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 soared 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 – in London and Singapore. One obvious assumption is that the business school, replete with Booth funding, will be be looking for the site of another 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.”
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 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 fewer than 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 BusinessWeek.
“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 that sets the school apart from its rivals. It is clear that it is an approach that will continue.