Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 27, 2022

New Provost Kumar shares vision

By SHERRY KIM | September 8, 2016


COURTESY OF SUNIL KUMAR Provost Kumar brings his experience with top universities to Hopkins.

Diversity and academic affairs top his agenda

Sunil Kumar became University provost and senior vice president for academic affairs effective Sept. 1. He succeeded Robert C. Lieberman, who stepped down from the position to join the political science department and continue researching race and inequality.

Previously dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management, Kumar  strengthened Chicago’s financial resources, improved diversity in student recruitment and expanded academic programs for the undergraduate body.

At the Booth School of Business, Kumar helped raise excess annual revenues of over $300 million, supervised the increased enrollment of women from 35 percent to 42 percent and helped establish the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to aid researchers across the school translate research into products for new technology and start-up businesses.

As the first Asian-American provost at the University, Kumar envisions diversity and inclusion as a crucial part of his vision.

“To characterize how I see my role, it is to have an unambiguous institutional commitment to diversity,” Kumar said. “This is important to me personally. There is no single action or strategy that will solely suffice.”

Elaborating on the University’s Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion initially released in the spring of 2016, Kumar explained that the roadmap should not be seen as an exhaustive list of priorities.

“The idea of a roadmap is in the notion of distance and direction,” he said. “You need to first do a baseline measurement to know where you are. Then you can use this to see which actions move the needle, and to do this in a way that is consistent, year in, year out, so that this becomes a part of the general fabric of the University.”

Kumar added that a substantial amount of feedback has been incorporated into the roadmap and that a second version will soon be released.

Another new function to aid diversity at the University is to separate the role of chief diversity officer from the Office of Institutional Equity. Kumar spoke to the reasons behind this split.

“The Office of Institutional Equity is intended to be reactive,” he explained. “For instance, it will react to Title IX complaints when an unfortunate event occurs. Their role is to react in a way that is maximally supportive.”

“The diversity office is not intended to be reactive alone,” he continued. “It is intended to be forward-looking. For instance, thinking through ways to have a robust Visitors’ Program and attract underrepresented minority faculty members to the University and have them want to stay. In other words showing people how welcoming we are.”

Kumar also spoke to his past experiences working in the Chicago community and how that previous work translates to his hope for service in Baltimore.

“I come from an institution that had very similar issues,” he said. “The University of Chicago is on the Southside of Chicago. It is in an economically disadvantaged community. Though there is no single answer, I think it is important for the institution to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, and do its part in making sure that its neighborhood benefits from its own success, if you will. I completely echo President Daniels’ sentiment, ‘As goes Baltimore, so goes Hopkins.’”

Kumar also elaborated on his own personal experience as a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., advising students to consider Baltimore a second home of sorts, not simply an academic institution.

“For us, this is your home. You’ve got to take care of your home. As a first generation immigrant, I feel particularly invested in my homes in the U.S. because they have been welcoming and have given me opportunities, and the least I can do is be a good citizen,” Kumar said. “While that may not mean eating crab cakes every morning, it does mean being a good citizen on many dimensions, from economic inclusion to safety of the neighborhood, among other things. Baltimore is always in our thoughts. We want every graduating senior to take a piece of Baltimore with them wherever they go. What’s the point of having spent time here if you don’t?”

In addition to diversity initiatives, Kumar discussed academic affairs at the University. He insisted that student concerns had been heard and that the University had ongoing commitments to improving the quality of academic life, both personally and professionally.

“One issue that has been on students’ minds has been mental health and support for mental health,” he said. “We are launching a survey through [Vice Provost for Student Affairs] Kevin Shollenberger’s office to try and get as much information as we can across the student body so that we can enhance our support mechanisms and make them more effective.”

Kumar also discussed the reconstitution of a group previously known as the Commission on Undergraduate Education. The commission will look at all aspects of undergraduate education at Hopkins and come up with recommendations to help improve the system.

Another program being launched is the Student Services Initiative, which would invest in programs like the Career Center.

Furthermore, Kumar highlighted several unique aspects of the University by comparing the institution to an outside organization or company.

“People don’t fully appreciate how unique an institution like Hopkins is,” he said. “If you wander through a typical company in the ‘outside world,’ as they say, you’re not going to have so many talented people who are simply in a learning period, the way they are here. This is also an institution where individuals have their own aspirations. In companies, company heads traditionally outline the goals for the company or organization.”

Elaborating on the University’s unique traits, Kumar outlined his overarching vision and the role he hoped to play as University provost.

“My vision at the University is driven by these components of uniqueness — a unique collection of individuals who are learning and set their own aspirations,” Kumar said. “As the provost who is also the chief academic officer of the University, I feel it is my responsibility to make sure that we facilitate this learning to the best extent possible as well as help people set their aspirations high.”

Kumar recounted a short anecdote from his own time as an undergraduate student to help illustrate his underlying vision.

“When I was an undergraduate, I was an engineering major. I wanted to get a good job, and I got a good job in India with a truck manufacturing company,” he said. “As soon as I showed up, I realized I hated it. And there was no add/drop period. There is no add, drop period in the real world. So, I ended up taking the Indian equivalent of the GRE exam for graduate school, not because I wanted to go to graduate school but just because I didn’t want the only job that I had. Somehow, I got in. When I got to graduate school in India, I realized how much I enjoyed what I was doing there. And I’ve never been outside of school since.”

He explained how vital the act of aspiring towards a goal was to students, for both individual and community growth.

“By the very act if aspiring, you actually learn a lot about yourself. You have to not only know what you can do, but more importantly what you will find rewarding doing,” he said. “A lot of people do things simply because they can or are told that they should. In reality, the hard part is to aspire to do things that you find both rewarding and that have a positive consequence on everybody else, whether it is on your organization, company, community.”

Kumar further elaborated on the importance of collaborating to create a supportive environment

“The whole point of a community is that it helps people achieve their aspirations collectively,” Kumar said. “As a community, Hopkins empowers students to say, ‘This is what I aspire to do or be. This is what I want to do.’”

In particular, Kumar provided a word of advice to first-generation American immigrants like him.

“Don’t doubt yourself. If you are sure of yourself, others will pick up on it,” Kumar said. “When a door is open for you, walk through it.”

In his spare time, Kumar enjoys cooking. His signature dishes are Indian, and he hopes to cook more in Baltimore.

Since arriving, Kumar has enjoyed brunch at Miss Shirley’s and considers their eggs Benedict with fried tomatoes his favorite dish. He also enjoys following baseball and is looking forward to seeing his first Orioles game soon.

Kumar also describes himself as an amateur astronomer. He photographed the transit of Venus along the face of the sun from his apartment in Chicago.

“It gives you an independent verification of Copernicus,” he said. “There’s no reason to take him on faith. You may as well verify it.”

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