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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

Q&A: University President Kumar talks future of budget, admissions, campus speech

Sunil Kumar discusses upcoming objectives, including social mobility initiative, dean search and development proposals for student pub and residence hall.

The Daily sat down with University President Sunil Kumar for an annual interview.

Nearing the close of his first year in office, University President Sunil Kumar sat down with the Daily on April 29 to discuss all matters Tufts and the university’s future, reflecting on the year marked by student activism.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tufts Daily (TD): We wanted to start by asking: What have been the most significant accomplishments — and of course, challenges — that the university has faced this year?

Sunil Kumar (SK): There have been a lot of accomplishments. Both the Schools of Arts and Sciences and of Engineering recruited a large number of new faculty, with a new faculty cluster in climate. We will announce a housing supplement program for faculty, because it’s becoming increasingly hard for our faculty to live in this area — it’s gotten more expensive. The nutrition school started the Food is Medicine Institute, a very large research enterprise. On student life, we will announce a fairly major initiative on social mobility, increasing access to our programs and wraparound services. We have a proposal to set up a new, previously existing student pub on campus.

But of course the year has been challenging, with the Israel-Hamas war and its implications on our campus. It’s also been challenging to see lowered enrollment in some of our master’s programs. And of course, the whole landscape of higher education with the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action is also in flux. That’s a challenge we’ll have to deal with.

TD: I’m sure you read the April Fools’ email announcing your supposed death. We’re wondering what ran through your mind when you read that rather shocking email, and what you think of the concerns raised by that email about Tufts Technology Services’ vulnerabilities.

SK: The way I characterize this to people — I don’t know if this is an unfunny joke or not — but was that the announcement was accurate, it’s just hopefully a few years premature. So I can roll with it. But a portion of that email got edited and sent to my family in India without the April Fools’ part, so there was a little bit of panic back home in India — which is not so funny. TTS has fixed the vulnerability, but there were other ways the vulnerability could have been exposed.

TD: Students have noted that we don’t really see you very often walking around campus or interacting with students that often. Can you speak more on why that is?

SK: If you look at my waistline, you’ll realize I don’t walk much. But I go to a lot of events, so I think it’s the chance encounter that they’re missing. In fact, I’ve gone to eight or nine various sporting games, including a rowing regatta. I went to dinner at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house. I do these structured events a lot. That said, I want to change one thing next year: I am going to start hosting breakfast with small groups of students who have been randomly chosen, so that I can get to know you all as individuals.

TD: In light of recent campus events, we’ve sensed an apparent lack of trust in the administration in its ability to listen to student voices. Do you see this as being true, and if so, is it warranted?

SK: In some student groups, I think there is some lack of trust. I think it comes from the fact that those groups assume that because I don’t do exactly what they say, I’m not hearing them — I am hearing everyone. I talk with the [Tufts Community Union] leadership on a frequent basis. When the TCU Senate resolutions passed, and after I wrote the leadership response, I met with them immediately. The fact that I couldn’t do what the resolutions asked me to do does not mean I don’t respect or listen to the TCU Senate.

Given how difficult the last year has been, I’ve had to say “no” more often than any president likes to do. I would like all of our students to believe that I have their best interest at heart, and to know that I’ll work towards that. But at the same time, I have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the university, which is sometimes not what people want to hear.

TD: Given all that happened at the TCU Senate’s March 3 meeting to vote on four Israeli-focused resolutions and the administration’s immediate response the day after, what do you think the role of the TCU Senate should be?

SK: I think the TCU Senate is extremely important. With that meeting and that set of resolutions, they were in an extraordinarily difficult position. Given that, I don’t think that’s the standard by which the relationship between the TCU and me and my office should be judged. On lots of other things, I take the TCU Senate extremely seriously and I want to work closely with them. I intend to work closely with [incoming TCU President] Joel [Omolade], in the same way I work with Arielle [Galinsky]. That should not be seen as somehow being dispositive of the relationship — it was just an extraordinarily difficult situation.

TD: With student protests and arrests across the country, where do you see the fate of students’ freedom of speech on college campuses going from here?

SK: I speak for my campus primarily. We have well-established guidelines for the freedom of expression on campus. I consider that a binding document. I believe that the university should, as far as possible, allow for the free expression of ideas, debate, conversation and dialogue, even when sometimes it is uncomfortable.

But there are limits to what you can say and do. The part that I find the most worrisome, the limit I feel cannot be easily crossed, is saying that my right to speech should take away yours — that my freedom of expression must come at the expense of somebody else’s. I don’t think that freedom of expression translates to a veto on other people’s right to speak.

The second is a more nuanced one. It’s more about norms rather than rules: Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean it must be said. If you intend it to be deliberately hurtful, then that is a problem. When it rises to the level of intimidation or harassment, we have processes. But short of that, I think a university should be a place where people feel free to engage in discourse, however disconcerting it might be.

TD: Shifting tides a bit, we know that tuition is rising — we’ve just surpassed a $90,000 sticker price — and we know that the university plans to take budget cuts. What gives?

SK: There’s a straightforward reason for this. A significant portion of our collected undergraduate tuition simply goes back into financial aid. So if you look at net tuition, which is collected tuition minus tuition given out in financial aid — the actual amount of money that the university collects post-financial aid has actually declined. Last year, I think we gave $145 million in financial aid, because we meet demonstrated financial need for all our students.

Yes, it’s a budget difficulty, but it’s a relatively small magnitude, [approximately 3%], because of our weakness in master’s enrollments across the professional schools primarily.

That said, we would like to think of the undergraduate tuition as essentially having very limited growth, and we want to keep increasing our financial aid budget. And in terms of the headcount, we’ve reached our max undergraduate student enrollment for the next few years.

TD: Can you share more about the new residence hall?

SK: It’s still early. We’re working with development firms; it will be along Boston Avenue, and it will be a substantial residence hall with a few hundred beds. How exactly the university will pay for it is still being worked out, but this fall [will probably be] when we go to the trustees for final approval.

TD: Now onto admissions: Affirmative action was ruled out, nearby schools like Harvard have reinstated test requirements and Tufts is still need-aware, not need-blind. Where do you see the future of admissions going? Are you worried about any impact on diversity?

SK: The Supreme Court decision will impact diversity in some way and so we have to work to live up to our values. JT Duck, our dean of admissions, has been working to substantially increase the number of high schools we visit. The first thing you’re worried about is that not a sufficiently broad array of students will apply because they'll think it's not affordable.

On the SAT, we’re doing the analysis right now. I’m trained as a probabilistic statistician. We are running logistic regressions to see what impact SAT scores have.

In particular, there are two countervailing forces here. One is, we’re worried that students who can do very well at Tufts are not applying to Tufts because the SATs are one way in which they are distinguishing themselves. On the other hand, there are lots of students who believe their SATs score isn’t high enough. If you had insisted on SATs, they might not apply.

We don’t want to make a sudden decision because high school counselors advise students as to when to take tests. You don’t want them scrambling at the last minute because some school that they would love to apply to in the fall suddenly said, Well, you got to take a test in the next two months and submit scores.“ It’s not fair. We’ll give a little bit of leeway to figure out when the test will be due.

Now let me turn to need-aware versus need-blind. We don’t have the resources to be need-blind. The philanthropic aid we will need in order to go need blind is currently beyond our reach, but we will work towards it.

TD: Now, you’re coming to the close of your first year at Tufts, and James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, is set to depart at the end of this school year. How do you see this new senior leadership team, you and the new dean, changing the trajectory of Tufts as an institution?

SK: First, I want to thank Jim for all that he’s done. He’s been here 32 years, and he’s been a terrific dean. We’re all going to miss him. With the new dean, there are three areas where I would like this person to concentrate on.

One is, continue to prioritize undergraduate education and the student experience, both curricular and cocurricular.

The second is, Arts and Sciences has an amazing number of outstanding scholars on its faculty. It has very good graduate programs and so on. I would like the new dean to be a scholar who appreciates the value of scholarship and can grow the scholarly footprint of the school as well.

To do both of these things, the new dean will have to raise more resources in order to be able to afford supporting faculty scholarship as well as the undergraduate experience in the best possible way. We need somebody who has the right priorities and values and the ability to raise money to support those priorities.

TD: How do you believe your leadership differs from past presidents?

SK: I never worked for [former University Presidents] Larry Bacow or Tony Monaco, so all I can say is about my leadership style. I’m a careful, data-driven person who likes to look at all the evidence and consult broadly before I act.

TD: I wanted to return to the social mobility initiatives you brought up previously, as a lot of recent graduates are concerned about the job market.

SK: This is a very high priority for me. It’s not just about getting people a job. One of the huge advantages of a school like Tufts, which provides a broad based liberal arts education, is that practically every avenue is open for you. But, you don’t know which avenues are open for you, and which avenues you like, unless you sample them. We want to find ways for people to use internships to spend time in a lab, an NGO, middle school teaching, working in the corporate world — whatever it is — so that they form an opinion of what their purpose is in life. For me, I discovered this entirely by accident. I didn’t set out to be a faculty member. I see this as an investment in not just improving its transactional efficiency — the ability to get more jobs for students — but serving as a partner to the curriculum, as people figure out where in the real world they want to make their mark.

TD: What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing Tufts right now, and for the next five years?

SK: One is, of course, the landscape of higher education as a whole and how that’s evolving. This is an extremely competitive market. You only have to go two T stops to find another decent university and another two T stops to find another decent university.

For Tufts, it’s maintaining its unique kind of niche. It’s a major university that masquerades as a liberal arts college, which is a great thing. We want to keep that intimate feel, while at the same time having all the resources of the university. For example, how can the undergrads take full advantage of all the opportunities the university has to offer? You know, I would love to know how many undergrads actually spend time in Grafton. Grafton is where our veterinary school is — it’s got puppies. How do we take advantage of the university part to strengthen the liberal arts college part and take the liberal arts college part and strengthen the university?

TD: How do you think your first year at Tufts has gone?

SK: I could have picked an easier year to be a president. That said, I wouldn’t miss it. My wife and I love living on campus. Our favorite time is Saturday mornings when there’s a dog convention on President’s Lawn. We sit outside; I find a spot where people can’t see that I’m in my pajamas. People have been very welcoming, very kind, of course.

TD: What’s your message to the graduating class?

SK: Take risks; go through any open door, because your Tufts degree is your best insurance policy.