A conversation with Sunil Kumar, Johns Hopkins University's 15th provost

Kumar discusses what drew him to JHU, the role of the provost's office, and the importance of listening

Sunil Kumar in his office

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Talk to Sunil Kumar for any length of time and you quickly notice two things: He has a big and easy laugh, and he's a thoughtful listener.

The latter trait, he says, will likely serve him well as the 15th provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a position he assumed on Sept. 1. As provost, Kumar will be Johns Hopkins' chief academic officer and will work with the president and deans on universitywide interdisciplinary collaboration, academic policy, and key priorities including diversity, student aid, and commitment to the communities surrounding Johns Hopkins' campuses.

"We are training future leaders of the country in some sense. We must take that role very seriously. Johns Hopkins does—that is one of the many things that appealed to me about this place."
Sunil Kumar, Johns Hopkins University provost and SVP for academic affairs

Before joining JHU, Kumar served as dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In five years as dean, he helped raise more than $300 million in philanthropic support; focused on student recruitment, including increasing the enrollment of women in full-time programs from 35 percent to 42 percent; and expanded courses for undergraduates. He was also instrumental in establishing the newly consolidated Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which helps researchers across the university translate ideas, discoveries, and new technology into products and startup companies. He notably maintained Booth's premier ranking among business schools globally. In 2015, the Economist magazine named it the No. 1 full-time MBA school in the country.

A widely published expert on operations management and research, Kumar taught a course in operations research, called Dynamic Programming/Markov Decision Processes, which introduced doctoral students to mathematical models and optimization methods with applications in both business and engineering.

Born in India, Kumar graduated in 1990 from Mangalore University with a bachelor's degree in engineering. Two years later, he earned a Master of Engineering in systems science and automation from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He received a PhD in electrical and computer engineering in 1996 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked for 14 years at Stanford before joining Chicago Booth.

The Hub spoke with Kumar during his first week at Johns Hopkins. With slight detours into comfort food and cab ride metaphors, Kumar talked about what is on his mind as he sets forth on his next big challenge.

Welcome to Baltimore and to Johns Hopkins. Do you miss Chicago?

Sure. People don't realize just how sophisticated and cosmopolitan a city Chicago is. It's a thriving city. But now I'm ready to see what Baltimore has to offer. I can tell you [my wife and I] are looking forward to the Baltimore Symphony. We were longtime subscribers to the San Francisco and then the Chicago symphony orchestras. We love music. And as you can tell, I like to eat (laughs). We're ready to discover restaurants here.

OK. Let's go there. Favorite cuisine?

I love Japanese. But I also like meatloaf, which you would know based on the Chicago Tribune's reporting on me. I do like American food. I grew up in Southern India, so for someone like me, meatloaf is exotic, ethnic food. I had never seen anything quite that color before.

You spent your first 23 years living in India, but have since lived in the United States, now in three time zones. Where do you consider home?

I think that's one of the great things about America, you don't have to slot yourself into a category. I think I'm American now in a lot of ways, not just by my passport. For example, I love baseball. We left San Francisco the year the Giants won the World Series, and we were hoping when we moved to Chicago that it's the Cubs' turn now. I love sports here, but that doesn't mean I don't watch cricket when I go back to India.

I'm also American in a way that I believe my own personal trajectory may not have been possible in any other country. I'm not claiming it's a great success, but I can't think of a single Indian university where someone who showed up two decades earlier as a graduate student would go on to become a senior leader in the very same university. That is the meritocratic ideal of America in general and American universities, which is extraordinarily appealing.

And now you're provost of Johns Hopkins University. What does that mean to you?

If you'd had asked me when I was in my 20s, or when I was an assistant professor at Stanford, if I would want to be a provost one day, I would have told you two things. One, what does a provost do? And two, what don't you like about my research? [Laughs]. The assumption was at that time that if you're a good researcher, you'd continue being one. At Stanford, I was proud of the work I was doing. I thought I was a good teacher. My work was getting cited. And then I drifted into administration almost by accident. There was no plan here at all. I would have been happy to continue writing papers and teaching my courses.

But clearly you fit into your new administrative role.

There is some evidence I have a knack for administration [laughs]. At Stanford, when the MBA curriculum was being reviewed, I was on the committee and we ended up proposing major changes. Consequently, I was tapped to implement the new curricula as associate dean. And then the University of Chicago offered me the job as dean of its business school, which is not only a highly ranked business school but it's also among the most research-oriented business schools in the world.

"The analogy I give is that I think of myself as a cab driver. My job is to help people in at least one step in the journey that they're on. ... I'm not trying to tell them how and where to go."
Sunil Kumar, provost

For me, the fact that I could support a community of scholars and students who wanted to be well-educated and skilled professionals was very attractive. I jumped at the chance. And now six years later it looks like it was a good decision for me.

Not everyone can transition so well from the classroom and scholarship to administration. What helped you, and what makes a good administrator?

I have three things. First, you have to listen. In some sense, the research endeavor doesn't train you for that. Part of producing original work, which moves the field forward, is that you can't just listen to the rest of the field. You listen, sure, but you have to have your own independent way forward. As an academic administrator, you need to listen to others. It's silly not to, given how many smart people are within any square mile.

The second thing, for me, is that I have a very high sense of fallibility. I'm not the kind of person who wakes up and says, "I have this idea. I'm right, now let's do it." It's not that I lack conviction, but even for my own ideas, I need to be convinced of them before I move forward.

My third thing, and I think this will be a good fit for Johns Hopkins, is that I'm a believer in using data and evidence to make justified, thoughtful decisions. And that plays well, because even when people disagree with the decision, a case has been made that this is the best way to move forward based on the evidence. This can be reassuring, and at times, even convert people who were originally opposed to the decision.

These three tools have served me well over the past seven years.

What is the 2016 definition of what a provost does, or should be?

It probably depends where you're a provost. At Johns Hopkins, the provost serves an interesting and challenging role. He or she directly controls so little because the schools are so independent, and manage themselves very well. In an ideal scenario, the provost serves as the apex of the connective tissue for the professoriates of these different schools. In this ideal world, the faculty interact with each other a fair bit through the interdisciplinary initiatives like the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships and so on. So you need some connective tissue because you can't just have the independent units running off by themselves, because that would not maximize the potential of the university as a whole. So what the provost's office does is to help the various units coordinate even better, leverage each other even better, and to provide a common platform by which each unit can thrive.

If you think about the Ten by Twenty of President Daniels, the first theme is "One University." That doesn't mean centralized command and control; rather, it means this maximized leveraging of each other's assets. Put another way, each school takes as much advantage of being part of Johns Hopkins as it can, and vice versa, and the university benefits from the excellence of each school. The provost's office helps facilitate this mutually beneficial approach.

And the provost's office will look for ways to make even more connections between the schools.

That is exactly correct. We aim to facilitate and incentivize. It's not like these connections are being arbitrarily picked—that we pick two schools and say that you should collaborate on X. Rather, it's that there are core strengths in both schools that can be leveraged by a joint project. And by doing it collaboratively, you can have a greater impact on society. The impact is scaled up.

The Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships are set up to do two things. One, by allowing people to be across units and thereby leverage multiple strengths of the university. And by doing this, you're more likely to attract terrific people. This unique research opportunity is hard for other universities to duplicate.

So, without these programs and incentives, you might have a chemist perfectly happy to continue with his or her research and not see an even greater potential for their work.

Yes, but it's not like people on their own don't want to collaborate. But this collaboration requires search costs that they bear as researchers. They have to overcome friction and hurdles that naturally exist. Finding the right collaborator in a complementary field involves some amount of serendipity. To the extent that you can maximize potential interactions, the more likely you'll have successful collaborations. It's a way to amplify what I believe is an innate desire in many of our faculty, to reach out to people who are different from them but with whom collaborations would be particularly fruitful.

JHU provosts have come from all different professional backgrounds and training. We've had surgeons, electrical engineers, political scientists, and those from other fields. You come from a business background. To what extent is your background both relevant and irrelevant to the role you're now in?

Part of being a provost is very much connected to the notion of running an organization. There are certainly all manner of things that I've taught and studied in the past that will be immediately relevant to the job, such as managing operations processes and the day-to-day functioning of complex organizations. I don't need to make the case for that.

My research into the mathematical modeling of systems affected by random variability is perhaps not immediately relevant to the provost's office [laughs].

I'm not sure I understand what you just said, but I'll take your word for it.

Point taken [laughs]. The field I come from looks at modeling mathematical representations of systems that you want to study. In my case, systems you want to control and induce desired behavior. In other words, you want to optimize some behavior, make it work the best it can. This notion of optimization transcends business. You can certainly see this applied to engineering and the physical sciences. In my own career, I started in engineering and then went into business school, and now I'm coming full circle where I'm hoping to have faculty appointments in both disciplines.

So you're not claiming that on day one you'll institute a new level of optimization and set of efficiencies to how Johns Hopkins goes about its business?

Didn't you get the memo? [Laughs].

Seriously, this notion of optimization clearly can play a role when you think about the process of research administration, and doing whatever it is we can to make it easier for faculty to bring knowledge to the world.

Indeed. First ask, why should universities optimize? It's not necessarily to save money, it's to make sure that resources are allocated in a way that will help the university have broad impact and to minimize unjustified waste. The word optimization needs to be treated with some care in a university, because unlike in a physical system, there aren't clearly-defined criteria by which you're optimizing. The university tries to be many things to many people, and it should. When you're in the humanities, what you're trying to do is very different than if you're a clinician, which in turn is very different from an applied mathematician. The idea is, can the supporting infrastructure make it so that the different units can do what they want to do as impactful as possible?

The analogy I give is that I think of myself as a cab driver. My job is to help people in at least one step in the journey that they're on. By whatever extent I can make that part of the journey painless and direct, they are better off. That's how I see it. I'm not trying to tell them how and where to go.

You helped expand the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. I want to pick up on the word entrepreneurship, which you hear about increasingly on college campuses. Faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates are getting into business. Is that something that will continue, and something maybe you and the provost's office can promote?

I believe universities must support as broad an array of aspirations for its faculty and students as possible. And in many ways, students these days want to have an immediate impact. There are different ways to view entrepreneurship. I prefer a somewhat idealistic view, which is that these are people who want their ideas to have an immediate impact. There are many ways to have an impact. They can write an article. Publish a book. Produce a piece of music. Another way is you start a commercial entity that implements your idea, maybe in the form of a product or service.

If you talk to faculty, especially in the sciences, the reason they want this to be a commercial product is that they feel it's the way by which they will positively affect the maximum number of people. Perhaps the most efficient way a researcher can have the desired impact is a commercial venture. In which case, we should facilitate that. Again, I go back to my cab driver analogy—if that's where they want to go. We want to make sure that they have the skills and resources required to reach the destination they have in mind, which in this case might be a viable product or service that is used in society.

As a student, you looked into efficiencies in semiconductor manufacturing. And then later you did a study on airline pricing formulas. What did you learn from these experiences?

Airlines put a lot of thought and effort into figuring out how much to charge for a ticket at each instant of time before the flight takes off. Sometimes you'll find it's cheaper for you to fly first class from Baltimore to Helsinki to Los Angeles, than to fly economy from Baltimore to Los Angeles. There are these odd things that will happen occasionally. The reason for that is that these flights are not independent from each other. My personal contribution to this problem was to tease apart how much are the prices affected by the random variation of who shows up and when, versus the connection structure. Which flight connects to which. And how many people today are connecting on that flight. What I helped them do is build mathematical models that would take the full network structure into account when they tried to pick prices.

I would think demand factors into price. Time of the year. Day of the week.

Yes, all of it does. I'll give readers a hint. Tuesday afternoons are good times to fly [laughs].

All of it matters. Turns out Notre Dame games matter, too. They have a lot of fans around the country.

What are you most proud of from your time in Chicago?

What I heard from others is that the faculty were both broader and stronger than when I found it. We had more areas covered. The faculty had grown, and grown with good people. That's what I'm most proud of. The school, by many objective measures, did feel stronger by the time I left than when I went in. It's not one big initiative that I ran, although we did start one focused on gender equity and it's doing quite well. The school's MBA program is roughly 42 percent women, which for such a program is relatively high.

Speaking about diversity, how much of a focus will that be for you at Johns Hopkins?

Diversity and inclusion is a great example of where this connective tissue matters a great deal. The dissemination of best practices, establishing a baseline and standards, and a clear road map for how to achieve success. Everyone has the best intentions, but they are not always sufficient. You need a road map. You need data. You need action plans. You need to adopt best practices. You need to have resources. Example already in place are the Faculty Diversity Initiative, which obviously predates me, and the completion of a report on the diversity composition of the faculty. This will provide a baseline of where are we now, and where we need to focus.

Diversity is a great example of where the provost's office can serve as a central hub of coordination and monitoring, and a support role as each of the schools become better. I've been impressed with what I've seen so far, but I'm sure we can do much more.

You officially started on Sept. 1. What will your first few weeks and months be like as provost?

Lots of meetings. You come in prepared that the firehose will be trained on you, and then you hope to swallow at least a few mouthfuls of water [laughs]. I've already met all the deans, and I've met a few faculty during the search process. I've met all the vice provosts. And most of the leaders in Garland Hall. The initial meet-and-greet phase is over.

With introductions over, now it gets down to people summarizing challenges and opportunities in front of you. And maybe a bit of 'here are some problems to solve?'

Correct. Again, think about this as connective tissue. If the issue could have been amicably resolved inside the school or with an internal resource allocation, or with relatively low risk, it's not going to make it to this office. We'll tackle what is left and maybe not easily resolved [laughs]. And it's not just problems. It's ways to make things we do better. That's the fun stuff.

You probably can't get too into detail about your immediate plans and goals …

No, I know exactly what I'm going to be doing the coming weeks: Listening.

But in terms of initiatives or where you want to focus your efforts, do you already have issues in mind?

We already talked about diversity, and I think that is very important for the community as a whole, and to me personally. I'm plugging myself into ongoing initiatives.

Also, initiatives like the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships are very important to me, and we want to ensure they continue and are done well.

What we haven't talked about yet is that the provost's office plays quite a large role with the undergraduate experience. Undergraduate education is very important to me. Johns Hopkins has a distinctive undergraduate experience and I hope to help make it stronger academically, student life wise, and career wise. We are training future leaders of the country in some sense. We must take that role very seriously. Johns Hopkins does—that is one of the many things that appealed to me about this place. I expect to invest a great deal of my time learning about this area, and how to make it stronger.

Any connection to Johns Hopkins prior to your appointment?

Yes, my mother-in-law went to Johns Hopkins. And that, as you know, is a substantial connection [laughs]. She got her PhD in biology in the early 1960s from Johns Hopkins and they still live in Maryland.

The rest of your family?

My wife is a biologist and she is currently the scientific director of the Clinical Trials Office at the University of Chicago Cancer Center. My parents are both deceased. My father was a police officer, a city cop in India. He never quite understood why I was getting paid for the days I wasn't even going to work [laughs]. And he couldn't fathom my sabbatical. My brother is an entrepreneur in India.

Any hobbies?

I'm a bad amateur astronomer. I haven't done much in the past six years, but now I can finally take my telescopes and binoculars out. They weren't useful much in Chicago except a little bit of solar stuff. But you did ask me what I was most proud of from my time in Chicago. I did manage to photograph the transit of Venus. I have independent verification of Copernicus from my apartment balcony [laughs].

We plan to live a few miles from campus, hopefully where it's dark enough at night to see something good. I do have one pretty serious telescope.

Well, we have access to some pretty serious telescopes at Johns Hopkins.

That isn't fun [laughs]. That's shooting fish in a barrel.