Today, the University of Houston gathered together to celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Rathindra Bose, or “Roth” as we called him. Roth served as our Vice Chancellor of Research and Technology Transfer and in this role he was an integral part of my cabinet for the last four years. The memorial ceremony was a reminder of Roth’s personal power.
Interestingly, “power” was not the adjective used by anyone during the memorial service. Roth was recalled as a brilliant researcher, passionate teacher, dynamic administrator and, above all, a wonderful person.
But the truth is that Roth was a powerful leader, not because of what position he held but because of who he was as a person.
Come to think of it, all people in position enjoy a particular kind of power, the power that comes from holding that particular position. People may love you or hate you as a person, but they are forced to respect you as the holder of the position. But some leaders are different because they are able to expand their power beyond their position and thus command respect by the sheer weight of their inner strength. This kind of “personal power” has no contractual term limit and is not bound by an organization. The source of this power is a person’s own integrity and commitment. It is also his passion for the common cause. No organization can give personal power to a leader and no organization can take it away. Leaders cannot seize it and they cannot relinquish it; they have to earn it and have to live with it. Standing at the podium in that room today, I was acutely aware how much Roth enjoyed that personal power.
I recalled one of my meetings with Roth. It was to evaluate his annual performance. As always, we opened charts and tables and looked at various indicators. We talked about the challenges ahead and discussed strategies. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked Roth, “Have you thought of becoming a university presidency?”
He laughed lightheartedly and said, “Oh no, Chancellor, that is not for me. I know what I want to do.” (He made it a point to call me “chancellor” because he said coming from South Asia, he was so proud of me.) Then he confided that he would like to retire in two or three years and start a foundation that could, among many other things, enable people to get their DNA tested at an affordable cost. This is how he wanted to serve the people in his homeland of Bangladesh and also in America. I know that somewhere, someone will fulfill his dream, and when I see it in action, I will know Roth is at work in heaven.
Roth’s illness came fast and took him away quickly. None of us had time to say a proper good-bye and, even though I had come to know of this eventuality few days prior to his final departure, the news of his passing away came as an incomprehensible shock. When I had visited him in hospital, even though his voice was feeble, he was still telling me about two ongoing projects and what needed to happen for them as next steps. I told him that I needed his leadership to move the University forward and assured him we would open a bottle of Champagne when he returned. To this, he smiled brightly even though he was in serious pain.
Roth was a brilliant researcher and a serious inventor. During his time at the University of Houston, nine of our faculty members were named into the National Academy of Inventors. I learned about eight of them from Roth, but I found out about the ninth one from the official announcement. Yes, you guessed it…the ninth one was Roth himself. He was too modest to tell me about his own achievement. I remember one day he walked into my office saying that he had two pieces of news – a big one and a small one.
“Give me the big one first,” I said.
“UH is now a finalist in XXXXX,” he said, naming a specific proposal. “People have worked really hard on this, and we are going to get it!” He was so excited.
“Great! Good job! And the small news?”
“You remember my cancer drug? Well, it has just moved to the second phase of clinical trials.” He said it modestly, never wanting to toot his own horn.
“Roth. Congratulations! You call this small? This is huge! This is really a big deal!” I had to repeat it because Roth was not going to. The drug was the centerpiece of his life’s work and dream and it was very big news!
But that is who Roth was, always putting others before his own interests. He was a proud man … proud of his children and grandchildren first of all. We often shared stories about our families and his eyes twinkled every time he mentioned his family.
Today at the celebration, all of us said good-bye to Roth in our own ways and I said mine. The loss still feels no less, but the sharing of the memories with others helps me understand him even better.
Good-bye, my friend. Rest in peace!