It’s been nearly three years since Soumitra Dutta abruptly resigned without explanation from the deanship of Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business. While his departure continues to remain a mystery, Dutta will now reemerge as the new dean of Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.
For Dutta, a distinguished Indian academic who spent 22 years at INSEAD before joining Cornell as dean of its Johnson Graduate School of Management in mid-2012, the new post at Oxford would represent something of a fresh start after a run at Cornell that ended on an inexplicable note. By any measure, he was a success at Cornell. At his old job as Johnson dean, he led a controversial merger of three Cornell schools–the graduate school he led along with Cornell’s undergraduate business school and School of Hotel Administration–into a new College of Business. He became the new college’s founding dean. Dutta reeled in the largest single gift to the university’s Ithaca, N.Y., campus, a $150 million pledge from H. Fisk Johnson for the new college.
And he also helped to oversee the creation of a Cornell Tech MBA in New York City, an innovative one-year program that was started in Google’s building in New York and moved into Cornell’s new campus on Roosevelt Island last year. Poets&Quants named Cornell Tech its MBA Program of the Year in 2017. In the week of his resignation, the Johnson Graduate School Business jumped 10 spots to rank 17th from 27th a year earlier in the 2018 Financial Times global MBA ranking.
Yet, when he resigned, it was via a terse announcement made in just two sentences by a university spokesperson. The statement did not even include a boilerplate thank you or praise for what Dutta had accomplished in the job.
DUTTA WILL BECOME DEAN OF OXFORD SAID ON JUNE 1
Dutta. 58, who has since remained a professor at Cornell, will now put all of that history behind him as he takes up his new post as dean of Oxford Saïd on June 1 of this year. He will be joining a business school with a full-time MBA program that is ranked 17th best in the world by the Financial Times, which ranked Cornell 15th best this past year. Dutta was selected in a global search that began after Peter Tufano announced in August of 2020 that he would step down after a 10-year run as dean. Dutta will have big shoes to fill because the Harvard-educated Tufano left an impressive record of achievement at Oxford. Since June of last year, when Tufano left the school, Professor Sue Dopson has been leading the school as interim dean, working closely with joint Deputy Deans Richard Barker, Jonathan Reynolds and Chief Operating Officer Sara Beck.
Dutta already has ties to Oxford, having spent a half-year sabbatical at the university with his wife, Lourdes Casanova, who is a senior lecturer of management at the Johnson School. Their daughter, Sara, now a consultant for ZS, earned her PhD in computational biology from Oxford in 2014.
“I am delighted to be joining Saïd Business School at Oxford University,” Dutta said in a statement. “My daughter Sara graduated from Oxford and both my wife Lourdes and I spent a fruitful half-year sabbatical at Oxford. We are both looking forward to being part of this diverse, exciting and innovative community. It is an honor to be appointed as dean of the school. It is a unique institution placed within one of the world’s greatest universities. I very much look forward to collaborating with colleagues within Saïd and across Oxford, to move the school forward to higher levels of excellence and impact.’
‘HE BRINGS A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE, WIDE-RANGING EXPERIENCE & DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF TECHNOLOGY & OF BUSINESS EDUCATION’
In its announcement of the appointment, Oxford noted Dutta’s “highly distinguished three-decade academic career,” also pointing that that he has founded several successful start-ups, has co-chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Innovation Ecosystems, as well as having created major global technology and innovation indices. He has also acted as a senior advisor to governments on technology and innovation policies. He has also chaired the largest business school accrediting agency, AACSB, and is currently the chair of the Global Business School Network, a partnership of top schools
Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, who led on his appointment, expressed delight at Dutta’s decision to come to Oxford. “I am delighted that Professor Dutta has accepted our offer to become the next dean of Said Business School,” she says in a statement. “He brings a global perspective, wide-ranging experience, and deep knowledge of technology and of business education. I look forward to working with him.”
His appointment marks the end of an extended global search, assisted by the executive search firm of Perrett Laver, which initially set a close date of Nov. 9, 2020 for application, with the expectation that “familiarisation visits” would take place in January of 2021 and formal interviews to follow on February 5th of last year in Oxford. That timetable apparently didn’t work, leading to the interim leadership team once Tufano departed the job in June.
‘RANKINGS SUPPORT A TRADITIONAL MODEL OF HIGHER EDUCATION’
In choosing Dutta, Saïd Business School will be getting a polished and articulate academic who brings with him a deep grounding in data sciences and advanced technologies. He has lived and worked in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including stints as an engineer with GE in the U.S. and Schlumberger in Japan. He has racked up served visiting professorships in UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Oxford Internet Institute at University of Oxford, and Judge School at University of Cambridge. Dutta received a B.Tech. in electrical engineering and computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology and an M.S. in business administration, an M.S. in computer science and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley. Over his academic career at both INSEAD and Cornell, he has conducted extensive research in and consulted with leading global firms on building effective technology and innovation strategies. Dutta is also a believer in the power of using technology to deliver higher education to much larger groups of people all over the world.
In a recent webinar in November on the changing landscape of education, Dutta expressed the view that technology should allow far greater numbers of people to take advantage of higher education. “I think it (technology” will democratize education both within countries and via cross borders,” he said. “The basic assumption in education today is high quality and small groups. It is exclusivity. People actually assign a premium for exclusivity. If I can have a small group and have a high-quality experience that is considered to be great education. The rankings support that kind of a model.
“Yet the need is so much higher than even the good institutions can provide, never mind the elite institutions. India is a good example of that, but globally supply and demand is severely mismatched. Demand is several orders of magnitude higher than what can be provided by the good schools. We need to question that basic model and question whether we need to change the model of education. Because we have taken one model of education and assumed that is the best.
‘WE ARE DOING A GREAT DISSERVICE TO A LARGE PART OF THE GLOBAL POPULATION’
“I have been a teacher for 30 years now and I can tell you it is next to impossible for a teacher to actually understand each and every student in his class. You do identify a few of the great students who come and talk to you and you understand their dreams and challenges. But maybe only 10% of the class. That is a reality of classroom-based teaching, especially when you are teaching several courses.
“People believe the strength of the current system is that I can actually understand student needs better and customize the education for them. But the reality is that you cannot do that for anyone. Maybe 10% of the class but not for everyone in the class. Technology allows you to do a lot of that online. You can follow more precisely the learning of students. In principle, the possibility is there…The future is such that you actually may be able to use technology to complement and support teachers and by doing so you may be able to increase the number of people you serve. Scaling up is a critical issue. We know we will never have enough teachers for the classical model in many lifetimes so we are leaving a large part of the global population underdeveloped. We are doing great disservices to them, great harm to them. It is time to rethink what we value in education: the small numbers and high quality or giving good quality to many more numbers.”
Dutta foresees the increasing emergence of big tech in higher education, suggesting that Apple and Harvard could forge a partnership in the future. “I do think that those kinds of combinations will lead to new models coming up in the future,” he said.
‘ELITE U.S. SCHOOLS ARE FOCUSED ON THEIR RANKINGS AND MAKING SURE THEIR LEAGUE STATUS IS SECURE’
For elite U.S. schools, Dutta believes, the pandemic “has been surprisingly good for them. There has been more of a flight to quality. Applications have gone up even more than pre-pandemic levels. So there is no pain in the business model right now. There was a lot of fear two years ago, but a lot of institutions are doing very well, and to be very honest they are so focused on their own rankings and making sure their league status stays secure that for most of them there is no desire to expand in emerging markets in a big way. What they are doing is giving more scholarships to attract the best students from India or Africa but these small number of scholarships does not change the game for these emerging markets.”
While Oxford’s official announcement does not disclose whether the university hired Dutta in a package with his wife, she had spent many years at INSEAD when he taught there and came with him to Cornell Johnson when he made the move to Ithaca, New York. A Fulbright Scholar, with a master’s degree from University of Southern California and a PhD from the University of Barcelona, Casanova was a senior lecturer and director of executive education programs at INSEAD for 24 years until 2012 when she joined the Johnson School just as her husband assumed his role as dean.
At INSEAD, she was a member of the strategy department, where she specialized in international business, with a focus on Latin America and multinationals from emerging markets. After moving to Cornell Johnson, the Spanish native taught international business with an emphasis on emerging markets. She also has served as the director of the Emerging Markets Institute since 2015.