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Chancellor Quickly, Deftly Redirecting UMass Flagship Campus

AMHERST, MASS. — Just spend the day walking across the sprawling campus of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a grievance against the university’s current chancellor.

“He’s really a nice guy,” says an immigrant groundskeeper, who asks to be anonymous. “I see him around and he’s always smiling. We like him. He’s a real good leader.”

While it’s no secret that faculty, staff and administrators at colleges across the country regularly clash over governance issues, Kumble R. Subbaswamy—or “Swamy,” as he’s known on campus—has managed to escape the battles that often come with leading a land grant institution that is bigger than some small American towns.

Now, two years into his stint as chancellor of the 151-year-old public flagship, the soft-spoken administrator, who first came to the U.S. from India in the 1970s as an ambitious graduate student, has favored collaboration over conflict. In the process, he has won over the unions, improved campus morale, increased academic standards and become the university’s most vocal cheerleader for diversity and inclusion.

Subbaswamy’s accomplishments since he took the helm of the campus with an enrollment of more than 28,000 students are no small feat, particularly at a university that has witnessed shaky leadership within its administrative ranks. Prior to Subbaswamy’s arrival in 2012, UMass had three chancellors over the past decade, whose tenures were all short-lived.

“What has most impressed me is the way in which he is working with students,” says Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and the faculty adviser to the chancellor for diversity and excellence. “The chancellor has offered a different model in which authentic conversations can take place with students around their concerns and around his vision and way of leading the campus.”

Vinayak Rao, president of the Student Government Association, agrees. He says that Subbaswamy, who lives on campus with his wife, can regularly be seen interacting with students.

“I think Chancellor Swamy has done a great job actively reaching out to students and engaging students,” says Rao. “He wants students to voice their opinions.”

Pathway to the presidency

Trained as a physicist, Subbaswamy didn’t initially set out to be a college president and could not have imagined ever leading one of the nation’s largest public institutions.

“I did the straight and narrow, being a professor minding my own business,” he says with a hearty chuckle.

But by 1991, his leadership and service as a faculty member caught the attention of his superiors. He was appointed associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky. The experience “opened my eyes to other ways I can contribute to higher education,” Subbaswamy says.

He went on to hold other administrative jobs at the University of Miami and Indiana University before returning to UK as provost.

When Subbaswamy arrived at UMass after being tapped for the chancellor’s job, he vowed that his administration would be open and transparent. He actively engaged the university in a campuswide strategic planning process that called for a re-examination of the university’s mission statement and its priorities.

“At first, there was a lot of skepticism because they’ve seen top-down processes,” says Subbaswamy. “But very quickly, people embraced it. In fact, they took ownership over it.”

One such initiative was establishing a committee that reports directly to him that was charged with creating a campus policy to address workplace bullying on campus. All 4,916 full-time employees at the university have to undergo mandatory training.

“It’s pretty inspiring to see people from all walks of campus coming together on this,” says Kathy Rhines, a health care administrator and former president of the Professional Staff Union at UMass. “This chancellor was a game changer who came in and said, ‘Let’s do things differently.’ He has not been adversarial, and he’s helped to change the climate.”

Diversity outreach

As one of a few South Asian college presidents in the country, Subbaswamy says that he is invested in helping to increase the racial presence of other minority faculty on campus. It’s no coincidence that issues relating to diversity and inclusion have been a central component of the strategic planning process.

“I think you can make as many statements as you want about being open and inclusive, but nothing makes that statement more concrete than when you have individuals from underrepresented and minority communities serving in top positions,” Subbaswamy says forcibly. “That speaks volumes. You don’t even need to say anything.”

Under Subbaswamy’s leadership, UMass has expanded its outreach to nearby Springfield and Holyoke, with the hopes of boosting its Black and Hispanic populations. Only 4.2 percent of the campus is made up of African-American students, according to fall 2013 data.

“We admit a lot of students and we don’t offer nearly as much financial aid to underrepresented minorities as they would get at many private or better-endowed institutions, so we don’t matriculate as many as we like,” says Subbaswamy. “They go elsewhere because they get much better financial packages.” On this day, he’s talking with Shabazz about the need to increase the pipeline and attract a larger pool of students from area high schools who can matriculate directly into the university.

Amid efforts to make the university more selective, Subbaswamy acknowledges that there is “a lot of anxiety” about whether the university will remain committed to poorer areas, though he says that it’s a major priority to do so.

Currently, about 75 percent of the student body hails from Massachusetts and about 25 percent from across the country and abroad. Subbaswamy says that he would like to see an increase in the number of international undergraduate students.

The SGA says that it’s encouraged by the passion that Subbaswamy brings to the subject.

“Racial diversity among the student body has to be addressed,” says Rao, who was born in India but has lived for the past decade in Massachusetts. He says that the selection of Subbaswamy as chancellor was a bold move that reflects progress.

Subbaswamy’s advocacy has also extended to other groups, including LGBT students. When UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon announced earlier this year that he was gay, Subbaswamy quickly embraced his coming out.

“I truly admire Derrick Gordon for making the courageous decision to come out publicly,” he said at the time. “Derrick is a superb student-athlete who represents our campus with distinction. The poise and confidence with which he has shared his personal story embody our campus’s shared values of respect, inclusion and diversity.”

Though Subbaswamy has no shortage of ideas for where he wants to take UMass, he knows that the public university is at the mercy of politicians who provide much of its funding. Thankfully, he has a strong relationship with Governor Deval Patrick, who was the speaker at this year’s commencement, and the incoming president of the Massachusetts State Senate, Stanley C. Rosenberg, who is an alum and a strong supporter of the university.

As he moves into his third year as chancellor, Subbaswamy says that he’s eager to help groom other leaders, like Shabazz, who has aspirations of becoming a college president someday.

In fact, Subbaswamy nominated Shabazz to become an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow for the 2014-2015 school year. Shabazz and other fellows will immerse themselves in the culture, policies and decision-making processes of another institution.

“The man is a true diversity champion, even helping to groom the next line of diverse leadership in higher education,” says Shabazz.

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