Chicago Booth's new dean: Victim of predecessor's success?

February 28, 2011: 10:50 AM ET

Sunil Kumar, Chicago Booth's new dean, faces the danger that the business school will rest too heavily on laurels largely earned by his predecessor.

Sunil Kumar, Dean of University of Chicago's Booth School of Business

Sunil Kumar, 43, the new dean at Chicago's Booth School, faces the unenviable challenge of filling the shoes of an immensely successful predecessor.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- Nearly two months into his job as the new dean of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Sunil Kumar sits in an office with a bird's eye view of the dramatic façade of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on one side and an architectural masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright on the other. Everywhere, snow is piled high, evidence of a brutal Midwestern winter.

Inside his expansive rectangular corner office, the beige walls are still blank, with not a single picture frame or painting on them. Most of the bookshelves are empty, even though Kumar's official start day was Jan. 3. If he has made little time to move into his new home, it's completely understandable. Kumar, 43, has one of the toughest leadership jobs in academia: he's following the most successful business school dean of this generation at a school that has never been in better shape.

He succeeds a dynamic visionary, Edward "Ted" Snyder, who left the school with a brand new $125 million state-of-the-art building as well as the richest endowment in its history -- $511 million, a sum that excludes a $300 million gift Snyder brought in from alumnus David Booth in 2008. The Booth pledge alone is the largest single gift ever made to a business school as well as the largest donation to the University of Chicago in its history.

During his nine years as dean, Snyder tripled student scholarships, doubled the school's endowed faculty chairs, and retained more senior faculty than any other Chicago dean in the past 50 years. The quality and diversity of Chicago MBAs also improved, with the average GMAT of enrolled students now 715, up from 687 when he started as dean, and women representing 35% of the class, up from 27%.

No less crucial, under Snyder, Chicago has been named the best U.S. business school three consecutive times by BusinessWeek. In 2001, the year before he arrived, Booth had sunk to 10.

No fires to put out, perhaps a few to start?

So for Kumar, there is no turnaround to accomplish. In fact, there are no visible challenges to overcome -- only the danger that Chicago could coast on Snyder's achievements, resist more innovative changes to its curriculum, and ultimately fall in the rankings.

"Schools don't stay terrific by sitting still," Kumar says. "The lack of fires to fight gives me the luxury of being able to think strategically a few years ahead. That fits with my management approach. I hate parachuting into a situation and saying 'here is the list of answers that I already worked out.'"

That said, Kumar says he already sees two opportunities: making Chicago more global and strengthening the school's alumni network.

Kumar has put together a committee of senior faculty to assess Chicago's global strategy and determine what, if anything, the school should do. "We want to consult widely, collect data on other schools and see how well they're doing it," he says. "We'll see if we like where we are and what else we should be doing."

And he says his early conversations with alumni have convinced him that the school can do much more to make its network of 45,000 alums more valuable to its graduates. "I was struck by the affection the alumni I met had for the school and how transformative they thought the University of Chicago was for them," he says. "I think we can include them in the intellectual life of the school to a greater degree and to help strengthen their network."

From Bangalore to Hyde Park

An astute, soft-spoken academic, Kumar built his career as a scholar who plugged away on journal articles read primarily by other academics. Most of his co-authored articles bear titles that would cause eyes to glaze. An example: "Asymptotically Optimal Admission Control of a Queue with Impatient Customers."

Kumar says that he harbored no ambition or desire to become the dean of a business school until he received a phone call from Raghuram Rajan, Chicago's franchise finance player and an elder statesman in the school's powerful finance group. A member of the search committee, Rajan began the call by asking Kumar for 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.

It was Kumar's father, a policeman in Bangalore, who put him on the path toward 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. He earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University, a master's degree in computer science and automation at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and came to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1996, he joined the faculty at Stanford, where he taught courses in operations management, technology, critical analytical thinking and revenue management.

Unlike his predecessor, who already had a deanship under his belt at Virginia's Darden School and four years as an associate dean at Michigan's Ross School, Kumar has never held the top job and has only scant leadership experience. His first administrative assignment came in the fall of 2005 when he was invited to sit on a curriculum task force at Stanford. "That's when I realized that there were aspects of the job that I enjoyed," he says.

When Garth Saloner, a task force colleague and architect of Stanford's curriculum overhaul, became dean in the fall of 2009, Kumar became one of four senior associate deans. He had been a Saloner deputy for less than a year when Chicago announced his appointment last July.

Going global? Booth and Kumar's way forward

At Chicago, he anticipates no major changes in the curriculum, noting that the last review of the MBA program took place only three years ago. A study then showed some 92% of the school's recent graduates were either satisfied or very satisfied with the education they received. "The students and alumni find the curriculum valuable. So my conversations with the faculty have been more about how we can strengthen our core areas and how we can broaden some of the other areas where we could do more."

The new look at global strategy will give Chicago an opportunity to make Booth's curriculum and the MBA experience more international. Kumar says he generally agrees with a recent report by a group of deans that globalization is a major opportunity for business education. "There definitely is a opportunity, but how much of the opportunity should be taken of is a question in my mind," he says. "The answer is not fully clear to me. Schools are thinking about it. We are, and others are, too."

Insiders at Booth will closely watch the outcome of the global review, in part because the mainstream MBA program is not known for its especially strong or innovative global content. When it comes to international business, Chicago's reputation trails Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan and Northwestern, among others, as well as specialty players such as Thunderbird and the University of South Carolina. Navigating the global strategy issue with a faculty resistant to change could be Kumar's first public challenge as dean.

Meantime, his highly successful predecessor will become dean of a major school,Yale University's School of Management, for the third time this July after leaving Chicago in as good a shape as it has ever been.

Kumar is still settling into his office and his new life as dean. His wife, a biologist at the biotech company Genentech, is looking for a job in Chicago and trying to sell their California home.

Would Kumar have preferred to take the reins of an institution in need of significant change? "I don't agree that that's the only way you can make a mark on an institution," he says calmly, looking out the window at all the snow. "But the school is in terrific shape. There's no doubt about it."

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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