Cornell University so carefully and closely guarded the impending resignation of its business college dean last week that it kept even the college’s own top administrators in the dark.
Kate Walsh, dean of the School of Hotel Administration, said in a closed-door meeting with several dozen faculty members late Monday afternoon that she learned of former dean Soumitra Dutta’s abrupt resignation only when Cornell’s provost publicly announced the change in an email to business college employees and students last week.
Walsh’s comments in the private faculty meeting — related by a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation by the University — show that even while Cornell planned the resignation of the SC Johnson College of Business’s chief for at least a day, it kept top administrators within the college clueless.
L. Joseph Thomas, the interim dean of the business college, said the University asked him on Monday, Jan. 29, to take the interim position. He said he was surprised by the request to lead the College of Business, which launched amid protests in July of 2016 and brought the hotel school, the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management together under one college.
Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in an email to business college employees and students the next day, Jan. 30, that Dutta had submitted his resignation and that Kotlikoff had accepted, effective immediately. Kotlikoff gave no rationale for Dutta’s sudden resignation, which came three days after the Board of Trustees concluded a scheduled meeting in New York.
The unexplained resignation has stunned the Cornell community, sending rumors and concern rippling through Ithaca campus halls and alumni networks. Kotlikoff’s announcement caught business college administrators and most — if not all — College of Business faculty off guard.
The transition appeared hastily planned. Thomas said he was only asked to fill the vacant position one day in advance of Kotlikoff’s announcement, and the Cornell Chronicle, which is run by the University, did not announce the change until three days later, on Feb. 2.
Also on Feb. 2, Walsh wrote to hotel school faculty members, urging them not to speculate on the reasons for Dutta’s resignation with students.
“Please, please refrain from doing so, as well as from talking about it in front of them,” she wrote to the faculty. “It does not provide support to our students and heightens their anxiety levels.”
“If they ask you about it, please simply say you don’t know, but we are moving forward as a school and college,” she continued. “It would be helpful if you could do the same with our alumni.”
Over the weekend, Dutta, in a post on LinkedIn, made his first public comment since his resignation.
“The time had come for a transition in leadership given the completion of the successful merger of the three schools within the SC Johnson College of Business and the many achievements of the College over the last years,” Dutta said in the post.
“It has been a privilege to serve Cornell as a Dean and I am very grateful to my team and the faculty, staff and students of the College for their support, dedication and friendship,” added Dutta, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment. “I look forward to being part of the Cornell community as a Professor in the coming years.”
Dutta, who from 2012 to 2016 led the Johnson Graduate School as dean, had given no indication in recent weeks that he planned to resign. At an alumni gathering on Jan. 25 — five days before stepping down — Dutta painted a positive picture of the college, according to an alumnus in attendance.
Tim Cole ’83 MBA ’84 said in an email to The Sun that Dutta “provided a comprehensive and very positive update” on the business college at the alumni event at a conference center in Midtown Manhattan.
“There was no mention or indication of an impending departure,” said Cole, a hotel school alumnus who is now the general manager of a country club in Westchester County. “I was stunned when I received an e-mail about his resignation.”
John S. Dyson ’65, after whose father the Dyson school is named, once criticized the process by which Cornell proposed and sought to create the College of Business but later relented after winning concessions from the University.
In an email to The Sun last week, Dyson, founder and chairman of Millbrook Capital Management, a private equity firm, said that, as a trustee emeritus, he had followed Dutta’s abrupt resignation “with great interest.”
“I completely support the decision of [President Martha Pollack] and the Provost as we continue to build an even stronger business program at Cornell,” Dyson said.
He emphasized that H. Fisk Johnson ’79 and he have “been very supportive of cherishing the distinctiveness” of the three schools that merged under the College of Business umbrella.
“I am sure we are now on the right track with Fisk’s transformational gift including an important challenge grant portion.”
Johnson’s $150 million donation in January of 2017 — the largest ever to Cornell’s Ithaca campus — affixed his name to the college. Johnson, the CEO and chairman of SC Johnson who has five degrees from Cornell, had no part in Dutta’s resignation, a senior vice president of the company, Kelly M. Semrau, said in a statement to The Sun last week.
Dutta was scheduled to participate in an event on Monday in which he would answer questions live on Twitter, but the Indian software and service companies trade association hosting the event, NASSCOM, canceled, telling The Sun that Dutta was delayed in his travel.
“His absence was caused by travel delays today as he moved from Boston to France,” Kavita Doshi, senior manager of corporate and digital communications at NASSCOM, told The Sun on Monday. “We are looking to reschedule it next week.”
In the faculty meeting on Monday in Statler Hall, Walsh said the change in leadership was a personnel decision and that Cornell would issue no further comment, she confirmed.
Several faculty members said they were concerned about the direction of the College of Business, the person in the room said.
Walsh said in an email to The Sun on Monday that the hotel school is “on a growth trajectory and it will continue, even with this change in leadership.”
Dean Thomas expressed a desire to “move forward — and not just keep idle until a permanent dean is found,” Walsh said. “That’s what I am hopeful will happen and I very much appreciate that he has agreed to take on this role.”
Cornell has declined to answer all questions about Dutta’s resignation, including whether Cornell asked him to resign, whether the Board of Trustees voted on the change and whether Cornell stands by Dutta’s statement on LinkedIn.
Asked if Cornell employees who speak to The Sun are at risk of retaliation, John Carberry, the director of media relations, said in an email that Cornell employees “with work-related access to confidential information pertaining to employees, students or patients are aware of their responsibility to protect privacy.”
“Beyond that, the university does not restrict anyone’s right to speak to the press,” Carberry said.