Sunil Kumar (PhD ’96), who spoke at the 2014 College of Engineering commencement, got his first taste of control theory’s power to change industry as a graduate student in the Coordinated Science Laboratory.
As a doctoral student under advisor Panganamala R Kumar, Sunil Kumar tackled the inefficiencies of manufacturing semiconductor chips. While actual manufacturing time took less than a day, plants often took weeks to move chips through the fabrication process, primarily because of congestion. Kumar used stochastic control theory to analyze the resulting delays in the plants.
These days, Kumar is still using engineering to change the face of business – and is teaching others to do the same. He was named dean of the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a role he officially assumed on Jan. 1, 2011.
“In some ways, it feels like a dramatic career change, but in reality it’s not,” said Kumar, who joins Booth from Stanford University, where he most recently served as the business school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Control finds many applications in the social sciences. The emphasis is quite different than in engineering, but even my work today is not that far removed from research conducted at CSL.”
While Kumar insists that his merging of engineering and business isn’t unique – many economics students study control theory, for example – his appointment as Booth’s dean may signal that more engineers are destined for executive suites.
Only consider what the C-suite has to gain: At Stanford, Kumar began work on developing a mathematical model to determine optimal ticket pricing for airlines. Using heuristic algorithms, the model predicts how consumers will respond to tickets offered at a certain price at a certain point before departure time. In a dynamic system such as air travel, which is significantly influenced by stochastic variability, Kumar aims to mitigate the impact of randomness. The model could help the service industry in general maximize efficiency and resources.
In addition to his connections with industry, Kumar has also proven to be an innovative educator. At Stanford, he co-developed a widely used factory simulator for teaching operations management. The simulator, “Littlefield Technologies,” has been used in classes at more than 50 business and engineering schools. At the University of Chicago, he will continue teaching and pursuing his research as time allows.
“Business school graduates of today have to confront a world where enterprises are comprised of complex technological, material, service and financial interactions,” said P.R. Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois. “Sunil‘s analytical strength and modeling capabilities, coming from his engineering side, combined with an excellent broad based understanding of business issues, well equip him to lead Booth in its education and research efforts. I am sure his appointment will stand Booth in good stead and is a very wise and far-reaching choice.”
Kumar holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Mangalore University in Surathkal and a master’s degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He chose to pursue his doctorate at Illinois after meeting P.R. Kumar during a trip his future advisor made to India. After graduating from Illinois, he joined the Stanford business faculty. Along with serving as senior associate dean, he was also the Fred H. Merrill Professor of Operations, Information, and Technology.
At the University of Chicago, he plans to use his position to provide the resources required for Booth faculty to maintain areas of strength while focusing on areas identified for growth.
“Our MBA programs are very highly ranked and it takes a lot of work to keep them very highly ranked,” he said. “I also plan to do a lot of engagement of alumni and help ensure that our students find access to a very good network of alums to support them in professional development.”
He hopes that his engineering background will help better prepare students for the real world.
“Engineering is a prescriptive discipline in that people build things to solve real-world problems,” Kumar said. “Not all social sciences are like that. But business has to be run; it can’t just be studied. Engineers have a very healthy appreciation for application, which can only help industry.”