Human rights activist Marina Schuster speaks for Bhutto-Ispahani lecture series.
Ahmed Ispahani has earned the reputation as one of La Verne’s most beloved and respected professors, and his students remember him for his passion and his teaching methods.
In his four decades teaching at the University of La Verne, one encounter with a student has so profoundly affected Ahmed Ispahani that talking about it brings him to tears.
For Ispahani, the exchange illustrates the differences between the haves and the have nots, and serves as a reminder of what we take for granted.
A few years ago, Ispahani, a respected economist who has advised the Shah of Iran and former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assigned homework to his students that required them to go to the campus library.
A young man came into Ispahani’s office, crying. The student, who was 18 or 19, explained to Ispahani that he was poor. Devastated, he said he would be unable to complete the assignment.
“He thought he had to pay to use the university library,” Ispahani said, pausing and choking back tears. “I took him to the library and I explained to him that it was free.”
“Ever since then, I’ve made it a point to help people.”
“My parents always taught me to help people as much as we can. We have so much. I think we need to give, give, give.”
Since 1964, when he first began teaching at La Verne, Ispahani, Professor of Business Administration and Economics, has done just that.
“America has given me so much,” said Ispahani, who was born in Iran and became a U.S. citizen. “I want to give back something to America, and here you’re touching the lives of thousands of young people. I have very good relationships with students. I’m now teaching the third generation. I’ve had the fathers, the children, and now the children’s children — three generations. They all tell their children, ‘You must take a class from Ispahani,’ even if their major is not economics.”
A gracious and unassuming man despite his upbringing, credentials, and connections, Ispahani has earned the reputation as one of La Verne’s most beloved and respected professors. Students remember him for his passion and his teaching methods, which include pulling a $100 bill out of his pocket when he’s explaining money and banking. A dollar bill just wouldn’t leave the same impression, he explains.
He’s a world traveler who loves La Verne so much he calls it home. He’s run in the same circles as famous politicians and world leaders, but always has time for his students. He’s a sage scholar with a lot to talk about, but is an adept listener.
Born into a privileged family, Ispahani has lived a life that could easily be the basis for a book or a screenplay. He has drunk the first milk from a camel, cherishes a sword given to him by the king of Saudi Arabia, and has hobnobbed with world leaders and politicians.
Ispahani grew up in Pakistan because his father had business in that country. He went to high school in Cambridge, England. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Karachi in Pakistan, but wanted to further his studies in the United States. He applied to the master’s program in economics at the University of Southern California and was immediately accepted.
His reason for wanting to come to the U.S. was simple, he said.
“I had seen all these Hollywood movies and I thought the movies reflected America. I thought the cowboys were all running around with cattle, that sort of thing. I thought that was America,” he said. “I had no idea that was the past.”
Ispahani was shocked when he realized his perception was far from reality. He spent his first night in Los Angeles at a hotel near the Coliseum. He will always remember the next morning.
“My window was facing the freeway and I drew the curtains and I saw these cars, cars, cars,” he said. “I had never seen so many cars in my life. I was on the third floor. I ran immediately downstairs, in my pajamas. I said ‘What is going on? Has the Soviet Union invaded America? All of those cars! Where are they going? Are they running away?’”
“I had never seen a freeway. I’d never seen so many cars in my life,” he said. “They gave me such a look as though (they were thinking) you’re from a third-world country.”
After earning his master’s degree, Ispahani intended to return home. But his professors encouraged him to stay and earn his Ph.D.
A “nasty” professor who demanded Ispahani’s dissertation and even his draft copies be perfectly typed was the reason Ispahani landed at La Verne College in 1964.
“I took this job at La Verne for one year to pay for my typing,” Ispahani says with a smile. “My parents were paying all of my expenses. I didn’t want to ask for additional money. I loved the job. I had never thought about teaching. I had always thought of going into banking or family business. Before the year was over, they offered me another contract.”
During that first year, Ispahani made a lasting impression on numerous students, one of whom would go on to become his boss.
University president Steve Morgan would go on to take several courses from Ispahani and was impressed by Ispahani’s teaching style. Ispahani, who travels the world, gets his information first hand, Morgan said.
“I learned a great deal from him. I do still apply at lot of the economic theory, a lot of what he taught me, to what I do today,” Morgan said.
Ispahani is an excellent teacher who loves to teach and takes a personal interest in his students, Morgan said.
“He’s been a great friend to me and he’s been a good advisor,” Morgan said. “He’s been a mentor and I think many students would say the same thing.”
La Verne City Manager Martin R. Lomeli said Ispahani was one of the reasons he decided to study at La Verne.
Ispahani has a wide following, Lomeli said.
“I would always look forward to going into his classroom,” said Lomeli, adding that he was fascinated by Ispahani. “He always made learning interesting. I love the man. He’s just an incredible man with a great personality.”
In 1968, Ispahani took his first leave from La Verne College to become economic advisor to the government of Iran, Central Bank of Iran. He later became senior economist for Battelle Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio., where he was in charge of the financial and economic sectors of the Fifth Five Year Plan of Iran. That would lead to an incredible and prestigious opportunity.
He was in Ohio when he got word that the Shah of Iran wanted him to come and work for him.
“Everything they said, I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ It was very exciting. They took me with them to Iran,” said Ispahani, who was one of about 50 Americans working on the plan for the Shah. At the end of the year, when the contract was over, the Shah took Ispahani aside and asked him his plans.
“I said, ‘I’m going back to America.’ He offered me to continue with him and do the alterations in the plan that he needed. I took it right away.”
“I’d always been pro-Shah,” he said. “My family had always been pro-Shah.” The Shah was close to Ispahani’s uncle.
“It was like a dream come true. I never thought I’d work for the Shah of Iran.”
He spent several years working closely with the Shah, and experienced first-hand the opulence that Westerners imagine.
By that time, Ispahani had been on leave from La Verne for an unprecedented amount of time. The people there wanted him to come back, he said, and he was eager to return.
In 1990, Ispahani began advising his cousin, Benazir Bhutto, on economic matters. When the former Pakistan Prime Minister visited La Verne, she always stayed with Ispahani. The two were close and had a deep trust in one another, he said.
The last time he saw Bhutto was in August 2007. The pair emailed frequently.
Ispahani was in Bali last December when he received a short e-mail from her. He thought it strange. Her e-mails were usually much longer.
“Dear Ahmed, Thank you for your support and encouragement,” the e-mail said. Bhutto also told Ispahani that she loved him.
“I got that e-mail in the morning,” Ispahani said. “She never sent me a one-line e-mail. It got me really scared.”
Later that evening, Ispahani turned on CNN. He found out that his cousin had been assassinated in Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile in Dubai. She was 54.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Ispahani said. Her death took a deep toll.
Ispahani frequently traveled to Dubai to see Bhutto. He also vacations in Bali almost every year, sometimes twice a year. He always returns home, though.
“Even the Shah of Iran, I wanted to come back. You can’t ask for a more prestigious status type of job than working for the Shah, and I was coming back,” Ispahani said.
“Nothing can get me out of here until I decide to retire.”