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Sunil Kumar appointed Tufts University’s next president

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore alumnus will be the first person of color to lead Tufts University

Sunil Kumar, an Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore alumnus, has been named the next president of Tufts University, a world-class private research university in Greater Boston.

Currently provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, Kumar will succeed President Anthony P. Monaco on July 1, 2023. Kumar was previously dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“Sunil Kumar brings to Tufts a lifelong commitment to excellence in higher education and an exceptionally strong record as a leader, teacher, and colleague,” said Peter Dolan, chair of the Board of Trustees and chair of the presidential search committee, in a press release.

Read: Indian American Jayathi Murthy named Oregon State University president (June 15, 2022)

“Sunil’s commitment to research and learning, along with civic engagement and innovation, will help bolster Tufts’ mission to improve the world,” he said.

Kumar says he was attracted to Tufts because of its mission to serve “not only the people within its confines—its students, faculty, and staff—but society at large.”

As he looks ahead to taking up the presidency of the university on July 1 next year, he is focused on “how to make the Tufts experience available to more people, and how to make sure the experience is even better.” He also wants to increase the impact of research done at the university and ensure that it helps society even more “in the here and now.”

Tufts, he says, already has a reputation that is “kept high and soaring by its alumni and faculty,” noting that the university “is extremely well positioned to educate students to directly address the challenges of the future. We cannot afford to step back from society’s problems today but must fully engage in them.”

Kumar, whose father was a police officer, was born and raised in India, graduating in 1990 with a bachelor’s in engineering from Mangalore University. He received a master’s degree in 1992 in computer science and automation from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

While there, he met a visiting professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who recruited him for a doctoral program in electrical engineering. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1996.

Kumar began his academic career teaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he was later the Fred H. Merrill Professor of Operations, Information and Technology.

After a dozen years at Stanford, he was named dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In 2016, he became provost and senior vice president at Johns Hopkins.

Read: Arun Majumdar named inaugural dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (May 5, 2022)

When he was a young assistant professor at Stanford, he says, he was struck by the fact that he was getting paid to do what he loved. “I’ve never lost that kind of awe and wonder about the academic enterprise, and I’m happiest in it,” he says.

As part of his research in operations management, he builds mathematical models of systems and examines “how one can influence those systems to achieve societally valuable outcomes,” he says.

“Problems can be very hard, but if you’re willing to settle for an almost-best outcome, the problem becomes a lot easier,” he says. “I have built tools that are guaranteed to find the almost-best solution in many problems.”

What’s important in these issues, he says, “is how to abstract away from details to get to the big picture. Mathematical modelers tend to learn that quickly in their careers, and that’s helped me a great deal.” Another foundation of his work is “a firm reliance on evidence.”

One of Kumar’s priorities at Tufts will be to develop ways “to ensure that we have even more resources to make Tufts as affordable as we possibly can,” he says.

He knows the value of financial aid in higher education. For his graduate studies at the University of Illinois, he received generous financial support. “It would not have been possible for me as a son of a police officer to do anything else,” he says.

“Affordability is not a theoretical concept for me. I hope I represent an example of somebody who benefited from an institution opening its doors wide and I would like even more people to have the same opportunity.”

It’s not just financial aid that is crucial, but also “investments in student support, in curriculum development, and in what at Hopkins we call life design, which is our way of thinking about how best we can launch our students on their future careers.”

Kumar says that “diversity and inclusion are indispensable values. They don’t need to be justified on utilitarian grounds.” That said, he notes that the diversity of the student body is “extremely valuable to all the students.”

The first person of color to lead Tufts University, Kumar says that “on the diversity and inclusion front, it is not enough to talk the talk. We also have to make sure that we operationalize our values, and sufficiently resource them so that we can execute on those values and make sure that Tufts is indeed as inclusive as it can be.”

Read: Sunil Kumar Appointed Tufts University’s Next President (November 17, 2022)

As provost at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Kumar oversees the academic mission of the university’s nine schools, and has focused on increasing interdisciplinary research and education, enhancing the student experience, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

He helped lead an effort there to “improve us as a university on all dimensions of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he says. Kumar also led the effort to bring to fruition the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, which sought to increase the number of PhD students from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

Another effort he spearheaded was the Fannie Gaston-Johansson program, which helps recruit small groups of faculty in specific topic areas to significantly add to diversity in those areas.

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