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Eastern Promises

January 20, 2012

When Soumitra Dutta, a professor of business and technology at INSEAD in France, becomes the next dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University later this year, he will join a growing list of Indian-born deans at the country’s top business schools. Dutta, who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology and received his master's degree and doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, becomes the first dean of a major U.S. business school to be hired from outside the country, the university said.

Dutta’s Indian contemporaries include:

  • Nitin Nohria, dean of the Harvard Business School, who is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, and has a Ph.D. in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Sunil Kumar, dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, who has a master of engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Dipak C. Jain, the current dean of INSEAD (an influential French business school), who was the dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management until 2010. Jain is a graduate of Gauhati University from northeastern India and received a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Other names include Jaishankar Ganesh at the Rutgers School of Business-Camden and G. (Anand) Anandalingam at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. (Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Anandalingam is of Indian descent but was born in Britain and raised in Sri Lanka.)

These appointments are usually well covered in India's media, sometimes with gushing profiles. But for the field of business, not known for being on the cutting edge of diversity in higher education, these and other hires mark a notable change.

The Indian-born deans may be a sign of business programs trying to become more global in their outlook to accommodate the reality of emerging economies, experts said, especially because there is a perception in some circles that European business schools like INSEAD are more international than are their American counterparts. Or it may be that there is just a wider pool of Indian-born applicants to choose from.

Committees and trustees are looking for leaders who can bring a global perspective, executives at search firms said. “You have to look at where the pipelines are and where the faculty is coming from. For the longest time there has been interest in India and China. There are a growing number of students from those countries who pursue higher ed and stay on in faculty positions…. It can be a natural outgrowth of that demographic shift,” said Lucy A. Leske, vice president and co-director of the education practice at Witt/Kieffer.

The curriculum in business schools tends to be sensitive to the real world of business, said Jessica S. Kozloff, president of Academic Search, and the recent appointments may be a reflection of the growing importance of economies outside the United States. Then, there is the importance of fund-raising and outreach for the deans of business schools. “In all deanships, there is an expectation now that they be involved externally with the program and not just be an internal leader of the curriculum,” Kozloff said, and an international outlook to fund-raising can certainly help.

Dutta, who will take over as dean in July, said American universities are trying to change and his appointment is a reflection of that. “The world used to come to America. It was very much a unipolar situation,” Dutta said. “But the world is now multipolar. America needs to go to the world.”

He said many Indian faculty members arrive in the United States having gone through a very serious filtering process (the IITs are notoriously hard to get into and some aspirants treat top American universities as safety schools), are forced to deal with diversity in India from a young age, and are part of a culture where education is highly valued. When all these attributes are put together, they make for a very globalized candidate. “Indians globalize easily and as the world becomes more global, they will probably succeed more easily. They certainly adapt well to new environments,” he said.

Though cultural reasons may have played a part in this emergence of Indian-born deans, the reason could be just the large number of trained faculty to choose from. “This goes back to the presence of Indians in the American higher education system,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, senior associate dean for International Business and Finance at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “I think the single largest non-U.S. faculty with links to one country might be Indians,” he said.

Chakravorti added that a dean who understood emerging markets would be an asset because there is an increasing concern that business education is not catching up with business reality. “The schools are playing catch-up. Look at the cases taught in the schools: they are domestic and U.S.-centric,” he said.

The sudden rise in the numbers of Indian-born deans surprised Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and a digital media professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Almost two decades ago, he wrote a piece for Business Today, an Indian business magazine, about the growing number of Indian-origin professors at U.S. business schools. “So, this is a natural evolution,” he said, adding, that he was surprised by the sudden burst of Indian names as deans. “I thought, maybe there will be one dean one day. It is a testament to what you can achieve in this country.”

Sreenivasan said the idea of being an academic appeals to Indians, as knowledge and learning are venerated in Indian households. On the other side, there may be a positive stereotype in American minds about an “Eastern teacher.” Then, there is the perception of success, he said. “I’m sure the first black head coach in the NFL had a tough time breaking in. But he made it easier for the second and third person,” he said.

 

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