Kentucky provost selected chancellor at UMass

** warning: for less than 1.25 col ** for Metro - 27umass - University of Kentucky Provost Kumble Subbaswamy photographed on Monday December 13, 2010 in Lexington, Ky. (Mark Cornelison)
Mark Cornelison
The University of Massachusetts Amherst has chosen Kumble Subbaswamy, provost at the University of Kentucky, as chancellor.

The University of Massachusetts tapped Kumble Subbaswamy, provost at the University of Kentucky, Monday evening as chancellor of the state’s flagship campus in Amherst.

A physicist by training, Subbaswamy is known for an easy sense of humor, an ability to build coalitions, and prowess at fund-raising.

“I look forward to the challenges ahead, knowing full well that the campus is strongly committed to fulfilling its promise and mission as the Commonwealth’s public university flagship,’’ Subbaswamy, 60, said in a statement. “Given the warm reception I received during my recent campus visit, I am eager to move forward on this new journey. In many ways, UMass Amherst already feels like home.’’

Subbaswamy - known as Swamy to colleagues and friends - came to the Amherst campus this month to make his case and is expected to visit again next week.

During his first visit, he displayed erudition and wit, said Max Page, an architecture and history professor who leads PHENOM, a lobbying group for public higher education in Massachusetts.

“When he came to campus, he started his speech with this Thomas Jefferson quote: ‘Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity,’ ’’ Page said. “For me, anyone who leads with a Jefferson quote is going to have a leg up.’’

UMass has had four chancellors in the past 11 years. After a rocky three-year tenure that included a thwarted plan to open a medical school in Springfield, current leader Robert Holub announced last summer that he intended to leave. He will officially step down in July.

System president Robert Caret announced his new pick Monday evening to the system’s board of trustees, who voted unanimously to approve it. Caret read a brief list of comments about Subbaswamy he had heard during the search: “genuine, sincere, inspires confidence’’; “a refreshing degree of humility’’; “the person with the strongest background to lead the campus where we want it to go.’’

Subbaswamy said in a conference call after the vote that Massachusetts’ private research universities could be collaborators, not competitors. “Science is now a collaborative affair,’’ he said.

UMass board chairman James Karam said that “all involved in the Amherst search can be proud of the process,’’ which took six months and involved face-to-face interviews with 15 candidates. Karam added that Subbaswamy would make approximately what his predecessor did - $375,000 annually - or less

Other finalists for the post included: Carlos Santiago, a labor economist who runs the Hispanic College Fund in Washington, D.C.; Sona Andrews, a high-level administrator in the the Oregon University system and professor at Portland State University; and Susan Phillips, provost at the State University of New York’s campus in Albany.

Phillips dropped out of the running last week for unspecified reasons. Friday, Andrews was named provost at Portland State, a role she held at another school.

Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor on a committee that met with the candidates, said Subbaswamy and Santiago made good impressions.

“I have a friend in Milwaukee who observed Santiago closely [there] and said he did a fabulous job of fund-raising,’’ Whitehead said. “If we aren’t going to get additional money from the state, and if we don’t want to seek too much additional money from our in-state students, but we want to continue to improve the campus, we need to raise money elsewhere.’’

He said Subbaswamy also showed a keen understanding of the many challenges the university faces, including the need for intensive fund-raising.

“He was willing to say out loud what many in higher education already believe but haven’t begun to stress: The current model of the public research university is approaching a point of unsustainability,’’ Whitehead said.

Subbaswamy received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Bangalore University in India, a master’s in physics from Delhi University, and a PhD from Indiana University. He became a US citizen in 1986 and will be the school’s first Indian-American president.

He has been on an aggressive job hunt for the last two years. He was a runner-up to lead the University of Utah in January and Iowa State University in September, and was a candidate for the chancellor’s job at the University of Illinois in 2010.

At his public meeting in Amherst, he told the audience he believed the school needed to work with other campuses as a team to raise the system’s profile and regain state support, specifically proposing new partnerships with UMass Boston.

At Kentucky, Subbaswamy has focused on improving the undergraduate experience, working on an overhaul of the core curriculum. Previously, he was dean of arts and sciences at Indiana University, where he raised $120 million in six years and oversaw the development of several new programs and initiatives, especially in the life sciences.

Also Monday, UMass announced six finalists to lead its Dartmouth campus after longtime chancellor Jean MacCormack retires at the end of the academic year.

They are: Jonathan Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University in Maryland; Mary Grant, president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; Divina Grossman, vice president of engagement at Florida International University; Daniel Julius, vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska system; Maurice Scherrens, senior vice president at George Mason University in Virginia; and Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.