Tufts University will formally install Sunil Kumar, previously provost of Johns Hopkins University, as its 14th president in a ceremony Friday that is expected to draw crowds of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members to the Somerville-Medford campus.
He is taking the reins at a time of strength for Tufts, with a $2.5 billion endowment and growing applications in recent years. But Kumar, an electrical engineer from India and the university’s first president of color, also must navigate the 12,650-student institution through profound challenges, including a tight student housing market and the task of maintaining campus diversity following the June Supreme Court decision that struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions.
“The institution is stronger for opening its doors as wide as possible,” Kumar said. “It’s as simple as that. It’s better for us.”
Kumar said the Supreme Court decision in two cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill does not change Tufts’ commitment to diversity. Tufts recently added a new short answer essay prompt to its application that asks students to write about “a way that you contributed to building a collaborative or inclusive community.” A spokesperson for Tufts said that students in its current first-year class come from more than 1,100 high schools — the largest number of high schools ever represented in a single, incoming class.
“We have to build better pipeline programs to reach out to more people, and to make a broader population believe that Tufts is a good home,” Kumar said.
The university is currently undergoing a “comprehensive review” of its use of legacy preferences in the undergraduate admissions process, Kumar said, which he hopes will wrap up before the next admissions cycle begins. Johns Hopkins stopped advantaging the children of alumni in its admissions process in 2014, two years before Kumar joined the school.
Separately, Kumar said that he is prepared to address concerns from alumni and donors who oppose university efforts to promote diversity amid ongoing culture wars.
“You should open your doors as widely as possible,” Kumar said. “And this is not a political statement for me as much as a pragmatic statement.”
Waning public confidence in higher education is also on Kumar’s mind. He believes that expanding nontraditional programs, such as pre-college programs for high school students and certificate programs for working adults, could help change perceptions about universities. Tufts already hosts some nontraditional programming through a 2018 initiative called University College, which Kumar would like to expand.
Johns Hopkins, where Kumar served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, for example, offered dozens of online credential programs, including one program designed for biotech workers interested in being promoted to become lab managers.
“You’re taught by very good faculty who are on the Hopkins payroll, and you get a Hopkins credential,” Kumar said. “We do some of that at Tufts, but we can do more.”
Tufts is also “exploring” adding more dorm rooms on campus, Kumar said, which he hopes could also boost relations with the university’s neighboring communities. Students have for years expressed frustrations that campus housing availability has not kept pace with enrollment growth. Currently, about 67 percent of Tufts undergraduates live on campus. Undergraduate enrollment at Tufts grew to 6,559 students in 2022, up 21 percent from 2017.
“It would be nicer for us to have more of our students back on campus,” said Kumar, who started at Tufts July 1. “That will be a priority for me to build more residential housing on campus because it does two things: It strengthens our own student community [and] also eases housing pressure on our neighboring communities where the pressure is quite high. It also makes that housing stock available for our younger faculty and staff who find that they have to live farther and farther away.”
Kumar, the son of a police officer, taught at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business for about 12 years. He was then named dean of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business before being named provost of Johns Hopkins in 2016. He earned a bachelor’s in engineering in 1990 in India from Mangalore University, which he says left him with one “glaring hole” in his education — he was not trained in the humanities.
“The older I get, the more I feel the need for people to be taught how to make up their minds, how to read what others have written, how to learn from history, how to articulate their positions,” Kumar said. “These are things that the humanities teach you, to learn to be human in some sense. I think it’s myopic to say it’s more useful to take more computer science or engineering courses. They are useful in the short term, but in the long term, if you don’t also teach the computer scientist how to think about the consequences of the code they’re writing, you have not completed their education.”
Kumar also has a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master of engineering degree in computer science and automation from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.