Editor’s Note: It was announced after we went to press with the magazine that Dr. Vilas Prabhu will remain at Millersville University until the end of June 2021.
Dr. Vilas Prabhu will retire in March 2021 after serving more than 16 years as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Millersville University. (He also carries the distinction of being the University’s Chief Academic Officer.) If it is true that “longevity has its place,” then his has been a singular achievement in service to legions of students, faculty and staff, and three successive presidential administrations. Similarly, he has been a force within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education and the National Council for Higher Education Administration.
Current MU President Daniel Wubah remarked of Vilas, “He has made us stronger as an institution by keeping our success and the well-being of every member of our community at the center of his life and work. He will be deeply missed.” What the president described as Prabhu’s “sage counsel” has left an indelible mark on the campus and the community.
How does one capture the essence of a person and his legacy in just a few brief pages? What words do you summon to convey a dramatic life story that includes growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai, India, and then making the arduous solo journey to the United States to pursue graduate studies and eventually earn a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry from the prestigious University of Texas-Austin? Finally, how does one measure the contours of a 40-year career as a research scientist and university administrator?
A few brief words cannot do justice to Vilas’ many academic accolades, and the profound influence he has had on students, colleagues and community partners. In the end, it is the quality of the person— a dutiful son, devoted husband, father of three adult children, and true friend— that stands out and distinguishes Vilas Prabhu. By his own admission, he treasures his parents’ influence, his wife’s enduring patience and his children’s successes.
“Impressive” is an insufficient word to use in summing up Vilas Prabhu’s academic accomplishments. As a faculty member and Bernhardt Research Professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, he earned distinction for his scientific investigations and publications. He personified the scholar-teacher who published regularly, mentored students and proved to be a trusted peer in university governance. This served him well when he was asked to lead in reinventing the pharmaceutical science program, which in turn led to growing administrative responsibilities as a dean, associate provost and presidential counselor.
Prabhu also was active in community engagement, and in expanding the educational and economic opportunities available to all students, but especially those from Native American tribal communities across the region. When Dr. Francine McNairy became Millersville’s 13th president, Vilas Prabhu was the logical choice to succeed her as provost.
Perhaps McNairy put it best: “No one could ask for a more enthusiastic, dedicated and loyal academic leader.” She lauded Prabhu’s “extraordinary energy and passion for the academy,” and his support for student-centered experiences on campus and globally. He embodies the virtues of what former Vice President for Advancement Jerry Eckert called a “public university in service to the public good.” Noting the provost’s sense of humor and his “enthusiasm for story-telling” as essential qualities in building community partnerships, Eckert praised Prabhu as a “valued colleague” willing to let others receive their due in advancing the University mission.
An informal survey of current faculty and staff echoed the point, concluding the provost is a good-natured “whirlwind” of energy and intellectual curiosity who puts student needs first. Education professor Dr. Laurie Hanich spoke for many of her colleagues in noting his “vivacious spirit and insatiable work ethic,” as well as Prabhu’s “sense of humor, goodwill and collegial friendship.” Others remarked about the provost’s willingness to listen and then make tough decisions. As one campus observer concluded, “We are not likely to see his kind again.”
My own close friendship with Vilas Prabhu stretches back nearly as long as his tenure at the University. In 2006 he and Jerry Eckert championed my appointment as director of the University Honors College. I learned almost immediately that, like Jerry, Vilas was a person you could trust, and he was as good as his word. As provost, he was instrumental in transforming the program into PASSHE’s premier academic Honors College. Because of his strategic leadership, in 2011 nearly 30 Honors students from Millersville and our sister institutions had the study-abroad experience of a lifetime during a two-week summer field school in Bermuda.
Prabhu and his wife Sneha joined the group and were as active as the students in learning about the history, archeology and culture. To quote one participant, “I love Dr. Prabhu!” and the students’ gratitude has paid great dividends for the University.
They include ongoing student research opportunities on the island, new trans-Atlantic collaborations and exchanges, and the creation of Millersville’s own Atlantic World Studies Center.
Ambition and academic rigor tempered by generosity and collegiality, and an unswerving belief in the University’s mission define Vilas Prabhu’s impact on campus culture over a decade and one-half. Among the many academic innovations he guided to fruition are three doctoral degree programs (educational leadership, nursing and social work), nearly a dozen baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate programs, and the groundbreaking multidisciplinary studies major (a cluster of interdisciplinary concentrations). He has overseen a redefinition of Millersville’s international partnerships and the expansion of student overseas exchange opportunities. Numerous campus research centers and institutes have flourished on Prabhu’s watch.
More incrementally, Prabhu worked to complete a reorganization of the University colleges and departments, and expand greater funding for faculty and student research. He would be the first to admit that these achievements came through close collaboration between administrators and faculty who have the students’ best interests in mind. As Dr. Michael Jackson, Dean of the College of Science and Technology, stated, “His [Prabhu’s] legacy will be that of a caring, personable and loquacious individual who insisted on collaboratively advancing the mission of the University and the success of our faculty, staff and students.” A discerning participant-observer of trends in higher education, Prabhu also understands the local campus culture, which is a necessary ingredient for programmatic success.
If readers will permit me, I would like to end this assessment on a personal note. No one could have anticipated the disruptions in University life brought about by the ongoing global pandemic. I marvel at Vilas’ resilience and his fierce determination to preserve what is best in the “Millersville way.” Not for himself but for others, and especially the students. My own sense is Vilas Prabhu may be the most consequential provost in a half-century.
In good times and in moments of unimagined challenges, he has been a loyal and steady presence willing to work with others to serve the interests of the University community, its friends and institutional partners. As the aforementioned tributes make clear, Vilas A. Prabhu has been a gift to the University and the students whose welfare it takes to heart. The personal affection for the man is matched by the broad awareness of his enduring legacy through three presidential administrations. Truly he has served us as well and reminded us of what is best in the long tradition of excellence that defines Millersville University. Indeed, he will be missed!