Fulfilling the higher purpose of higher education: Debasish “Deba” Dutta, new Chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Debasish “Deba” Dutta, the new Chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick who took over the office July 1. (Photo: Rutgers Today)

(With permission from Rutgers University. This interview first appeared July 5 in Rutgers Today online edition. Debasish “Deba” Dutta is the first Indian-American Chancellor at Rutgers University)

Debasish “Deba” Dutta, a respected academic and an experienced higher education administrator who has spearheaded innovation and strategic change at three top national research universities, became chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick on July 1. Dutta also holds a faculty appointment and is a tenured distinguished professor of engineering.

Dutta came to Rutgers from Purdue University, where he was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity, with a faculty appointment as professor of mechanical engineering. Previously, he was dean of the graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and before that he was an accomplished member of the engineering faculty at the University of Michigan.

As chancellor, Dutta oversees the Rutgers flagship, which has more than 42,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. It is a singular time for Rutgers as one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse universities builds on the strengths of its first 250 years and embraces the social, economic and technological opportunities in higher education today. In the interview below, he discusses his desire to provide institutional leadership, drive innovation, strengthen academic excellence and how the university can and should meet the needs of the citizens of New Jersey, the nation and beyond.

What attracted you to Rutgers?

I have long believed in the promise of public higher education and find the mission of a land-grant institution compelling. Therefore, the exciting opportunity to lead Rutgers-New Brunswick, a top public research and land-grant institution, was particularly attractive. This is a very interesting moment for Rutgers. I have spent my entire career at Big Ten and AAU institutions, so Rutgers was a natural fit. As one of the newest members of the Big Ten and its academic counterpart, the Big Ten Academic Alliance, Rutgers has incredible peer institutions to collaborate with and compete against both on the field and off. Also, Rutgers has an incredibly vibrant and diverse community, which is exciting to be a part of.

How should Rutgers fulfill its responsibility as a land-grant university in the modern age?

I would like Rutgers to be recognized as an exemplar of a 21st century public, land-grant institution. Innovation, excellence and accountability will be our hallmark. We will use technology to increase efficiency and to engage faculty, staff and students to generate new ideas to experiment with. I believe in the higher purpose of higher education. At Rutgers, that means applying the university’s outstanding strengths in service of the public good and ensuring access to a full range of educational opportunities for our society’s citizens. Land-grant institutions have a profound impact on society. Communication and engagement with external stakeholders will be critically important. It is an exciting opportunity and I am looking forward to working with the community.

Over the past several weeks, you’ve visited campus often and met with a number of faculty, students and staff. What is your impression of Rutgers so far?

As I said, Rutgers is an incredibly vibrant place and in these early days that vibrancy shone through in my interactions with the faculty and students who are here this summer. From these meetings and others, I believe we are well positioned to enhance academic excellence and student success. We already have the key ingredients: an outstanding faculty and a committed staff.  I see excellent opportunities for deepening collaborations with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences and for developing new initiatives in emerging areas of scholarship. But let me also add that I have a lot to see, hear and learn, and I plan to do that.

What are your top priorities for your first year?

I have three main priorities. The first is to understand the institution at a deeper level and the aspirations of its faculty, staff and students. I plan to spend the first several weeks and months here getting to know the culture of the university and what makes it tick. Second, I believe it is incredibly important for me to establish relationships with the external community, legislators and other stakeholders because it is vital that we continue to remind the public of the value of higher education, especially of public higher education. And third, I plan to fill key positions in the university and build my leadership team.

You’re an engineer. How does that influence your administrative thinking and your views on the role of the liberal arts and sciences?

I have found that a systems-thinking approach – a deliberative and holistic approach to decision-making mindful of unintended consequences – is helpful in administration. Also, I consider context as important as data in decision-making. I am a strong proponent of the liberal arts and view them as essential in a comprehensive research university such as Rutgers. In a world that is increasingly shaped by technology, the humanities and arts have a significant role to play. As you know, the iPhone just celebrated its 10th anniversary and it would not be the success it has been if humanistic, artistic and societal issues were not factored in throughout its development and evolution.

What are the most pressing issues and challenges facing higher education in general – and how do you plan to address them at Rutgers?

American higher education is facing many challenges. Perceptions from outside the university, like those held by the general public and legislators, are that the most pressing issues include affordability, student debt, diminished job prospects in some fields and an unclear value proposition of academic research. Within the institution, the view is different – there has been reduction in state support, increasing competition for research dollars, pressure to reduce facilities and administrative costs and, in general, a lack of appreciation of the research university as a driver of innovation. The schism is growing and the erosion of public support and reduction of state and federal funding are of concern. At Rutgers-New Brunswick, we will have to work hard and chart a new course that reexamines long held assumptions and practices. We must be bold enough to try new ideas that are financially sustainable yet increase student success and academic excellence. It can be done.

— Rutgers Today




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