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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Q&A: University President Sunil Kumar discusses priorities for his first year in office

Kumar shared his thoughts on Tufts traditions, the role of student protest, more in an interview with the Daily.

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University President Sunil Kumar is pictured in his office on Aug. 30.

Sunil Kumar began his role as the 14th university president of Tufts on July 1, becoming the first person of color to serve in the position.

Formerly provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, Kumar also served as dean and the George Pratt Shultz professor of operations management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and was the Fred H. Merrill professor for operations, information and technology at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, where he worked for 14 years.

Kumar sat down with the Daily on Aug. 30 for the first time since beginning his role. He discussed the projects hes focused on, student protests and how he’s getting acquainted with Tufts.

Editors note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tufts Daily (TD): First of all, welcome to Tufts! What has the reception been like these past few months?

Sunil Kumar (SK): Its been outstanding. People had repeatedly told me how nice a community Tufts was, and its exceeded all expectations. Theres some secret sauce here that makes people warm, welcoming, kind and vibrant, so its been very nice. And I had probably the best welcome gift possible, a night Ill never forget: I got to throw out the first pitch for the Red Sox. That was a big deal for me and my wife. There was no other way I would get on the field of a Major League team.

TD: Entering office, what are your top priorities?

SK: I’m in week seven, so its not like I have fully formulated plans and positions on a lot of the topics were going to talk about; but I do want to say, in general, and Ive said this before, there are four areas that I think of as broad priorities — or pillars, if you will.

One is increasing access to Tufts. We have done well so far, but theres more we can do. Its not only for the undergraduate program, but also for graduate programs as well. The second one is the student experience. While students are here, it should be a transformative experience. I want to not just say that the experience should be transformative and that they should be able to explore broadly, I want to make sure those opportunities exist.

The third is, I believe a university like Tufts needs to do more than its fair share in addressing some of the worlds problems and to that regard, expanding our research footprint, and [fourth], faculty is something on my mind as well.

TD: What aspect of being president are you most excited about?

SK: My wife is fond of saying that Ive never had a real job. Since age 18, Ive been on a college campus. I love all aspects of the universitys operation, from attending the homecoming game, to talking to the veterinary school dean on how to expand the veterinary hospital, to thinking of the future of the university as a whole. Im interested in all of it and in this position I get to influence, to some extent, all of those decisions and participate in all those activities. Its the breadth that I think excites me the most.

TD: At Johns Hopkins, you focused on improving students encounters with university services, and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion across the university. Are there any similar projects youre pursuing at Tufts?

SK: One of the things we worked on at Hopkins was making the ability for our undergrads to take classes at other schools easier. As a goal, I absolutely would like to pursue that at Tufts. Similarly, with the DEIJ goals, again, I would very much like to pursue those. What exactly should they be? What form will the project take? Well, in week seven, you shouldnt trust anybody whose got those answers. So Im still in listening and learning mode, but I will pursue both those directions for sure.

TD: Over the past few years, the Tufts community has debated about the role of student protest, more specifically about the appropriate forums for demonstrations. What is your view of the role of student demonstration on campus, and do you believe there are better or worse forums for protest?

SK: For me, the philosophy is simple. Universities need to be tolerant of protest more than almost any other organization in society. A university is a place where raising your voice to make sure its heard is seen as a good thing, and I see it as a good thing. But raising your voice so that others are not heard is not such a good thing. If you see me sitting in the front row of a speaker seminar, it means nothing more than [that] Im there to listen and learn — kind of a fundamental act in a university. It doesnt mean Im endorsing the speaker. It doesnt mean that I acquiesce to their ideas. So for me, maybe Im panglossian, maybe I might be idealistic here, but for me, almost everyone is worth listening to and we can learn from them. 

The reason I "almost" is, of course, there are people — provocateurs, if you will — who speak solely to provoke and solely to spread hate and hurt. For those people, the norms of our community do not permit. But short of that, protest with intent to get a point across is a good thing. Protest intended to prevent other people from speaking in general, I dont see as a good thing.

TD: As Tufts expands its presence across Medford and Somerville, how do you see its relationship with our host communities?

SK: We have to be good neighbors in every sense of the word. One thing that good neighbors do is they help each other out when necessary. And one of the examples of that is that my predecessor did a fantastic job during [COVID-19] helping the communities of Medford and Somerville. Right now for example, we are leasing some of our buildings in Somerville so that they can house a public school there, so I think a mutually beneficial relationship is a good thing. You brought up the word expansion, and I dont think Tufts intends to necessarily expand into the community; it is, how best can we interact with the community, and how can we do that better than we are doing now?

TD: If I can push back a little bit on that, Tufts intends to grow its undergraduate population, and having more students in the area has already been disruptive to people in Medford and Somerville in terms of the housing market. Thats also something that Tufts has said that they plan to address. 

SK: Two things: One, at least for the medium term, Tufts expansion of the undergraduate program is done, so thats a statement in the past tense. Second, we do intend to build housing on campus to alleviate the pressures on the city. I agree with you that we have more people, but I see our role, like I said, as not expanding into the community as much as taking care of those people in a way that doesnt harm the community. And that will take a few years.

TD: On the note of increasing access, one of your four goals, I wanted to address the Supreme Court’s recent decision to outlaw affirmative action in higher education. The same day the decision came out, Tufts announced that a working group and an executive strategy group were assembled to create a plan and response. What are the universitys current strategies to preserve diversity in light of this decision?

SK: I was one of the signatories of that letter that came out so we had obviously prepared for the decision in advance. To be precise, what the Supreme Court did was to outlaw the explicit use of race in admissions. Three things: One, our commitment to diversity has not changed. Two, it becomes a question of how best can we live up to our commitment for diversity, continue to have diverse classes and perhaps more diverse classes. And three, of course, comply with the law. This is complicated and we’ve got to do this in a way that takes into account both the Supreme Court decision but our own aspirations as an institution. Thats why we created the task force and we did it with a carefully selected group of people. In fact, if you look at the task force, its not unique to Medford and the undergraduate program. Its broadly across all schools, because this is a decision that affects all schools. Their deliberations are underway and I dont want to speculate on what they will come up with — its too early. When they do come up with something wed be happy to re-engage with The Tufts Daily to figure out how best to communicate what it is we are doing. But for now, all I can say is Im confident well end up in a good place.

TD: I also wanted to ask, what are the universitys plans right now regarding legacy admissions?

SK: As you know, there was a task force set up by the deans to look into this. I see legacy admissions as being one more component and, in fact, connected to the Supreme Court decision. So the Committee on Inclusive Access, which is the committee thats been set up to do this, will come up with strategies which I suspect will have bearing on the legacy issue as well. That is, they are not disconnected and JT Duck, our admissions person, agrees that theyre not disconnected.

I think we will holistically come up with a new set of policies on what we do. And while I dont want to speculate on where exactly we will end up, or when we will do that, I dont want too many admission cycles to go by before we have resolved this either.

TD: Pivoting to one of your pillars, Tufts as a global institution with responsibilities to the world, this summer was one of the planets hottest on record, and climate change is at the forefront of issues facing every institution. How is Tufts meeting this moment, and what advice do you have for members of the Tufts community who are living through this unprecedented era?

SK: Let me first say what I think of as Tufts responsibility here: It is to pursue those avenues where it will have the most impact on this very pressing problem. So this is a sufficiently pressing problem that you want to pursue those avenues that are maximally impactful. One of them is related to your second question, which is one way in which we will be impactful is by educating responsible leaders. So we have to make sure that our educational footprint in this space is robust, innovative and equips you all with the tools you need to not just engage with the situation but to alleviate it.

The second responsibility is, through our research, to come up with solutions, especially in those areas where Tufts has a particular advantage. Ill give you two examples of where we do have particular advantages. One is blue tech; off the New England coast we are actually working with a fairly substantial consortium of universities and other organizations to work with the state of Massachusetts as well as the rest of New England to see how best we can deploy wind power in a way that will be least impactful on the deleterious impacts and yet generate a significant amount of power.

So thats an example where we are acting in the here and now. The third is, as my predecessor has already committed us, as an institution getting to our net zero goal, we are a large institution and large consumer of power and energy and we need to get to our net zero goals as soon as practicable.

TD: Looking back, what are your proudest accomplishments in your career and in general?

SK: I have this unbelievably privileged job where I get to count all your achievements as mine. I just have to say "Oh, he was a student, he interviewed me for the newspaper." And so I was thinking about this. And I said its simple: Its what some of my students have done. Theyve gone on to do terrific stuff. Im just going to claim that those are my proudest accomplishments. On a more serious note, the fact that I even got to interact with them is such an incredible privilege for me.

TD: Are there any Tufts traditions or rituals that youre looking forward to?

SK: I dont actually know them all, thats the problem, Ive got to figure this out by myself. So Im actually most looking forward to figuring these traditions out myself. In particular, I am curious, and you dont have to answer this now, but what happens to Jumbos statue during Halloween?

TD: I don’t think anything happens.

SK: Isn’t that a missed opportunity?

TD: We know its only been a few weeks, but do you have a favorite spot on campus yet?

SK: [Kumar points to the President’s LawnRight here! My wife and I sit just outside our kitchen, and we love the fact that especially on Saturday mornings, people are walking their dog, theyre playing, theyre having a picnic and we dont even have to move to be part of all that. We can sit outside our kitchen and watch all that. We love the Presidents Lawn which is why in my matriculation speech, I was trying to convince them that one tradition that maybe were starting is the great snowball fight on the Presidents Lawn.