'Swamy' Brings Congenial Leadership Style to UMass at Amherst

Mark Cornelison

Kumble R. Subbaswamy
June 18, 2012

Kumble R. Subbaswamy likes to quote Thomas Jefferson: "Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity."

Mr. Subbaswamy used the quote in his address to the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in March, during his visit as one of four finalists to be chancellor.

He got the nod, and is set to take office on July 1.

It is clear during an interview that his enthusiasm for Jefferson's remark was not just candidate shtick. "That's really what public education is about," he says of Jefferson's dream of broad access. "And public universities are one of the greatest assets of this country."

Mr. Subbaswamy, who is 61, will arrive on the campus to "a lot of good will," says Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at Amherst who leads Phenom, a group that lobbies for public higher education in the state. "He was the far-and-wide consensus choice among all the campus groups."

Mr. Subbaswamy will be Amherst's fourth chancellor in 11 years, and the successor to Robert C. Holub, who leaves after four years amid some bad blood over his leadership style. "There is such a desire now to have someone who lasts," says Mr. Page. "His sense of humor and his manner will be valuable."

Ralph W. Whitehead, a professor of journalism who sat on a faculty committee that met the four finalists, agrees. An hourlong interview of Mr. Subbaswamy became "a free sample of his leadership style," he says. "Even though he was a job applicant, he didn't pander. He was very straightforward but also willing to listen to views other than his own."

Mr. Subbaswamy told the panel, with infectious enthusiasm, that he planned to improve enrollment access and cost containment, increase faculty hiring and the number of doctorates awarded, and better collaborate with the other four institutions of the Massachusetts system—pretty much everything on a campus leader's agenda, and all of it straightaway. He has excelled before, in such areas as fund raising and retention, and says: "At UMass, I'll have a great foundation to build on because those are all elements in which there's been demonstrable commitment and progress over the last four or five years."

In lobbying state political leaders for more support, Mr. Subbaswamy will be helped by his personable nature—"Please, call me Swamy," he tells people—but also by a growing sense that the state, like so many others, must find a more sustainable model of higher-education financing. "What is being called the new normal requires new approaches, entrepreneurship, an international outlook," he says. "I certainly believe in those and have a great deal of experience in bringing about progress through collaboration."

He has the strong support of the system's new president, Robert L. Caret, a chemist, who has praised Mr. Subbaswamy for his experience, vision, intellect, and drive.

Mr. Subbaswamy's experience includes three- to six-year stints as dean of arts and sciences at the University of Miami and at Indiana University at Bloomington, and, most recently, as provost of the University of Kentucky. He was raised in and around Bangalore, India, and came to the United States in 1971 for his doctoral studies in physics at Bloomington.

Among challenges he will face at Amherst is the institution's continuing bid to be invited to join the prestigious, 61-member Association of American Universities. He says that "to the extent it is a club," with its own complex deliberations and agendas, all an aspiring institution can do is ensure that "our quality screams at them and says, We're of the same quality—if not even better—than some of the members."

He says speaking frankly like that is the basis of his approach to campus diplomacy: "I find that in the beginning it causes a bit of shock, but in the end, once people see that I speak my mind and there is no hidden agenda, that works quite well."

During his candidate's speech on the campus, in response to a question about perceptions that the administration was too large and costly, he said he would remedy that by appointing an assistant chancellor to streamline it. The audience responded with laughter and applause.

Correction (6/18/2012, 6:19 p.m.): This article originally stated incorrectly that Mr. Holub was leaving office as chancellor after a plunge in enrollment by African-American students. Amherst officials say that the apparent drop was an artifact of a 2010 change in federal reporting rules on identifying race. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.