“I had an outstanding education in India and owe a great deal to NIT Karnataka, and Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. There were outstanding professors at both these institutions who pushed me to be innovative and creative and think beyond textbooks,” Professor Kumar, who is currently provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, told Times of India in an exclusive telephonic interview on Wednesday. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from NIT Karnataka and a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science. “IISc is an outstanding research university in the fields of science and engineering and is now trying to develop a medical school. While the area of focus and nature of the premier institutions of higher education in India are different from those in the US, both serve their countries well,” Kumar said.
While there are several Indian Americans who have been appointed as deans of prestigious business and engineering schools at US universities, very few have reached the top slot of president which is equivalent to the CEO of a company. Kumar, a former dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will join Neeli Bendapudi, who took charge as the president of Pennsylvania State University earlier this year and Renu Khator, the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston- the only Indian American presidents of US universities.
“The role of university president is more outward focussed than provost. While some of the responsibilities of a provost will remain, in addition, I will be taking on an external role to create larger visibility and connections for Tufts University and making sure that it remains a responsible entity and citizen in the context of its city, country and state,” Kumar said. In his current role as provost, Kumar has focused on increasing inter-divisional research and education collaborations across Johns Hopkins University- recruiting exceptional faculty to the university through the Bloomberg distinguished professorship programme and the faculty diversity initiative, enhancing the student experience by leading the student services excellence initiative, strengthening the career services function at the university for undergraduate and graduate students, and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across divisions. “Like most American universities, Tufts too appreciates students from India and Indian American students,” Kumar said. He looks forward to helping them navigate in the university as they grow their intellect and develop their individuality.
Several Indian American professors are being promoted to senior positions and Professor Kumar feels that there will be many more in leadership roles in schools and universities in the United States in the coming years. “As Indian academics start their journey in America, their Indian education and the English language skills serve them well and lower the barriers significantly. They bring with them a sense of service. Challenges that junior faculty members face, as they begin their career, are the same for faculty from diverse background and lived experiences,” Kumar said. He added that for those coming from diverse backgrounds, the challenge lies in developing a unique voice in the classroom and in one’s writing and research and yet becoming an integral part of the American university system.
Though Dr Kumar himself has a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an expert in operations management, he believes that Indian professors and researchers are making a mark in the fields of humanities and social sciences, too, in the US. “Though the STEM [science, technology, engineering & maths] fields of study have disproportionate visibility, there are many Indian American academics from sociology, economics, literature, and many other streams who are of great repute. There are many reputed universities in India from where scholars in social sciences and humanities have moved to America and their representation in universities is much broader than visibility,” Kumar said.
He is strongly connected to India and travels every year to his country of origin. “I was in India a few months back and never miss my trip every year. The only year that I could not go was 2021 because of the pandemic,” he said. He hopes that he will be able to repay the faith that his friends and family in India have had in him by being a worthy representative of Indians in America.