The mystery surrounding Soumitra Dutta’s abrupt resignation from his role atop Cornell University’s business college continued to grow on Wednesday as Dutta and Cornell refused for a second day to provide any reason for his sudden exit.
Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in an email to SC Johnson College of Business employees and students on Tuesday afternoon that he had accepted Dutta’s resignation letter, effective immediately, and had named an interim dean to lead the business college.
Kotlikoff’s brief statement blindsided all but a select handful of Cornellians, catching many business faculty members off guard and surprising some employees in Dutta’s own Statler Hall office who read the news for the first time in The Sun.
Even L. Joseph Thomas, whom Kotlikoff named to replace Dutta as interim dean while Cornell searches for a permanent successor, only learned of Dutta’s imminent departure on Monday, one day before it was publicly announced.
“I was asked to do this interim job two days ago, and it was a surprise,” Thomas said in an email to The Sun on Wednesday night.
Dutta, 54, has not responded to multiple requests for comment since he resigned, but has said in recent days that he expects to remain a member of the faculty, according to a Cornell alumnus briefed on the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Cornell’s spokesman, John Carberry, has declined to answer any questions about what led to Dutta’s resignation and had no information, as of early Thursday morning, on whether Dutta would remain on the faculty.
Thomas met with campus leaders and spoke several times with Kotlikoff on Wednesday, his first full day serving in a position he likely never expected to take after retiring in 2016 from teaching at Cornell.
“I am very pleased to help Cornell and my college in any way I can,” Thomas, who led the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management from 2007 to 2012 as dean, told The Sun. “Cornell is a wonderful university, and it has been good for me and my family. I did like my retirement activities, but those can be scaled back a bit.”
Thomas said he will serve only as long as it takes Cornell to find a permanent dean for the College of Business, which opened in July of 2016 and includes the School of Hotel Administration, the Johnson Graduate School and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
Asked about Dutta, Thomas said only that the former dean had “led the new college very well” and that members of the college are “well positioned to move forward because of” Dutta’s and the leadership team’s efforts.
Lourdes Casanova, Dutta’s wife and a senior lecturer at the Johnson Graduate School, declined to comment when reached at the couple’s house this week.
“I’m sorry, but we cannot say anything,” Casanova said from just inside the door of the couple’s home on Tuesday evening.
Several College of Business faculty members said it was notable that Dutta’s resignation came less than a week after the college’s deputy dean, Chris Barrett, said on Jan. 22 that he would step down from his post in July and return to teaching and research.
Barrett did not respond to requests for comment, but the Cornell alumnus, who had been briefed on the matter, said Barrett’s stepping down was not connected in any way to Dutta’s resignation. Carberry, the Cornell spokesman, confirmed Barrett’s announcement but could not say whether it was connected to Dutta’s.
Prof. William Henri Lesser, science and business, who served as the interim director of the Dyson School for a few months in 2016 and retired this January, said the announcement of Dutta’s resignation had been “opaque.” Lesser also said he was concerned about the financing of the College of the Business, which he described as “suspect.”
“We all need to know what has gone wrong, for certainly something has,” Lesser said in an email. “Depending on the reason, there can be lots of reason for concern.”
Lesser said the business college had spent too much money on extra deans, offices and expensive faculty hires and does not have enough sufficient sources of revenue.
“In my opinion the whole venture [of the College of Business] has been poorly conceived and executed,” Lesser added. “Hopefully the multiple costs will not be too extensive.”
Publicly, at least, Dutta had made no indication in recent weeks that he was planning to resign. He represented the College of Business at an event in New York less than a week ago, on Jan. 25, and he is also listed as a keynote speaker at an information technology conference in India in late February.
In an interview with Cornell’s official media service, the Cornell Chronicle, in July, Dutta said there was more he wanted to accomplish at the University.
“We still have a lot more that we can do together, in all three schools combined,” he said, referring to the hotel school, the Johnson Graduate School and the Dyson school. Dutta said there “is a lot more to be done, but it’s all exciting, good stuff.”
Kotlikoff’s four-sentence statement on Tuesday made no mention of Dutta’s more than five years with the University, during which he led the Johnson Graduate School as dean beginning in July of 2012. When Kotlikoff announced, in December of 2015, that Cornell was seeking to create the College of Business, the provost also named Dutta as the college’s inaugural dean.
Dutta oversaw about 200 faculty members and 3,100 students while leading the College of Business through its first, controversial years — beginning in the summer of 2016 — during which students, alumni, faculty and staff protested its creation and launch.
Dutta, who was born in India, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi in 1985 before earning a Ph.D. in computer science in 1990 at UC Berkeley, where he studied artificial intelligence, according to his curriculum vitae, which Cornell hosted on its website until it removed his profile on Tuesday.
When Cornell hired Dutta in 2012 to lead the Johnson Graduate School as its 11th dean, then-president David Skorton said Dutta was a “natural fit,” with expertise in emerging media and “extensive experience on the international stage.”
Cornell’s proposal in December of 2015 to merge three schools under one business college umbrella sparked controversy, and Dutta took on the challenge of guiding the college with a steady hand, leading an institution that many said they did not want to exist.
After months of student and faculty unrest, Dutta sought to quell concerns in 2016 in what the Financial Times called a “charm offensive.” Dutta, largely working behind the scenes, argued to alumni and students that merging the three schools would boost their national marks and allow for students to enroll in a broader range of courses. He also maintained that he would protect each school’s unique identity.
Where Dutta worked methodically, H. Fisk Johnson ‘79 made a splash. His $150 million donation in January of 2017 to the College of Business, the largest donation ever made to the Ithaca campus, led to an increase in support for the merged programs and permanently affixed Johnson’s name to the college. Johnson did not return a message left with a company spokesperson on Wednesday.
In January of 2017, Dutta said Johnson’s “extraordinary gift” would expand the college’s learning and research opportunities and “support our mission to realize the full potential of Cornell’s business programs.”
Thomas, in his email to The Sun, said that “as you might expect, I am very busy,” and that while he has not yet prepared any specific initiatives — he’s been on the job for only a day — he plans to “move the college forward” rather than to keep things as they were. As an emeritus professor, Thomas said he had been volunteering and staying connected to Cornell while in retirement.
In addition to overseeing business students on the Ithaca campus, Thomas, as dean of all undergraduate and graduate business programs, will also manage the Cornell Tech MBA program at Cornell’s campus on Roosevelt Island in New York, which had 53 students in its 2017 class.
Thomas has taught at the Johnson Graduate School since 1967 and has been a full professor in the school since 1977. He graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1964 and earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1968, studying operations research
Dutta has been widely published over several decades — his CV is 30 pages long — and he has held many jobs in at least four countries over more than three decades while remaining on dozens of boards.
Prior to being hired by Cornell, he served as an adminsitrator and professor in various roles from 1989 to 2012 at INSEAD in France, a leading international business school that also has campuses in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. He worked briefly as a visiting researcher at the General Electric company in Schenectady in 1990 as well.
Dutta also says on his CV, which was last updated in January, that he has been invited to attend the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, for more than 10 years. He co-edits a frequently-cited innovation report each year and serves on the boards of Sodexo, Dassault Systemes and Tower Learning Solutions, which is a subsidiary of Cornell.
Dutta has received $1.65 million in research grants and gifts since 2012, according to the CV, and is currently chair of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which says on its website that it is the world’s largest business education alliance.