The Marketer and His Mission

At the U. of Dayton, Sundar Kumarasamy is remaking the rituals of recruitment

Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

Sundar Kumarasamy, a textile engineer turned vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the U. of Dayton, has become one of the most daring innovators in admissions.
January 01, 2012

For years Sundar Kumarasamy walked through the lobby of the University of Dayton's admissions building and daydreamed about changing every inch of the place. The furnishings included a wooden reception desk, bookshelves lined with memor­abilia, and mismatched couches and chairs in which visiting families would sit, chatting quietly as they waited. The scene reminded him of a funeral home. "Depressing," he says.

The room's aesthetics concerned Mr. Kumarasamy, but so did its function. The walls did little but support the ceiling; he wanted them to shimmer and shout and tell stories. He wanted high-school students' pupils to pop as soon as they walked through the door.

Mr. Kumarasamy, the university's vice president for enrollment management and marketing, recently got his wish. The remodeled welcome center here in Albert Emanuel Hall feels more like a hip urban lounge than the ground floor of an octogenarian building. The lobby is now spare and low-lit. Soothing tunes flow from hidden speakers.

Then there's the video-projection wall, a 36-by-20-foot expanse that looks like a floor-to-ceiling computer screen. Glowing cubes change from purple to red to blue as they swim and swirl beneath scrolling questions ("Do the things we make make us?"). Motion-sensitive cameras in the ceiling perform inter­active magic tricks: As visitors step close to the wall, the cubes dissolve, revealing footage of stu­dents working in a laboratory, shooting hoops, tutoring children.

The mesmerizing "mission wall" sprang from Mr. Kumarasamy's head, which may or may not contain humming wires and hot circuits. He's a fast-thinking marketer who seeks a precious share of teenagers' attention even as he tries to distinguish his university's mission, its intangible heart, in a world immersed in shallow slogans.

The wall is meant to convey the importance of "community" here—without using the ubiquitous word. As more people gather before the wall, more images of campus life appear. Call it a metaphor in moving pixels: If you stand alone, you see only so much. "The purpose of the wall is to work together to find out what's in the wall," Mr. Kumara­samy says. "The wall is the world."

Higher education's global borders are eroding, and Mr. Kumarasamy's career proves that people's destinations often defy prediction. Twenty years after leaving his native India, the former engineer has become one of the admissions profession's most daring innovators, redefining recruitment at a Catholic college long defined by its modest style. He has greatly expanded Dayton's domestic and global reach, all the while earning a national reputation for dissecting data and embracing wild-card ideas. Some of Mr. Kumara­samy's counterparts attribute his success, in part, to his unconventional background. "It wouldn't be the fish that discovers water," says David H. Kalsbeek, senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University.

In a realm where college applicants seek the "right fit," Mr. Kumarasamy, 44, has made an unlikely match. He's a Hindu at a university founded by the Society of Mary. He feels drawn—called, even—to this campus in western Ohio, a region wrung dry of factory jobs like those he once mastered while studying textile engineering.

Through the ever-evolving science of enrollment management, Mr. Kumarasamy reinvented himself. Five years after coming to Dayton, reinvention continues to define his work, which has been a series of data-driven experiments and imaginative risks. Take the $200,000 custom-built video wall. As Mr. Kumarasamy stares at his creation early one morning, waving his arms beneath the motion cameras, his eyes reflect electric greens and yellows. "This," he says, "could have been a six-figure mistake."

From One World to Another

Movies have always enchanted Mr. Kumara­samy. As a boy growing up in Madurai, in southern India, he often snuck into theaters, where the big screen taught him the power of scale.

He fell hard for Star Wars. The trilogy's fantastic creatures reminded him of figures in Hindu mythology. As he watched the Millennium Falcon streak through space, he thought of Rama's chariot soaring through ancient skies. In his mind these old and new stories entwined, erasing the distance he perceived between American culture and his own.

Mr. Kumarasamy felt an early connection to classrooms. His mother was a high-school teacher who devised her own means of day care: Each morning she would leave Sundar with a teacher in her building's elementary school. He saw the respect teachers com­manded, and he longed to write on blackboards just like they did. Sometimes he slipped pieces of chalk into his pockets and carried them home.

Mr. Kumarasamy's mother died when he was 10. Later, as he considered his future, he often thought of her. "There was the unfinished business of imagining what would make her happy," he says. Education called to him, but his family insisted that he become a doctor.

Instead, Mr. Kumarasamy dropped out of high school at 15. He moved in with an uncle in Chennai, where he earned a bachelor's degree in textile technology. But long, hot hours spent working the machines inside mills convinced him that he was made for other work.

During the mid-1980s, Mr. Kumarasamy saw opportunity in the waves of personal computers washing into India. Because he had already earned a bachelor's degree in one field, however, he couldn't enroll in a program that would let him switch professional paths. His only choice was to master the technology on his own. He spent two and a half years studying for the grueling associate-membership exam administered by India's Institution of Engineers. At 21, on his first attempt, he passed the test—equivalent to earning a bachelor's degree in electronics and communications engineering.

Soon Mr. Kumarasamy was working as a systems engineer for a computer company and teaching his colleagues how to fix hardware. Under the low-slung skyline of Chennai, a comfortable life stretched before him. Then one day in 1990, a friend asked for a ride to the bank.

"What for?" Mr. Kumarasamy asked.

A certified check, his friend explained, to pay for the Graduate Management Admission Test, known as the GMAT. Mr. Kumarasamy had never heard of the exam, nor of Philadelphia University, where his friend planned to enroll. His mind filled with questions. Was this possible?

The two men rode Mr. Kumarasamy's blue Suzuki motorcycle through the city streets, discussing the American graduate admissions process. By the time they reached the bank, Mr. Kumarasamy knew what he would do.

Within a year, both men were enrolled at Philadelphia University, where Mr. Kumarasamy pursued an M.S. in instructional technology. His first student job—in Philadelphia's graduate admissions office—introduced him to the grunt work of recruitment. Entering data, answering phones, preparing direct mail. Before stuffing an afternoon's worth of envelopes, he would tape his fingertips to prevent paper cuts.

As graduation day neared, Mr. Kumarasamy applied for jobs. Philadelphia offered him a full-time position in the admissions office. A technology company in Ohio offered him 35 percent more than what the university would pay, plus a bonus. One night he sat in his studio apartment, weighing the decision. "I could tell somebody that I work at a univer­sity," he says, "or that I work at some company writing code."

Mr. Kumarasamy liked the challenge of college admissions, which was becoming a more quantitative enterprise. The recruitment and retention of students, he could see, required the construction of a complex machine whose parts moved in unison. Like any other machine, those parts would need fixing, even replacing. The right data would tell you what worked and what didn't.

Nonetheless, he knew the job also involved a mystery that numbers alone couldn't solve: why a particular student falls in love with a particular campus. After taking a job in Saint Joseph's University's enrollment division, in 1995, Mr. Kumarasamy studied mass mailings, seeking clues to human behavior. What made people open some envelopes but not others? Why had hordes of Americans purchased plastic ab-crunchers they would never use? And how could the answers help a college stand out in an ever-thickening crowd?

Imagining a New Brand

When Mr. Kumarasamy arrived at Dayton, in January 2007, he faced a challenge as plain as the lines on the map: The university was drawing the bulk of its applicants from Ohio, but demographic shifts were coming fast. The state's population of qualified students was already shrinking, which meant Dayton would have to cast wider nets than ever before. In 2007 the admissions office bought the names of 400,000 prospective students, up from 250,000, and mailed postcards to 30,000 high schools in the United States and abroad.

The university would also need a new branding campaign, one that described Dayton to far-flung audiences, as well as to local students, who might know little about the university, which offers liberal-arts and professional programs, and emphasizes service, leadership, and one-on-one relationships with students.

Early on, Mr. Kumarasamy hired a Philadelphia-based marketing firm, called 160over90, to help redesign the university's viewbook, in which photographs of the campus chapel's ivy-covered walls had long figured prominently. The new version, unveiled in the fall of 2007, was fresh and edgy, full of questions ("Where do you find faith?"), and images striking and strange. Perhaps none was as memorable as the photograph of two bare-shouldered blonde women emblazoned with the question: "Do you know more about Lindsay Lohan than Darfur?"

To say the least, some faculty members and students hated each of the viewbook's 84 pages. The campus newspaper, the Flyer News, dubbed the publication a "glossy orgy" that reflected poorly on Dayton: "This garbage makes UD look like ADD University, where students can major in Crayola Crayons and minor in exclamation points."

Although the viewbook marked a break with tradition, Mr. Kumarasamy believed that it also expressed—in fresh, bright colors—the university's Marianist values, which he had studied carefully. A Marianist maxim says "New times call for new methods," and that has become his own mantra.

Mr. Kumarasamy moved Dayton from a rolling admissions plan to a March 1 deadline. He also added a nonbinding "early action" option, an idea that some campus officials resisted at first. They suggested that the practice, which tends to favor more-privileged students, conflicted with the university's traditional mission. Mr. Kumara­samy insisted that the university would continue to serve low-income and first-generation applicants while also reaping the benefits of an early deadline. "I recall him saying, 'Show me in a document where it says early action is something Marianists frown upon,'" says Robert F. Durkle, assistant vice president for enrollment management.

Mr. Durkle, who has worked at the university for 31 years, describes Mr. Kumarasamy as a perceptive observer of people who's constantly watching body language, who draws many ideas from the land of commerce. Recently, Mr. Kumarasamy, who stays at Marriott hotels when he travels, told Mr. Durkle about the distinctive key card the chain gives select guests as a reward for their loyalty. "He wanted to know what we could do in the way of a Marriott card for families here," he says. "He's always looking for that added advantage, something that would be unique and memorable."

Under Mr. Kumarasamy, Dayton's admissions staff has redefined its interactions with students. Mr. Durkle, who describes the traditional high-school visit as "dead," says Dayton's admissions counselors get far more out of the "coffee chats" they hold in various cities. Counselors schedule half-hour appointments with students and families at their local Panera or Starbucks. In the spring, Dayton buses in accepted students from cities within a four-hour radius; these visits have proved so popular that the university now buses in prospective students in the fall.

One of Mr. Kumarasamy's most ambitious recruitment strategies asks high-school officials to handpick students for a special scholar­ship. Over the last three years, his office has mailed letters to counselors, principals, and teachers at some 5,000 high schools outside Ohio. The letters invite recipients to nominate a student who exhibits leadership and interest in service (not necessarily a student with the highest grades and test scores). Each nominee who receives an acceptance from Dayton also gets a $10,000 "Leadership in Service" scholarship ($2,500 a year for four years).

Mr. Kumarasamy conceived of the program as an icebreaker, a way to put Dayton's name on the lips of people who may not know much about the campus—yet. About half the high schools that the university selected had sent few, if any, applications to the university (in 2009, only six students from this group of schools sent enrollment deposits). In its first two years, the strategy netted 55 deposits from graduates of high schools in this group. Only 17 of those students had been nominated for the scholarship, however; this means the strategy has produced ripple effects, attracting students who almost certainly wouldn't have applied otherwise.

Another strategy involves mailings that look like express deliveries—even though they aren't. For the last few years, Dayton has mailed viewbooks and other materials in custom envelopes bearing UPS and DHL logos, which the university licenses from both companies for a fee. This agreement allows the admissions office to send important-looking packages through regular mail. "We're borrowing their trust for five seconds," Mr. Kumarasamy says. "After opening it, they can throw it in the trash if they think we're not a fit."

So far, that "borrowing" of trust has worked well. The mailings direct students to a Web page that asks them for more information about themselves and their interests. The first week after the envelopes go out, online traffic doubles, attracting many first-time visitors.

Dayton's marketing tactics are well known among high-school counselors. Some deride them privately as gimmicks; others praise their creativity.

Phil Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School, in Minnesota, says the strategies reflect the realities of the market­place, especially for private colleges in states like Ohio that must compete in a time of demo­graphic change and economic uncertainty. The not-quite-what-they-seem recruitment letters? He describes them as "pretty sharp."

"The 18-year-old kid is a tough cus­tomer," Mr. Trout says. "So every chance that enroll­ment managers get to create an emotional bond with a student, that's what they're gonna do."

A Changing Campus

As another week begins at Dayton, the fall recruitment cycle is in full swing. On this Monday morning, applications are up by 1,000 over the same date last year.

At a meeting, Mr. Kumarasamy and his colleagues discuss plans to merge the communications and enrollment-management staffs, which by year's end will centralize all of the university's marketing under his watch. Afterward, while strolling through the quad, Mr. Kumarasamy smiles at two women in headscarves who are eating lunch on the grass. One in 10 students here is from an­other country—a testament to the campus's extensive overseas outreach.

Later Mr. Kumarasamy stops by to see the president, Daniel J. Curran. Beneath a painting of Mary and Jesus, the two men sit down to discuss the draft of an advertorial about the university that will appear in the November issue of US Airways' in-flight magazine. Dayton paid $30,000 for the eight-page article, which Mr. Kumarasamy describes as an effective means of telling the university's story to a captive audience, flying to 90 countries on 1,500 flights each day.

Though the article was written by the magazine's staff, Dayton got to select the subjects who were interviewed. At least some of the content—including photos and information boxes—was subject to the university's approval. "There's one thing I'd change," Mr. Curran tells Mr. Kumarasamy.

The article's list of notable alumni, the president explains, is too long. He uncaps a pen and crosses out a few names, including that of Chuck Noll, a '53 graduate who won four Super Bowls as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mr. Curran, Dayton's first lay president and a former administrator at Saint Joseph's, has worked with Mr. Kumarasamy on two campuses. He credits him for Dayton's recent enrollment success. Since 2002, applications have increased to 11,567 from 7,496. Enrollment of out-of-state students has increased to 48 percent from 35 percent. Average ACT scores are up, and so are retention rates.

All those numbers, Mr. Curran believes, reflect Dayton's inherent strengths, but he credits Mr. Kumarasamy with finding clever answers to a million-dollar question: "How do you get people to look at you?"

Around the campus, Mr. Kumarasamy is well liked, but he has encountered some resistance. A new set of branding guidelines—explaining in exhaustive detail the colors and fonts departments should use in all their communications—has irked some faculty members. Paul H. Benson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of philosophy, understands their frustrations. "Our culture is very person-centered," he says. "In the past there was less-centralized communication with students. Sundar's insistent that every touch point be monitored carefully, and I was a person who didn't take to that approach. I was used to autonomy."

Over the years, however, Mr. Kumarasamy has impressed Mr. Benson. After the dean expressed doubts about plans for the new viewbook, Mr. Kumarasamy invited him to travel to Philadelphia to meet with the marketing company that was designing it. Mr. Benson says he now talks to prospective students more often than ever before, at Mr. Kumara­samy's behest. "He's helped me understand that I need to keep an open mind about the ways in which we describe what we do," he says. "Frequently, faculty talk to students as if they're future faculty members."

At Dayton, the first person most people meet is William Burell, the parking attendant. Mr. Kumarasamy describes him as the most important person on the campus, which is why he talks to him constantly. Each day, Mr. Burell gets a list of expected guests that notes their home states and whether they're coming with parents who are alumni. And so Mr. Burell will ask, "How was your drive from Illinois?" or simply say, "Welcome back, Mr. Jones."

'We Compete for Memory'

Enrollment management is often described as the balance between marketing and mission. At religious institutions, where morality and social justice are typically everyday concerns, that tension is especially pronounced. Mr. Kumarasamy takes seriously the framed copy of the pledge on his bookshelf; in it, he vowed to remain "spiritually present, alive and open to the call [of] the Marianist charism and mission."

Still, he is blunt about the necessity of market­ing muscle. "If you have 10 shops on the same street selling Chinese food," he says, "how do you think each shop should behave? Unfortunately, it's an over­crowded marketplace in this noble industry. If we shouldn't compete, we should be prepared to go out of business one day."

Dayton, he believes, owes visitors a unique experience, a feeling they can take with them. "We are living in a time when we compete for memory," he says of colleges. "If their journey doesn't begin the moment they first arrive on the campus, when does it begin?"

On his first visit to Dayton, Mr. Kumara­samy felt the spark that he's now paid to help ignite in students. He liked the university's grounding in the tenets of justice, tolerance, and forgiveness. He remembers that on the day he came for his interview, an associate provost handed him a Power­Bar because she noticed that he hadn't eaten lunch. "It was a mindfulness," he says, "not just in words, but in actions."

Mr. Kumarasamy's a good storyteller. If you ask, he might tell you the one about his wallet. On a trip to India about 10 years ago, he picked up some leather goods, including a black wallet. Although he carried it with him for years, he says, he never looked at it closely.

Then one day, not long after moving his family to Dayton, Mr. Kumarasamy placed the wallet on the kitchen table where his wife, Mallika Gopal, was making bread. Later she saw that a dusting of flour had coated the wallet's surface, which drew her eye to a word imprinted on bottom right corner. The word was "Dayton."

Mr. Kumarasamy describes this as a coincidence, but he finds meaning in the story, nonetheless. "We are chosen to be together," he says. This, he believes, is true of places as well as people.

That's why the man who preaches the importance of "evidence-based decision-making" concedes that data tell you only so much. Moreover, a striking envelope might compel you to open it, but perhaps not to visit the college that sent it. A creative tour might persuade you to apply to a college, but not to enroll there. A five-figure scholarship might cause you to think twice about your choice—or not. Where a student will end up is often unknowable until an impression forms, until the moment his or her choice unfolds.

In Mr. Kumarasamy's own story lies the enigma of the right fit. He says: "It's more of a feeling, a silent voice that says, 'This is where I belong.' It's not easily quantifiable. How do you give evidence about falling in love?"