Cornell President Martha E. Pollack sought to assure the faculty on Wednesday that the business college dean’s sudden resignation last month was not related to the fledgling college’s finances, but she refused to relate the actual motive for the dean’s departure.
Speaking to the Faculty Senate, Pollack said she wanted “to reassure, to calm some nerves, to maybe diffuse some rumors” regarding Prof. Soumitra Dutta’s abrupt and unexplained resignation on Jan. 30. Dutta, a professor of management, served as dean of the SC Johnson College of Business since its launch less than two years ago.
“The finances of the school are healthy,” Pollack said. “They’re beginning to actually reap the savings benefits of the integration. The reputation of the three embedded schools is very, very healthy.”
Cornell has saved $750,000 annually from merging the School of Hotel Administration, the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management under the business college umbrella in July of 2016, Pollack said.
When Charlie Van Loan, the dean of faculty, asked Pollack at the meeting if she could give any more details regarding the motive for Dutta’s unexpected exit, the president was unequivocal that she and the University would not be providing more information.
“No. No. I mean, we protect the privacy of our students … We protect the privacy of our faculty,” she said. “If one of you resigned or if one of you was involved in some other sort of a personnel case, you would want your privacy protected.”
“We don’t talk about personnel cases,” she continued. “What I can say is what I said before: that the school is strong and healthy, that I support it, that I greatly appreciate [Interim Dean] Joe Thomas stepping in and that I am enthusiastic about the path forward. But no — we protect people’s privacy.”
Pollack said Cornell will soon announce a search committee and launch its search for the business college’s second-ever dean.
“I am sure that we will recruit an extraordinary dean,” she said.
Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced Dutta’s resignation on the afternoon of Jan. 30 in an email to college of business employees and students that caught even high-level administrators by surprise.
“We received some shocking news this afternoon,” Kate Walsh, dean of the hotel school, wrote to faculty hours after Kotlikoff’s announcement.
Dutta, who will remain at Cornell as a professor, has not responded to multiple requests for comment as rumors have swirled around campus and through alumni networks. Lourdes Casanova, who is Dutta’s wife and a senior lecturer at the Johnson Graduate School, declined to comment at the door of the couple’s house hours after Dutta’s resignation.
Thomas, the interim dean, previously told The Sun that he was asked to take over Dutta’s role only one day before Kotlikoff’s announcement.
Several business college faculty members and alumni of the member schools have been scratching their heads in recent weeks, looking for any sign of what led to Dutta’s sudden departure.
Dutta said in an email to faculty on Jan. 22 that his deputy dean, Prof. Chris Barrett, would be stepping down in July, something faculty members have noted with suspicion. Barrett has not responded to multiple requests for comment and it is unclear if his scheduled return to a full-time faculty position in July is related to Dutta’s resignation.
Barrett sent tenured faculty an email on Feb. 1 offering a retirement incentive.
“We are offering this program to help meet college financial targets and position us to align faculty positions with new university and college strategic goals over the next five years,” Barrett wrote in the email.
Barrett said that he and Thomas “value the many contributions of our accomplished faculty past and present but also recognize that some may be considering retirement.” Thomas did not respond to an email last week inquiring about the finances of the college and the early retirement package.
Some have speculated that Dutta’s departure may be the result of financial mismanagement, but Pollack attempted to dispel those rumors on Wednesday.
Former Prof. William Henri Lesser, who served for three months as the interim director of the Dyson School in 2016, previously described the College of Business finances as “suspect” in an interview with The Sun.
In recent days, Lesser told The Sun he could “never get any answers” to specific questions about the Dyson School budget when he served as interim director. He believes he was fired for asking too many questions.
“I said, ‘What’s the budget? What’re we doing? Is a shoe going to fall in the future?’” he told The Sun of his time in the interim role. “It’s very difficult to plan and manage something if you just don’t know.”
Lesser said the University fired him and then phrased his departure as a mutual decision in an announcement.
“When [Cornell’s] statement came out, it sounded like I was going to spend more time with my family or something, but I was fired,” he said. “My personal guess was that I was asking too many questions and they didn’t want to answer them.”
Prof. Richard Bensel, government, read some of Lesser’s comments at Wednesday’s meeting, and Pollack vehemently disagreed with the former professor’s characterization.
“I know the finances of the College of Business. I don’t know Prof. Lesser, but I disagree with him,” she said. “The finances of the College of Business are strong and healthy.”
“While the merger happened before I got here, and as I said the first time I came, that train has left the station — we’re not undoing that — I think the benefits go well beyond finance,” she continued. “But I will tell you that [the three member schools] are reaping financial benefit.”
Cornell spokespeople have declined to comment on nearly all aspects of the resignation, including whether Cornell asked Dutta to resign or if the University stands by Dutta’s post on LinkedIn, in which he said “the time had come for a transition in leadership given the completion of the successful merger of the three schools.”
Kotlikoff’s announcement came two days after the Cornell board of trustees met behind closed doors at a scheduled meeting in New York. Robert S. Harrison ’76, chair of the board of trustees, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
H. Fisk Johnson ’79, the CEO of SC Johnson who affixed his name to the college with a $150 million donation, was not involved in the decision, a vice president for his company told The Sun.
Pollack said she, Kolikoff and other administrators all continue to support the business college.
The integration of the three schools was “bumpy,” she said, noting that it occurred before she assumed the presidency last April, but said the creation of the college “will in the long run prove to be a really good thing.”
Pollack said the business college has recently “completed some outstanding hires” from colleges including the University of Chicago, Columbia and the University of Michigan, adding that there are 23 additional searches underway.
In the weeks before the provost’s unexpected announcement, Dutta gave no indication that he was planning to resign, speaking at alumni gatherings in San Francisco and New York.
Dutta, who earned his Ph.D. in 1990 from UC Berkeley and served as an administrator and professor at INSEAD in France from 1989 to 2012, has continued to share his expertise around the world in recent days.
He responded to Twitter users’ questions about artificial intelligence on Friday during a forum hosted hosted by an Indian technology trade association.
On Sunday, Dutta sat on a panel in Dubai, where he discussed the future of the health industry at the World Government Summit, according to The National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
Dutta is also scheduled to discuss the future of jobs on Feb. 19 at a forum in Hyderabad, a city in southern India. The lecture is part of the World Congress on Information Technology and NASSCOM India Leadership Forum.
Girisha Arora ’20 contributed reporting to this article.