La Verne’s economic prophet
Ahmed Ispahani enlightens future generations with past experiences.
by Alex Forbess
photography by Zachary Horton
This man does not wish to be in the spotlight, nor does he have any intention of doing so. His students may believe that Ahmed Ispahani’s current mission is to wake up, arrive at the University of La Verne and lead with passion his economic classes. They may not know there is teaching depth behind his class wisdom that comes from leading the economic futures of entire countries. But on this March day, his students arrive in the Landis Academic Center, Room 225, with expressions of exhaustion written on their faces from waking up too early. Ahmed, professor of business administration and economics, at age 78, really likes teaching early morning classes. He is always smiling and genuinely happy to see them. And his love for teaching wakes them up fast. During class, Ahmed raises his 3-foot ruler, conducting his class like a maestro conducting his orchestra. For him, it is moving—magical—to hear a student explain the concept of the pure competition model. As the student explains it correctly, he leads the class through an expression of motivation. “Very good,” Ahmed says. “Everyone give her a round of applause.” The students clap. A faint smile appears on her face, a mixed sign of achievement plus a little shyness for being in the spotlight. “It encourages them,” Ahmed says. “It is a big part of my teaching process, and everyone gets joy out of it.” Either way, Ahmed, himself, is always radiantly smiling.
Ask him to look back at his life, and he will tell you that it is nothing special. Right away, one learns that Ahmed is self-effacing. For a start, he was born and raised in Iran. His family enrolled him to study in Cambridge High School in the United Kingdom. Then, he was accepted to the University of Karachi, Pakistan, where in 1959 he earned his bachelor’s in economics. “Learning in Pakistan is a completely different system,” Ahmed says. “It is pretty much like the British system: the professor comes, teaches and leaves. There is no interaction with the teacher and his students.” His perception of teaching changed when he entered the University of Southern California and in 1962 earned his master’s in economics. He found that instead of professors stating what they are teaching is right, they encouraged students to question them—to challenge them—anything to have the students understand what they were learning. For Ahmed, it was a great learning experience on how to teach. It was to be a life lesson.
His journey to an unknown world
He was deep in class work to earn his doctorate in economics at USC when a position opened in 1964 to be an assistant professor of business administration and economics. “[It was] at this small institution called La Verne College. I had never heard of La Verne,” Ahmed says. “I was just looking for a job to pay someone to type my dissertation.” When he was invited for an interview by LVC President Harold D. Fasnacht, he drove toward this unknown city, not even sure if he were headed in the right direction. Ahmed expected to enter a similar crowded metropolis like Los Angeles, but instead he was greeted into another realm with citrus trees growing so close together, he could not see in the distance. Then there was a break with a Texaco gas station. “I did not know where I was,” Ahmed says. “I pulled into the gas station that was near the police station and asked the owner, ‘How can I get to La Verne?’” Ahmed laughs so hard, it takes him a minute to compose himself again. He remembers the owner’s face, how he looked more confused than he did. After recollecting his thoughts, the owner said, “This is La Verne.” A few years later that Texaco station owner, Frank Johnson, became the mayor of La Verne.
Ahmed glanced around behind the station. There was not much to see: Sneaky Park, Founders Hall, Miller Hall, Woody Hall. “What is this place?” he thought. He walked into Founders Hall with confidence and was interviewed by Fasnacht and a few other faculty members. They asked; he replied with enthusiastic answers, and he said farewell and hoped to hear from them again. After a long drive back to his Los Angeles apartment, Ahmed opened his door and immediately heard his phone ring. He rushed to answer it. The person on the line was President Fasnacht. “I was told I would hear their response within 10 days, but he called within two hours. He said, ‘You’re hired.’”
Ahmed graduated from USC in 1965. Whether it was teaching his students or befriending his new faculty colleagues, especially during lunch and coffee breaks, he quickly gained pride to call this once unknown town his new home. It was during this time that Iran was preparing to become a modernized country, but in order for that to happen, its government needed its brightest citizens to return. “They called me and said they were recruiting Iranians who were well-educated,” Ahmed says. “They wanted to bring people back to Iran.” The government of Iran asked him to be the economic adviser, primarily helping the Central Bank of Iran in Teheran. President Fasnacht was nervous about Ahmed leaving, but he knew he meant well and wanted to improve the country that raised him. Relieved to gain his president’s good graces, Ahmed filed for a sabbatical leave from 1968 to 1969 and returned home.
Development and collapse of Iran
Iran was facing numerous challenges toward developing as a powerful economic nation even while first world nations still tried to claim this land. Every nation craved oil, and Iran was the gold mine containing this black fluid. Ahmed’s USC dissertation explains this, modeling and demonstrating how Iran could become an economically secure country without foreign influence. But in the non- academic world, obstacles to economic independence included Britain imposing an embargo and a blockade in 1951 after the Iranian Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry. “During that time, the price of oil was going up, and it was Iran’s main source of revenue,” Ahmed says.
No one else knew Iran’s potential for becoming a more modern society than Mohammad Reza Phalavi, better known as the Shah of Iran. He came to power in 1941 with the abdication of his father Mohammad Reza Khan. Iran was struggling to find its place in the world order, and that was reflected in his leadership. With World War II’s end, a power struggle emerged between Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and the Shah, who fled Iran in 1953; however, it was not long before Britain and the United States overthrew Mossadeq and replaced him with General Fazlollah Zhedi, making him the new prime minister. Without Mossadeq, the Shah returned that same year, oppressed the democratic government that was rising and reverted the country to an absolute monarchy.
In order for Iran to become modernized and secular, the Shah started the White Revolution in 1963. This plan involved a series of economic, social and political reforms, meant to turn Iran into a global power. “It was called the ‘White Revolution’ because there would be no bloodshed,” Ahmed says. The Shah wanted to achieve reform goals to lead Iran to be a more developed nation, such as establishing women’s right to vote, eliminating illiteracy and creating land reform. Despite the light title, the Shah’s progress to a civilized society was far from peaceful. He, along with Western supporters such as the United States and Britain, faced criticism from the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamic Republic was appalled that Iran was being sculpted by Western influence. However, the Shah managed to thrive with major assistance from the SAVAK, Iran’s former secret agency that was formed under the guidance of the United States and Israel. This agency worked very close with the CIA as well. Unlike in the United States, where citizens can criticize government officials, that type of freedom did not exist in Iran. There was oppressive surveillance; there was corruption and torture; there was bloodshed. “There was no question you could not criticize the Shah,” Ahmed says. “In Middle Eastern countries, you cannot criticize.”
While the Shah made sure his vision came true, Ahmed was guiding the Central Bank of Iran as its economic adviser. He had many tasks, but his main objective was simple: manipulation of Iran’s currency. “We kept it from going down in value,” Ahmed says. With his guidance, the rial—Iran’s currency—started to become stronger. He advised the Central Bank, and within the year, he also helped Iran set up a Consumer Price Index, the first of its kind in the country.
Then the year was up, and as he promised President Fasnacht, Ahmed returned to La Verne College and went back to teaching business administration and economics. But Iran’s leadership called again in 1971 when Ahmed was asked to be the senior economist for Battelle Laboratories, a private nonprofit company that offers assistance to countries with science and developing technology. The Shah charged this company to modernize his country. With Ahmed guiding the process, the Shah knew he could achieve economic success. By 1973, the advisers developed a five-year plan. “He gave us certain goals to the applied laboratories,” Ahmed says. “We pursued his goal of developing Iran as a mighty regional power dedicated to social reform and economic development.”
The plan was divided into several groups such as urban, rural, education and economic; all of which had experts assigned to each field. Ahmed was in charge of the economic and financial sector. For six months, each group traveled throughout Iran, speaking with its governors and concerned citizens in each province, and seeing what could be done. “There was a lot of work that needed to be done,” Ahmed says. “People were asking for running water, gas lines, universities, electricity—all the basic necessities.” He noted the imbalance of distributing money to pay for the resources. “Regardless where the money went, it went to Tehran,” Ahmed says. “The regions were forgotten, and Tehran was over expanding. We needed to decentralize everything.” The way Ahmed saw it, it was like the head of Iran was getting bigger, but the body was no longer able to support it. After traveling throughout the country, the groups returned with the needed information and started working on a draft of the five-year plan. They presented this to the Shah; he was pleased with what they came up with. He did make a few modifications, but the finished plan was still mostly in its original draft.
Before Ahmed returned to La Verne, the Shah asked him a life changing question. “He asked whether I wanted to be his economic adviser,” Ahmed says. “It never crossed my mind that I would work with the Shah.” Despite the negative view the Islamic Republic followers and other traditional clergy had with the Shah, his plans of moving Iran forward compelled Ahmed to be part of the progress. “In my opinion, he was very serious and sincere,” he says. “There will always be opposite views of a benevolent dictatorship.” And while Ahmed saw potential for Iran to become a modernized society, he felt the only way for it to become one was through the rule of one party. Nevertheless, the opposition wanted change in their leadership. With most citizens being illiterate, Ahmed knew that the Shah’s goals could not be accomplished through a democracy. “People at the time did not know what a democracy is,” he says. “The country was not ready, which was why the Shah strongly emphasized education.” Meanwhile, Ahmed started to see results from the five-year plan. Iran started shipping cargo for international trade, and universities were starting to be built in the provinces. He saw the country moving forward, making great strides under the rule of the Shah, known by his other title “Shahanshah,” the king of kings.
Ahmed left Iran in 1978, hoping that all the work and energy he put into helping the country would lead to a better future. Unfortunately, that never happened. In 1979, the Islamic Republic rose to power, sparking the 1979 Tehran crisis. Whether it was Islamic Republic followers taking Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy or the violent protests that erupted throughout Iran, Ahmed Ispahani saw nothing but chaos. The Shah fled from Iran before the opposition could apprehend him. “Things really changed within one year,” Ahmed says. “When it all started, I received phone calls from relatives in Iran saying negative things about the Shah. When the Shah was in power, people were timid of saying harsh things, saying to one another, ‘Careful, the SAVAK is listening.’” Even now, Ahmed does not know what happened to the five-year plan, whether it was destroyed or parts of it were still implemented. Ahmed could not believe what was happening to his home country. “I did not return after the Shah left because I wanted to remember as it was.”
The Kennedys of Pakistan
This man has a heart, a big one. Whether in Iran or La Verne, he wants to help people succeed. It runs in the family, especially with his cousin Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party. Ahmed could not be more proud of what his cousin accomplished, from being the first woman to serve as prime minister in Pakistan—she held two non-consecutive terms, 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996—to meeting international figures such as Robert Kennedy Jr., who was the roommate of her brother Murtaza Bhutto, while he studied at Harvard University.
Dec. 27, 2007, Benazir was assassinated in a bombing after a PPP rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan while she was campaigning for a third term in the 2008 general election. Ahmed’s world stopped for a while. “I could and could not believe it,” he says. “I did not want to believe it happened. It was not just a loss for Pakistan but for the world.” To Ahmed, he always saw her as the same enthusiastic, energetic girl who was excited to see her fellow cousin in America. “She just felt so free here,” Ahmed says. “She felt comfortable and did things she could not do at home.” He remembers the excitement Benazir had when she was eating ice cream while having her picture taken with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland or while buying her lunch at McDonald’s. He even remembers her sitting in his La Verne office chair while he watched her play with his desk materials.
Later, while serving as prime minister of Pakistan, she could always count on her cousin to give sound economic advice as her economic adviser. He knew she was destined for something great, which was also what he feared. “It was natural for me to fear what may happen,” Ahmed says. “She even knew that terrorists may go after her.” However, Benazir told her cousin that Pakistan came before her. “There was nothing that could have persuaded her not to do this,” Ahmed says. “It was a mission for her, something in the family. They were the Kennedys of Pakistan.” Indeed, her goals were similar to what John F. Kennedy strived to achieve: universal health care, reforming education and allowing every citizen to vote. Like the Kennedys, politics motivated the Bhuttos to achieve great things for their country. The sacrifices they made were to help future generations; yet in the end, they themselves were burdened with great personal tragedy.
One thing that Ahmed will never forget was seeing a powerful, intellectual woman be in command, something that high officials, government officials and other politicians did not enjoy in this traditional male culture. “Think about it. You have a woman giving orders, ordering the military around, and they all had to accept it. It has just been wonderful to see that.” Her loss is still unimaginable to him, but Ahmed has her presence with him, both mentally and physically. In his neatly organized office, he has memorabilia of what good she has done for the world. A Feb. 11, 2000, article from the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, brochures of her being guest speaker at ULV, a May 1997 article from the Campus Times: they are all there, close to him. Right where he sits in his second story office looking over the orange trees in Sneaky Park, he has a framed autographed photo of Benazir, which says, “To Ahmed, a cousin who helped me when times were tough.”
Her legacy may not be over now that her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is being prepared to become the next prime minister of Pakistan. He is only 24, but Ahmed sees the same motivational individual in him that mirrors his mother. While he is unable to be the PPP candidate for the 2013 Pakistan general election—a candidate must be at minimum 25 years old—Ahmed has no doubt that he will be a great leader for Pakistan. To him, it is as though he stepped back in time when Benazir visited him in his office. Bilawli, too, played on his computer and sat on his lap. He cherishes the memory of the mother and son who called him immediate family.
These days, Ahmed is at his “home,” as he calls it, the La Verne campus, preparing for his classes and greeting passing students. Throughout his long tenure, he has made a lead faculty impression. He regularly greets alumni children from all majors who tell him, “My parents said I should not graduate without taking one of your classes.” “I have had students who say, ‘My father had you and said I need to take your class,’” Ahmed says. “I have lived through six presidents and have taught second generations. How many professors can say that? Now I am just waiting for grandchildren.”
Case in point: Yvette Castillo, sophomore and political science major, was enrolled in his microeconomics class during the 2013 spring semester and says everyone enjoys Ahmed’s teaching style. “His teaching method is different from what I am used to,” she says. “He definitely motivates students in the class. A week before spring break, he met with us one-on-one to discuss how we can improve.”
Paul Abbondante, associate professor of finance, admires how he approaches his students, from his cheerful attitude to meeting with students individually to discuss their progress. “He is the classic definition of a teacher. He goes out of his way for his students.” The two alternate when teaching economics. One semester, Paul will teach macroeconomics while Ahmed teaches microeconomics. “This is the best compliment I can say about Ahmed: I do not want to compete with him,” Paul says. “I have told him this numerous times. He laughs, but it is the truth. This is someone in his 70s who is mentally alert. I would like to be that intellectually active.”
The world is still calling for Ahmed Ispahani. And one of his pleasures is to travel the world, mainly as a tourist but also for consulting as an economic adviser at Adu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In the Middle East, the teachers are treated like loyalty, Ahmed says, but La Verne will always be home. “This is my last job at La Verne. No more ambition,” He says. “Until I stop enjoying it, I will continue teaching.” Ahmed continues to be humble with the people he encounters, people who for the most part do not know the world leadership life he has lived. And while Ahmed may try to stay out of the world spotlight, it nevertheless seems to find him. “If you never ask, you will never know,” Paul says.
Ahmed’s suburb paradise
On occasion, cousin Benazir Bhutto would surreptitiously visit Ahmed Ispahani at his two-story home at the top of Live Oak Canyon Road. This La Verne home, designed and coordinated by this brilliant man, was constructed one year after he returned from working with the Shah. He directed the architect how he wanted his new home to be built, but Ahmed was also focused on what to do with his one acre lot. “I told the architect I wanted open space,” he says. Now, when he steps outside of his home, he is greeted by the natural beauty of La Verne, from the vibrant Live Oak trees to the glimmering sunlight touching his skin. Inside his house lies artwork from around the world. “If I like it, I buy it,” Ahmed says. “I try to buy something from every country.” Along with his elaborate collection are gifts offered to him by prestigious people who honored the help he offered to their countries. Such gifts include a golden sword presented by the prince of Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed has developed a taste for culture, starting when he was 15 and spent every summer with his family in their vacation home, located in the French Riviera. There, his relatives gathered form Iran, Pakistan, America and other places around the world. “It was used as a headquarters for the family to travel to every city in Europe.” From Paris to Rome, Ahmed and his family experienced vibrant cuisine and shopped for the finest clothes. He remembers walking down the curvy hillside trail that led to the French Riviera beach. While his family sold this home a few years ago, he still has fond memories of this luxurious utopia.