, Dr. McClellan is also working on a couple of writing projects, giving presentations and teaching as a member of several faculties in India and the United States. This mastery of many trades has been in evidence since his undergraduate years, where not only did he graduate with high honours in biochemistry from the University of California, San Diego, but also founded a children’s theatre group. He went on to complete an MBA from the Harvard Business School; and a PhD from the Claremont Graduate University, one of the foremost liberal arts colleges in the USA. With multi-disciplinary experience and expertise, Dr. McClellan is quite the modern day Renaissance man.

He spoke to Braingain Magazine recently about his passion for learning and life.

1)      As an undergraduate, you excelled both at work and play: graduating with high honours and founding a children’s theatre. What was the secret?

All of my activities were pretty much fun, from biochemistry to the theater. You might say I followed my passions.  I also focused my time.  When there was homework to be done, I went to the library and did it.  I noticed that my college roommates would often ”relax” between the end of classes and after dinner.  I always tried to finish at least one assignment before dinner.  Two more hours after dinner would usually finish the job.  I would get in the bed by 10 or 11 PM p.m. each night for a good night’s sleep. Next morning, I would be a lot more alert in class than my peers who had to stay up late, to make up for “relaxing” after class.

You have to focus to accomplish things in life!

2)      How has a liberal arts education shaped your thought process?

I went to an undergraduate school where the faculty had early on embraced the idea of the Renaissance person.  What that meant was that even though you may study a lot of science and math, you still had to know about literature, history, sociology, music, dance, theater and sports!

The idea was that a person with many different perspectives is more able to solve complex problems than the person who comes to problems from only one discipline. I still believe that is true.

A liberal arts education is a liberating education.  It frees one from disciplinary strait jackets.  Because a liberal arts education is multi-hued, it enables individuals to perceive problems in many different lights.   This leads one to discover truly creative solutions!

3)      How important are role models for inspiration? Who were yours?

Role models are absolutely essential to provide people with inspiration and guidance.  Two of the most influential people in my life were Dr. Paul Saltman, and the actor, Eric Christmas.

Doctor Saltman was my first biochemistry professor.  He was an accomplished musician, Surfer, Biochemist, medical researcher, filmmaker, Rights advocates, University Vice Chancellor, Author and cook.  I had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant for Dr. Saltman In my junior year.  This was unprecedented as TA’s were always selected from senior students.  He encouraged me both in the sciences and in the arts.  He not only gave me my first academic job, but also supported my application for a UC President’s Undergraduate fellowship, to found the UCSD Children’s Theater Players.  Dr. Saltman was truly a renaissance man and remains an inspiration for me today.

Eric Christmas, in contrast, was one of the most intense and focused artists I have ever known.  Eric was the head of the theater department at UCSD when I arrived at college.  He selected the theatre company and directed the plays. I learnt a lot about the self-discipline required to master any of the arts.  When I graduated from UCSD, Eric supported my application for a position as the Assistant to the Producing Director, at the Globe Theatre in San Diego.  This was my first professional theatrical job.  Even today, I think, “What would Eric do?”

Anyone who succeeds in his or her chosen walk of life can point to the influence of a mentor or teacher.  I would suggest that anyone who has had such a mentor should pass along the blessing.   If we receive gifts, we should also multiply those gifts for others.

4)      You are an actor, author, director, producer, manager, entrepreneur and much more. If you had to rewind and pick just one profession, which would it be?

If I had to rewind my life and pick just one profession, I would be actor, author, director, producer, manager, entrepreneur and University professor!  I would like to add a few more things, but I do not think I would delete any.  I still have oriental medicine on my to-do list!

 I have, in fact, only had one profession in life.   My profession is “aggressive learner.”  That profession has taken many forms.

5)      An attribute you believe is essential for a citizen of the modern world. Why?

I think there are two: curiosity and compassion.

The world is a mess. The questions are “Why do we have these messes?” and “What can we do about them?”

Curiosity is the essential fuel that drives us towards answering such questions. If we are not curious, we tend to be complacent.  Complacent people do not solve problems. We need a lot more people with curiosity to counteract the problems we face.

The second attribute is compassion. Most of the problems of the modern world come from people acting in their own best interests, but ignoring the interests of others.  Self-centered behaviors arise when people lack compassion for the views, the rights, and essential humanness of other people.  Unless we acquire the compassion to get along together, the rest of the discussion about where humanity is headed is not going to matter.

6)      What do you most enjoy about your current role (as Professor and Vice Dean of Admissions, Outreach and Institution Building at Jindal School of Liberal Arts)?

Currently, I most enjoy the institution building part of my job.  My training as a business consultant ideally positioned me to understand the requirements for setting up long-term enterprises.  I have been able to apply all of my education and experience here in India, to help generate opportunities for people to live creative, productive, and compassionate lives.My newest project is to set up a filmmaking academy under the Jindal Global University banner.  My hope is that the filmmaking academy will lead to the establishment of a practical media and production center.  A lot of programs in India focus on theoretical aspects of the media.  I want to focus the JGU program on equipping people with the tools to get the production job done.  That includes writing, art direction, acting, technical production, direction, editing, and sound design.

7)      What never ceases to amaze you about India? 

The diversity of India and its people never ceases to amaze me! One cannot with any intelligence say, “India is this only.” Or “India is that only.”  India is this, and that, and a multitude of other things! As a curious person who is always wondering, “What caused that?” India never ceases to amaze me.  I feel fortunate to be a witness to all that is happening in India today.



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This is a really iniltelgent way to answer the question.
18 July 2015

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