July 11, 2011 12:27 am

Dean navigates a steady course

sunil kumar

Sunil Kumar: 'The thing is to get the ideas of our faculty to outside consumers , notjust academics

Becoming dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth school of business should prove to have both advantages and drawbacks for Sunil Kumar. To begin with, as he rightly says: “I inherited a school in excellent shape.” That is the good news.

But for the former senior professor at Stanford who took up the dean’s job at Chicago on January 1, taking over such a well-run school will inevitably make it hard for him to stamp his mark.

That should be a drawback. But Prof Kumar, at 43 years old one of the youngest deans on the circuit, seems unperturbed. Indeed, he is forging ahead regardless. “When you go to a school that is functioning very well there are no immediate fires to fight. But that is not an excuse for inaction,” he explains.

And the school is functioning very well; indeed, it has been on a roll for the past decade. Its reputation reached legendary proportions in 2008 when it received what is still the largest ever single business school donation – of $300m – from alumnus David Booth and completed a rebranding campaign that was the stuff of case studies. The school has also topped the Bloomberg BusinessWeek rankings of US schools since 2006.

But action is already the mantra for the new dean. His first challenge, he says has been to get to know the school’s alumni. With 45,000 of them worldwide, that is no mean feat, but he reports that “things are going well” – in his first six months in the job he has already visited alumni in London twice. And one of his first tasks has been to launch a strategic review of the school for, as he says, “The change in leadership is the natural time to take stock.”

One of the biggest questions for the review will be the future of the school’s overseas campuses – Booth has campuses in Chicago, London and Singapore. One obvious assumption is that the business school, replete with Booth funding, is looking for the site of a fourth campus. Prof Kumar’s background – he was born and largely educated in India – combined with the fact that the main university has plans for a centre in India, would suggest this as the preferred location. But Prof Kumar is adamant that the establishment of a fourth campus is no foregone conclusion. “I don’t want to prejudice the outcome of the assessment, but it is not just to select a new site for a campus.”

Dean’s biography

1968: Born in Bangalore, India.

1986: Began a Bachelor of Engineering degree at Mangalore University in Surathkal.

1991: Gained a Master of Engineering degree in computer science and automation from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

1992-1996: Studied for a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

1996: Joined Stanford University GSB as assistant professor to work in operations, information and technology. Later became associate dean for academic affairs, overseeing the MBA programme and leading faculty groups in marketing and organisational behaviour.

2011: Became 16th dean of Chicago Booth business school.

The reason is that the school has a critical problem of size. To maintain the quality of its degrees the Booth school only uses its own faculty to teach programmes. Prof Kumar says he fully endorses this principle. So while the school is one of the most active of the the US business schools in building a global footprint, its emphasis on quality limits its ability to replicate programmes. It is not just faculty, but staff that are the issue. “It’s not enough just to have programmes abroad, faculty have to be supported,” explains the dean.

One response is to hire more faculty, inevitably a long-term task. Chicago Booth has less that 150 full-time faculty today and Prof Kumar is reticent to speculate on future numbers. “We don’t set targets. We get our faculty to identify the people we want and then we go hire them. Faculty hire their colleagues.”

One thing he is happy to talk about, though, is the school’s public image, and in particular bringing the ideas generated by professors there, already highly regarded in academic circles, to a wider audience. The dean has already announced that the school will have its own television studio and faculty are now writing a branded column for Bloomberg.

“The thing is to get the ideas of our faculty to outside consumers, not just academics,” says Prof Kumar.

“The school has a lot of faculty with very diverse opinions. It is nice for faculty to be able to influence debate.

“The first thing is you have to make sure you have access to the people you want to influence. The second ... is to make sure you have content that is relevant to them.”

Though the strategic review is still under way, Prof Kumar already has his own agenda and that includes broadening the appeal of the school. He concedes: “A school cannot be everything to everyone.” But he wants Booth to go beyond its acknowledged core strengths in finance and economics – organisational behaviour is one area he highlights that he believes is a real academic strength of the school.

. . .

The reason for broadening the depth of teaching in these other areas is straightforward. “We are in the education business to produce well-rounded people.”

But what will not change is the approach the professors take to their subjects. “The strength of the school has always been in empirical research, data-driven research,” says the new dean. This applies to marketing as much as it does to finance or economics and it is an approach which sets the school apart from its rivals. It is clear that it is an approach which will continue.

. . .

Schools learn to focus

A decade ago business schools had a single marketing strategy: they were all experts in everything. These days that has changed dramatically, with business schools following their own marketing professors’ advice, and developing their own style and focus.

At Chicago Booth, Prof Kumar says that approach to research and teaching separates his school from the rest – they are, to coin a phrase, the “data dogs” of the industry. Other schools have gone back to their roots. At MIT Sloan, there is a re-energised enthusiasm for the commercialisation of innovation. And at Harvard Business School, the appointment of Nitin Nohria has sent a clear signal that HBS is playing to its strengths as the school for leadership and general management - the business school that educates the boardrooms of America.

Other business schools have chosen to draw strength from their parent universities. At Stanford University Graduate School of Business one in six students now studies for another degree alongside the MBA, in environmental sciences, or education for example. “I think business and management belong in every department,” says the dean Garth Saloner.

The move away from the stand-alone business school is also apparent at NYU Stern. Dean Peter Blair Henry says he joined the school in January 2010 because of the university president’s vision to develop a global university with the business school playing a part alongside the other departments.

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