Chancellor Dutta Talks Game-Plan, Working on Raising Enrollment

Since the beginning of August, The University of Michigan-Flint’s new Chancellor, Debasish “Deba” Dutta, has been settling into his new role. As UM-Flint’s newest leader, Dutta is faced with addressing concerns over UM-Flint’s declining enrollment rates, its position within the larger University of Michigan ecosystem and continuing the effort to make UM-Flint an equitable and diverse campus. 

While these may seem like daunting tasks, Dutta is taking them in stride. He sees his experience as an administrator within some of the U.S.’s largest universities, like The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University and Rutgers University-New Brunswick, as an advantage. 

In his words, “The core items in a public university are the same.” Dutta believes though the scale he has worked at before is much bigger, a lot of his experiences can be translated effectively into how he manages UM-Flint. 

“So it [UM-Flint] is smaller in size but the key issues, the fundamentals of a public university are no different, no different. And I pay attention to enrollment, we have to turn it around. I pay attention to retention; first year to second year and so forth. And the graduation rates. So my experience in those four public universities; dealing with you know, a lot of first-generation students, a lot of international students, is helping me think about new ways of addressing issues like that here.”

Dutta’s use of enrollment as an example is anything but. Above his desk, as he excitedly showed during the interview, is a single sheet of paper with a chart of UM-Flint’s enrollment over the last six or so years on it.

“It’s right there [the chart], if you see how important that is to me. This is where we were in fall of 2014, 8,574 [students enrolled]. So, how important that is to me? That is the only chart right in front of my eyes. I look at it every day. So, phase one, we will turn it [enrollment] around to reach the same thing, because we were there, we know we can be that campus. There is no question.” 

Dutta’s plans for bringing enrollment back up to the historic 8,574 starts with “phase one”. During this phase, the university will make more concerted efforts to promote and improve upon its more sought-out academic programs for the benefit of the entire school. 

“ … We have to align our academic programs with regional and national needs which leads to higher enrollment and brings in revenues. That allows us to cross-subsidize programs that have lower enrollment but support the core values of this institution.”

Upon first glance, this plan may seem like it consists entirely of throwing money at a problem. In reality, Dutta’s approach is much more deliberate and holistic. On top of keeping a closer eye on academic trends, Dutta wants to ensure all branches of the university, from its colleges to its admissions office, are working concomitantly towards the same goal; to bring up enrollment not only through marketing but also by garnering a deep and shared understanding of UM-Flint’s core values and how those values lend themselves to students. 

During this process, Dutta wants the university to constantly be re-evaluating what it offers to its potential students. Through this sort of monitoring, he believes patterns showing what works and what doesn’t will reveal themselves. 

“ … there will be indicators. How is our scholarship strategy? Is that adequate or not? How are we doing with terms[sic] of marketing our programs in the state? How are we doing in terms of increasing applications from international students? All of these things we have to look at, and we are looking at it.” 

Introspection is only half the plan, however. For Dutta, having an acute sense of how the world perceives UM-Flint is just as important. He believes the UM-Flint name has enough draw to attract out-of-state students, an unconventional but possibly lucrative idea for a regional university with an out-of-state population of less than 3.5% according to UM-Flint’s fall 2018 enrollment numbers. 

“ … I plan to add resources in the recruiting side of things. So, have recruiters in the state of Michigan, in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana … I believe that our programs that we offer are attractive enough and the name of the University of Michigan at Flint has a quality attribute to it that should allow us to build it back to what it was and then have a conversation about where we should be.” 

In keeping with this all-encompassing approach to better enrollment, Dutta talked about his pursuit to understand the unique relationship between the “UM” and “-Flint”. He spent part of his first month in office “trying to meet up with the community leaders to understand the role of University of Michigan-Flint in the city of Flint and vice versa. You know this relationship is so important.”

To Dutta, this relationship is symbiotic. His resolve to support the city of Flint is made stronger by his belief that what is good for the institution is good for the city and vice versa. This is particularly highlighted when he speaks about The Flint Water Crisis.

Not only are the effects [of the water crisis] real, the erosion of trust is even more concerning and will take time to rebuild. It’s the rebuild that UM Flint can and should help with. When I say ‘the water crisis is not really and excuse’ I mean that we at UM-Flint should not use it as an excuse. That is a statement I make to myself as I look in the mirror. If our enrollment goes up, it is good not only for UM-Flint, it is good for Flint, the region and the economy.”

While he believes the crisis should no longer serve as an excuse for UM-Flint’s low enrollment, Dutta does not fail to see the scars the crisis has left and continues to leave. Moreso, he expresses a sense of civil responsibility many members of the UM-Flint community do and should feel. 

As important as enrollment is to Dutta, and it is important, “ … we are working and will continue to work tirelessly until we turn enrollment around,” his plan to fix it is just a drop in the seemingly bottomless bucket that is his job.

For him, looking after students currently enrolled is just as crucial to the flourishing of UM-Flint as bringing in new ones. Unfortunately, that is no easier of a task.

A common sentiment within the university, one that has been parodied by students since before the water crisis, is the idea of UM-Flint as a first step–a jumping board to help get where you want to end up. In other words, a place to start, not finish. 

I want to change that. I want to change that. Absolutely. I want to change that … I need to understand why that is the case … If we have served you for two years and then you choose to go somewhere else, absolutely fine. But what I would like to do is to make sure that you are not leaving for a reason that I could have addressed … I will want to address it.

“So one thing is the campus life maybe. Which by being more of a commuter institution, less of residential life, it changes the campus culture. We have to do better at that. There are many ways by which we can embrace students, faculty and staff, to create a vibrancy on this campus” 

Campus life, however, is not his only focus when it comes to bettering the campus culture. A long-time advocate of diversity on campuses, Dutta, who served as chief diversity officer at Purdue, wants to continue building and improving upon UM-Flint’s culturally and educationally diverse community. To him, being able to address the topic of diversity starts with understanding two key components.

“One is to be able to create an environment where you have that the diversity that the real world is composed of, right? Because this is an educational environment … You are being educated and your ideas are being formed not only in the classroom but outside the classroom. So who you interact with, who you connect with, who you work in team projects with are as much a part of what you learned inside the classroom.”

Making sure there is a diverse presence on campus is important to Dutta, but keeping track of percentages and focusing on hiring and recruiting diverse UM-Flint members is not enough. To him, that is just the numbers part of it.

“Equally important but probably more important is inclusivity. Just having a diverse student body in the classroom is not enough. By inclusivity, I mean that I have created an environment where every student from whatever group … feels included, empowered to speak up, to act, to share his or her views … Without inclusivity, you don’t get the benefits of diversity.” 

To Dutta, the process of promoting true diversity and inclusivity is a never-ending one. Much like with his plans for enrollment, he believes constant re-assessment regarding diversity will help highlight places where the university can improve. 

“And then I’m sure in some areas it [diversity] will look good. In other areas it will not and then we have work to do. But the point is that this has to be front and center a topic of conversation. You can’t put it [on] the back burner. It is not a destination. It is not something that; ‘Okay, we have done that.’ No. If you take your eyes off of it you will lose ground.”

While improving enrollment and retention rates will inherently bring benefits to campus, Dutta’s goals go beyond that of raising university revenue and improving campus culture. He wants to take UM-Flint’s potential, the potential so many claim to see but so few manage to harness, and turn it into kinetic energy, momentum. 

When looking at UM-Flint, Dutta sees an institution that can benefit the city of Flint, an institution that through its focus on educating can spawn innovators, entrepreneurs and community leaders.

“ … the calling card of this institution could be entrepreneurial and innovation. We are tied to the community, creating new opportunities through new businesses, social entrepreneurship, technical entrepreneurship … This institution is the economic engine of this region. And that is the potential that I feel I am seeing.”

As for how he will get there, the details were vague. It is clear Dutta has a concrete vision for this potential but based on his current explanation, the path to that vision is still being determined. 

“There will be goals and there will be [a] timeline and there will be metrics that we will measure on an annual basis against our goals. Are we making appropriate progress on an annual basis? Yes? Good. If not, why? Make the change we need. So if you create a plan, a strategic plan and if you have milestones on an annual basis and you benchmark against those you should be able to tell that yes, you are making the right progress.”

While not everything is clear to Dutta, just yet, he is being proactive with his approach. He inherited the leading role in an institution that in the last decade went from being the state’s fastest-growing university to a university facing a steady decline over the last five years. 

He left the University of Michigan in 2009, after having worked there for 20 years. During that time, he was under the employ of some of the country’s most prestigious institutions. Despite this, when given the opportunity to return home, Dutta did just that. 

“Leaving the University of Michigan 10 years ago made me realize how good an institution it is … I shouldn’t have to say this but oftentimes when you don’t have it you realize … how good it was, right? So I have been at four different institutions all in the Big Ten and University of Michigan is right at the top. The respect that others have, the quality that it projects, is remarkable. It’s enviable. I’m going back to the University of Michigan … It’s for me, homecoming.” 

As Dutta put it, this is a homecoming. He is returning to his roots. And with that comes the most sacrosanct (depending on who you ask) of all University of Michigan traditions: attending football games. When asked if he’d be rooting for Michigan during the September 28 game against Rutgers, Dutta had this to say: 

“Absolutely. There is no question. Look, I mean even when I was at Rutgers we came here for the game … You cannot hide the fact that I am … a Michigan guy.”