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Insider's values, outsider's eye

Published on Friday, 06 May 2011
Sunil Kumar
Dean of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business
Photo: Gary Mak

An engineer by training and a teacher by vocation, Sunil Kumar thought long and hard before accepting the post of dean of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business in January. He knew it would mean less time for teaching and research after having taught operations, information and technology at Stanford University's graduate school of business for nearly 15 years. However, he also realised it was a great opportunity to develop other talents. With an interest in administration and a practical mindset, he hopes over the next five to 10 years to enhance the Booth School's international profile to attract top faculty and students, and to strengthen its reputation in areas such as organisational behaviour. Kumar, who was in Hong Kong to touch base with Booth alumni, talks to John Cremer.

What priorities did you set in your new role? 

One thing I could start on immediately was to increase contact with alumni – a reason for my visit to Hong Kong – and the number of short-term targeted programmes providing special skills for senior managers. As an example, we recently did a multi-day workshop for corporate executives from Mexico on investing in equity markets. Other things are more in the nature of enhancement rather than radical change. I want to get my facts right before making proposals and don’t intend to change things just for the sake of it. The school is already in terrific shape and, by all objective measures, doing extremely well.  

Why did you accept the position?

Chicago really values business knowledge and, in many cases, has created what is taught in the programmes. It is also very strong in research.  It was a big decision to relocate after putting down fairly deep roots in the Stanford community, but what clinched it was that I felt comfortable talking to the faculty and the role seemed such a good fit for me. 

What is your approach as an administrator and leader?

I like to describe myself as combining an insider's values with an outsider's eye. My style is quite deliberative, so I want to understand what the organisation does and why it does things a certain way. Maintaining the status quo or standing still is not a strategy, but making changes just to take the credit is also myopic.  I aim to foster a culture of innovation so that we can keep enhancing the courses. 

In particular, what do you now have to learn?

In my previous job, I didn't do much of the external relations. I managed faculty groups and MBA programmes but didn't have to represent the school to the outside world, so that is the part I am learning. 

In changing times, what should business schools focus on?

I see three main responsibilities. The first, when teaching about financial institutions and markets, is to emphasise how those activities create value, access to capital and wealth. The second is to make sure our students understand all the consequences of their actions, not just those that show up on a monetary statement. The third is to sensitise students to the ethical aspects in situations that are organisationally complex and morally ambiguous, where they must use their judgment. 

Presumably, more students mean more income for the school?

There is no interest on our part just to [increase] the number of students. We want to grow the prospective pool of applicants and to maximise the talent coming into our programmes. With campuses in London and Singapore, we have a substantial global footprint, so a task force is looking at how best to expand activities outside the US. 

What do you remember most about your first job?

When I finished my studies in engineering at Mangalore University, I had a job lined up with Tata.  But then I was told, as a trainee, I would have to start with a rotation on the night shift in Pune, and that just didn't appeal to me. So, still somewhat naive, I decided to switch to Plan B, which meant going to graduate school in Bangalore. Once there, I saw the professors and their excitement in going after a research idea and found it quite infectious. My wife claims I've never had a real job because I have so much fun at work.

What are your main research interests?  

My field straddles engineering and business, which led into areas of operations management and includes designing a teaching tool for students to manage a simulated factory. It is now a commercial product used online by roughly 50 schools and is sufficiently complex to include schedule planning, operational aspects of factory management, purchasing from suppliers, and contracts with vendors. Students can’t just apply what they learn from textbooks, but must learn how to manage proactively and where the parameters are. They have to think about contingencies that could arise, put policies in place, and think analytically.   

What should young people know about building a career in academia?

It is a vocation, something to buy into wholeheartedly, especially the research aspects, which are very hard and won't give pleasure unless you are really stimulated by your subject. It is important to believe in yourself as there is no one-size-fits-all path.   

Economic model

  • Kumar recommends Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, which shows how economics can be a lens to study society
  • He is encouraged that one of the popular newer courses focuses on social ventures
  • His current research interest is airline revenue management and automated models for pricing tickets 

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