Dr. Vishakha Desai is Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought and Senior Research Scholar in Global Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs.  

Dr. Desai served as President and CEO of the Asia Society, a global organization dedicated to strengthening partnerships among peoples of Asia and the U.S. from 2004 through 2012.  As President, she set the direction for the Society’s diverse sets of programs ranging from policy initiatives and national educational programs to ground breaking exhibitions and performing arts programs throughout its network of eleven offices in the U.S. and Asia.  Under her leadership the society expanded the scope and scale of its activities with the opening of new offices in India and Korea, a new center of U.S.–China Relations, and inauguration of two new architecturally distinguished facilities in Hong Kong and Houston.  She also developed several signature initiatives with a focus on young people: internationally themed public high schools in the U.S. and a major young leaders program, Asia 21, that brings together leaders under the age of 30 from across Asia and the U.S. Prior to becoming President, Dr. Desai held various senior positions at the Asia Society from 1990 to 2004.

Before joining the Asia Society in 1990, Dr. Desai was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as a Curator for Indian and Southeast Asian art and as the Head of Public Programs and Academic Affairs.  She has taught at Columbia University, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts where she was given a tenured appointment.  A Scholar of Asian Art and a public intellectual, Dr. Desai is a frequent speaker at international forums on subjects focusing on cultural roots of Asia’s economic and political transformation and challenges.  She has authored opinion pieces on political, cultural, and women’s development in Asia that have appeared in more than fifty publications around the world. Author of major exhibition catalogues and editor of a major scholarly publication on Asian Art History for the 21st Century.

She currently serves as the sole female independent director on the Corporate Board of Mahindra and Mahindra, one of the five largest global companies in India. She currently serves as a Trustee of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Chair of the Board of Trustees to AFS Intercultural Programs, and as a member of the board of directors for Teach For All and KREA University. She is also Chair of the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. She has served on numerous other boards of not-for-profit organizations nationally and internationally. These include but are not limited to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Brookings Institution, Bertelsmann Foundation, Auroville Foundation of India, and the House of World Cultures in Berlin.

Dr. Desai holds a B.A. in political Science from Bombay University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan.  The recipient of numerous international and national grants and fellowships, Dr. Desai has received five honorary degrees from American Universities.  For her work on Asian American issues, she has received awards from the University of Massachusetts, City University of New York, Asian Americans for Equality, and Leadership Education for Asian Pacific Americans (LEAP). For her leadership in the arts, she has been honored by Art Table, a national organization of women leaders in the arts, and has received a Gold Medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences.  Dr. Desai was selected by Crain’s New York as one of the “100 most powerful women leaders” in New York, by India Abroad, the leading national weekly for Indian Americans, as one the “50 most distinguished Indian Americans,” and was honored by Zee T.V. (India) as the outstanding International Woman of the Year. In 2012, in recognition of Dr. Desai’s leadership in the museum field, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the National Museums and Library Services Board. 

Dr. Desai is married to Robert B. Oxnam, a China scholar, who was Asia Society’s President from 1981-1992.

HONORS, SCHOLARSHIPS, FELLOWSHIPS

Honorary Degrees:

Doctor of Humane Letters, Williams College, 2014; Doctor of Humane Letters, Centre College, 2008; Doctor of Humane Letters, Pace University, 2008; The College of Staten Island, NY 2006; Doctor of Fine Arts, Susquehanna University, PA, 1996.

Honors and Awards:

Cultural Leadership award, CEC Arts Link, 2013; Leadership Award, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP), 2011; Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts, ArtTable, 2008; Most Powerful Women in New York, Crains, 2007;  Asian American Leadership Award, Asian Americans for Equality, 2004; Distinguished Graduate Student Award, University of Michigan, 1988; (on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies); Outstanding Teaching Fellow Award, the University of Michigan, 1977; Indo-US Subcommission Museum Travel Grant, 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1994; Asian Culture Council Travel Grant, 1992; Museum Sabbatical Award,  National Endowment for the Arts, 1983

Fellowships/scholarships:

Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at Bellagio, Italy, 2000; Teaching Fellowships, the University of Michigan, History of Art Department, 1975-77; Dissertation Fellowship, American Institute of Indian Studies, 1977; Helen Anderson Scholarship for Outstanding Achievement in Sanskrit, St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, 1966-67; American Field Service International Scholarship, 1966-67, Honor Student Fellowship for Overall Excellence, St. Xavier’s College, 1965-69; National Merit Scholarship, India, 1965-69.

RELATED PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

Board of Directors Appointments:

KREA University (2017-present), Teach For All (2017-present), Mahindra and Mahindra (corporate Board), India, Chair of the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee (2012-present), Bertelsmann Foundation, USA (2010-present), Auroville Foundation, India, (2006-present), Brookings Institution (2005-present), Asian University for Women (2004-2008), American Federation of Arts (2002-2008), American India Foundation (2002-2006), Citizens Committee for New York City (2000-Present), President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, (1995-98), Board member from 1995 – 2000, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts board member, LEAP (Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics), College Art Association, South Asia Council, Association of Asian Studies, Art Table, Inc. board member, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Board member and President (nominated by Governor Dukakis 1988-90), Japan Society, Boston.