by Brice Nixon
photography by Tom Galaraga
Dr. Ahmed Ispahani has woken up in countless different countries in all parts of the world. From his annual Christmas in Bali to his numerous trips to Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East, Dr. Ispahani loves to travel.
But most days, when he wakes up and looks out the window of his home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, he sees the University of La Verne campus. And to hear Dr. Ispahani describe it, one might think he had found paradise. “I don’t think I would live anywhere else,” says Dr. Ispahani, professor of economics and business administration at ULV.
Dr. Ispahani, 65, was born in Iran, but his family traveled back and forth between Iran and Pakistan all throughout his youth because of the family’s business in Pakistan. His cousin is the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was exiled and now splits time between her home in London and her home in Abu Dhabi, although she is a frequent guest of Dr. Ispahani.
Dr. Ispahani attended college in England and came to the United States in 1960. He earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in economics from the University of Southern California. While he was finishing his Ph.D., Dr. Ispahani began teaching at then La Verne College to earn enough money to pay someone to type his dissertation. Dr. Ispahani was immediately enamored with La Verne. “I just loved it. Everybody was so nice,” he remembers. “I can’t think of a better place.”
Although he enjoyed economics at the college level, Dr. Ispahani never thought he would become a professor of economics. Teaching was never a part of his plans. He says he had planned to work for the government or in the business world. “Teaching was not my cup of tea. But the place kind of grows on you.” Dr. Ispahani was hired full time and is now one of the longest-tenured professors at ULV. In fact, he has been here so long that one of his former students, Steve Morgan, is now the University’s president.
“Ahmed is an outstanding teacher,” says Dr. Morgan “and I still draw regularly on my experiences in his classes more than 30 years ago. He has a style that makes learning a truly enjoyable experience. He gets to know his students well and takes a personal interest in their lives. He is an excellent ambassador wherever he goes. He and I have enjoyed working together as teacher/student and now as teacher/president. In my book Ahmed is tops and I am privileged to call him my friend.”
Dr. Ispahani says a lot of his students have done well in life, and in Dr. Morgan’s case he saw a promising future. “I told him he would come back as president,” Dr. Ispahani says. Morgan received an A in Dr. Ispahani’s class, but he jokingly says he would have given him an A-plus if he knew Dr. Morgan would become his boss.
In the classroom, fundamentals are the focus for Dr. Ispahani. He says he wants students to learn to see all aspects of a situation and learn to look at it from different sides. He will often take an opposing view just for the sake of argument because he loves controversy in his class.
Dr. Ispahani considers himself a very blessed person because he gets paid to do something he enjoys. “I look forward to coming to school. Teaching is really my baby; I love it, says Dr. Ispahani, who has no plans to retire any time soon. “The day I don’t enjoy it, I’ll quit.”
At first glance, Dr. Ispahani’s office is not unlike the office of any other professor at any other university. The shelves are full of books, and the floor is cluttered with papers. A little closer inspection reveals what makes this office unique.
On one wall is a framed photograph of Dr. Ispahani, Bhutto and Ted Kennedy. On another wall is a framed letter thanking Dr. Ispahani for “taking the time to let me know your thoughts.” A nice thank you letter, for sure, but most people would not get one from former president Bill Clinton. In 1998, Dr. Ispahani was a guest of Bhutto’s at the 14th annual Bakersfield Business Conference. Bhutto was a speaker at the conference, part of a group dubbed “the world’s greatest speakers.” Included in the group were Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Steve Forbes.
Dr. Ispahani said he really hit if off with Forbes, who, like Dr. Ispahani, is a promoter of the flat tax. “I’m a promoter of a free-market economy,” says Dr. Ispahani. In May, he visited China to present a paper on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Dr. Ispahani spent August 2000 in India at the University of Cochin in the state of Kerala. He went there to present a paper on Kerala’s market economy because the state wanted his advice on what it needed to do to grow.
Economic adviser is a familiar role for Dr. Ispahani. In the early 1970s, he was one of the economic advisers to the Shah of Iran. He took what was supposed to be a one-year leave of absence from teaching at La Verne and served as economic adviser to the Central Bank of Iran. The Shah asked him to stay in Iran and continue serving as one of his economic advisers. Dr. Ispahani’s one-year absence lasted five years, until he returned to La Verne in the fall of ’76. A year later, the Shah’s government was overthrown.
Dr. Ispahani also helped Bhutto as an unofficial adviser on economic policies. Bhutto was twice elected prime minister of Pakistan by popular vote. She was re-elected five years ago, but a little more than a year ago, Bhutto’s government was overthrown by a military coup. The country’s army now has control, and Bhutto, as the leader of the opposing party, has been working with the U.S. Congress to restore democracy in Pakistan. Dr. Ispahani has been very active in helping her.
Family, after all, is very important to Dr. Ispahani, who says he has a very close-knit family. Dr. Ispahani has never been married and says he is single by choice. He relates that he is too busy and loves what he is doing too much to have time for a family of his own. “I love my unencumbered lifestyle. I don’t want to be tied down.”
Despite loving the single life, Dr. Ispahani is still very family-oriented. His three sisters, Mahin, Shamsi and Shamin, live in Los Angeles, all “married with lots of kids,” Dr. Ispahani says. He gets together with them often, and his brother Abbas lives in Claremont. A La Verne graduate, Abbas, who goes by “Abe,” was actually in one of Dr. Ispahani’s classes and received a “B.” Dr. Ispahani says he was probably harder on him because he was his brother.
Although he has no children of his own, Dr. Ispahani spends much time spoiling his nieces and nephews. “I just adore my nephews and nieces. They’re like my children,” he says. He also says his students are like his children. He receives great satisfaction from their accomplishments and keeps in touch with many of them. He says that he recently received a letter from a student he had not heard from in 20 years because the student wanted to thank him and felt Dr. Ispahani played a big part of his success.
Dr. Ispahani is now at the point where many of his current students are the children of former students. The professor beams as he recalls one student telling him that his father said his college experience would not be complete if he didn’t take a class with Dr. Ispahani. “Before I had set foot on the ULV campus,” says senior diversified major Jeff Renders, “my father made it known that as a prerequisite I had to take a class from Dr. Ispahani before I graduated.”
Renders took contemporary global problems with Dr. Ispahani and says, “I learned more than the class taught me because of Dr. Ispahani’s intensive knowledge of global economics and his own personal experience, because of his insights. He’s seen it and done it all himself. He doesn’t need a book; he is a book.”
Sitting on his couch in his house, from which he can gaze down upon the city of La Verne, Dr. Ispahani holds up a solid gold sword, a gift, he says, from the king of Saudi Arabia. It is his most prized artifact, an accurate description of the item considering Dr. Ispahani’s house resembles a museum exhibit more than a home.
Dr. Ispahani had the house, which sits on three acres of land, built 20 years ago. “I wanted something on the top of a hill,” he says. He was driving through the winding road that swerves up this hill and came across the perfect spot. He enjoys the privacy this location affords him. “It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s just a few minutes from campus, and it’s like a completely different world. It gives you that country feel, but you are only five minutes away from the campus.”
The inside of the house has been made into an artwork showcase. “I really like to surround myself with lots of artwork,” Dr. Ispahani says. “It’s not so much the value; it’s anything that interests me.” The walls are draped with paintings from across the globe. One of his favorites is a painting by a famous Iranian artist that is made of carpets, coins and paints. He also has many paintings with horses, a favorite subject for paintings. In the stairway and upstairs there are more paintings, including one from Persia that is more than 100 years old, next to paintings from Indonesia, Costa Rica and India. Probably the oldest pieces in Dr. Ispahani’s collection are three parts of stone carvings that are 2,500 years old. One piece is a depiction of Alexander the Great. The other two are of Buddha, each part of an ancient temple in Pakistan. Dr. Ispahani says that he brings something back from every trip. He takes one suitcase for clothes and another to haul his latest piece of art. He has so much artwork that he has to store some in his garage because he has no other place for them.
But despite the lure of the mysterious and exotic places to which he travels, Dr. Ispahani always comes home to La Verne, to the peaceful seclusion of his house on top of the hill, and to the students whom he loves to teach.