Chicago’s New Dean Pursues Globalization, Stronger Alumni Network

A PURE ACADEMIC WITH NO AMBITION TO BECOME A DEAN.

Kumar says that he harbored no ambition or desire to become the dean of a business school until after receiving a phone call from Raghuram Rajan, Chicago’s franchise finance player and someone who has emerged as an elder statesman in the school’s powerful finance group. A member of the search committee, Rajan began the call by asking Kumar for the names of people he might recommend for the job. “At the end of the phone call,” recalls Kumar, ‘he said, ‘Why did you leave yourself off the list?’ To be honest, I hadn’t given it any thought.” Before long, Kumar was interviewing for the job.

At Chicago, perhaps more than at any other top-ranked business school, the faculty rules the roost. Economics professor John Huizinga, a former deputy dean who has been at the school for more than 30 years, is a major power broker. He not only chaired the search committee that brought aboard Kumar; he also is on the dean’s new global strategy review group. “Sunil understands and is committed to preserving the attributes of our school,” Huizinga said in a statement when Kumar’s appointment was made public. Behind the scenes, Huizinga and a handful of other Booth professors wield considerable influence in how the school is run. And after the successful deanship by Snyder, insiders say, there may be an “Empire Strikes Back” mindset among some faculty who want to reassert their power over the school.

The seven search committee members, in fact, were chosen not by the president or provost of the University of Chicago but only by Booth School’s tenure-track faculty, using an elaborate system that allowed each professor to rank his or her votes. They could only vote for colleagues who already had tenure, were not currently serving in the dean’s office, and who would not be on leave during any of the upcoming four quarters. The all-male group boasted a combined 153 years of service to Booth.

Apparently, Kumar’s background as a classic business researcher who could relate to the strong faculty at Chicago was a key attraction. Canice Prendergast, another economics professor on the search committee, explained: “We spoke with many different people, but with Sunil, very quickly it became as if we were speaking to one of us, even though he was from the outside.”

A LOVE OF READING FROM HIS FATHER, HE HAS AN AFFINITY FOR SCANDINAVIAN THRILLERS.

It was Kumar’s father, a policeman in Bangalore, who gently put him on the path of becoming an educator.  “My father loved books,” says Kumar. “He always had lots of books at home, and he cultivated a love of reading in me.” (Lately Kumar has an affinity for Scandinavian crime writing.) The young Kumar proved to be an excellent student, and his high grades allowed both his parents to look the other way when it came to the amount of time he spent playing cricket on the roads near their home.

After earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University in Surathkal, Kumar was offered a job by one of India’s largest firms. The position would require him to relocate, something he had no desire to do. Instead, he chose to go to graduate school. “I decided I didn’t really want to move out of Bangalore. So I went to grad school as a way of postponing the eventual employment decision.”

Accepted by the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, he earned a master’s degree in computer science and automation. That experience convinced him that he wanted to devote his life to scholarship. “Once I joined that program and watched both my classmates as well as faculty work on these really cool problems, I realized this is what I wanted to do. After that, in some sense, I have never been outside school.”

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