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Stern Faculty Spotlight: Dean Raghu Sundaram

The Oppy is proud and honored to kick off our inaugural Stern Faculty Spotlight with Dean Raghu Sundaram. In addition to being published extensively in various finance and economic academic journals and authoring books on optimization theory and derivatives, Dean Sundaram has led the launch of two one-year MBA programs at Stern and popular initiatives, such as Endless Frontier Labs. Dean Sundaram received his BA in Economics from the University of Madras, an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a PhD in economics from Cornell University. He sat down with The Oppy to discuss Zoom classes, virtual networking, and most importantly, negronis.

In March of 2020 what did you anticipate the biggest challenge of going fully remote would be? And now, looking back, was there anything that pleasantly surprised you about how students and faculty adjusted to the “new normal?” 

We are, first and foremost, an educational institution. By far the most pressing challenge was ensuring that there was no disruption to the education process, that classes met as scheduled, and that student learning and involvement continued. This was a nontrivial task given that we offer hundreds of elective courses and our students had, in the space of a few short days, dispersed to various locations around, not just the country, but the globe. Equally important was doing our best to reach out to students—and our faculty, administrators, and staff—to make sure they were engaged, to devise new ways to build community and network, and, most of all, to ensure they were healthy and well. Thirdly, the lockdown came when many of our students were still looking for internships and jobs, and we had to do our best to keep that momentum going and help them to every extent possible. Then, there was also the need to find ways to maintain the continued engagement and support of our alumni, Board, donors, and other key well-wishers. There were many other challenges, but these were some of the most important immediate ones. 

I wouldn’t say that, after 25 years in this extraordinary institution, I was surprised by it, but undoubtedly the most pleasant aspect of meeting those challenges was the enormous outpouring of support and cooperation from every constituency of Stern—from our students to our faculty, from our staff to our administrators, from our alumni to our Board, in every case, when they were themselves facing serious personal challenges. An abiding memory for me will be one of our senior-most faculty members who went out and bought his first tablet (an iPad) and cheerfully taught himself to teach on it over spring break so he could continue his classes. Emails I will treasure forever include one from a group of MBA students who pointed out that as younger members of the community, they were likely less vulnerable to the virus, and so offered to do grocery runs and any other chores for our faculty and administrators who might feel more threatened. Such generosity of spirit when the pandemic was raging at its worst in NYC truly takes your breath away. And our administrators reacted with out-of-the-box thinking like the creation of Stern Works. There are so many other examples. 

Of the changes that Stern has had to make since last Spring, are there any that you think will be permanent? For example, do you think there will be increased emphasis on online courses going forward?

We are still very much in the pandemic and largely working remotely, so it is difficult to predict what coming out of the pandemic will look like. I personally think that the predictions about the death of the office are vastly overstated. Nonetheless, we have learned an enormous amount concerning remote interaction over the last several months and it is a near-certainty that these will have an impact on how we approach some of our work. 

Let me begin with a seemingly-mundane example. Heading into the pandemic, we were in a world in which our alumni events were held almost exclusively in-person, so necessarily, our focus was on centers that had large alumni populations like New York City or the Bay Area. But over the course of the last several months, we have held virtual alumni events to great success; as just one example, a newly-formed alumni club in Monterrey, Mexico, hosted a virtual event featuring Professor Ed Altman that drew an audience of over 300 from Latin America and around the world. Alumni are the life-blood of any educational institution and this has been an important learning point in our efforts to engage with alumni ever more closely. 

Our Board engagement provided another learning point. Our Board meetings traditionally take  place twice a year, all in-person. Over the pandemic, we started doing Board updates every two months, and because these were virtual meetings, our Board members from London to New York, from California to Hong Kong and Taipei,  were all able to participate, leading to an exceptional degree of involvement of the Board in the School, including around critical initiatives like Stern Works. 

As we come out of the pandemic, we are beginning to examine the lessons learned and are thinking actively about what and how we might change going forward. For example, while we want to ensure a fully in-person class experience for everyone who wants it, we have already had enquiries from some of our working-professional students about whether we will continue to offer at least some remote classes that will enable them to better balance their professional and student lives. We are studying all of these questions in depth.  

Considering the challenges of the online environment and the importance of building a network, how do you think MBAs can make the most of the spring semester?

Networking is an essential part of student life. But we are today in a very different world, one in which the familiar forms of face-to-face interaction are severely curbed. So the question to ask is not “How do I network in the same way one could pre-2019?”, but rather “What is the best way to engage and build a network in the current circumstances?” 

Fortunately, technology is in a very different place from even a few years ago (imagine the last 12 months without Zoom, for example). And using that technology, we have found new ways to interact in every facet of our lives, with colleagues and clients, with family and friends; so, even as the pandemic has taken a severe and tragic toll, there have been unexpected benefits. A colleague told me of how Passover Seder in his household, because of its being virtual this year, brought together not just members of his immediate family (as it normally would have) but cousins and uncles and aunts they would rarely have seen otherwise. A young analyst at a New York bank told me that prior to the pandemic she had never seen or met (except via email and phone calls) the half of her team that was London-based, but now she gets to talk to them almost every day on Zoom and has gotten to know many of them well.  As an institution, I mentioned earlier how Stern has been able to engage alumni across the globe via virtual events. 

None of this is meant to minimize the difficulty of networking in the pandemic. But they indicate possibilities. And, in my mind, the worst thing one can do is to withdraw into familiar routines or into oneself while waiting for the pandemic to end. Life must go on, and we must make best use of the time we have. None of us wants to look back on this period and regret that we did not, when we could have, put more effort into expanding our circle of friends and our horizons. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, as a poet once wrote, the saddest are these: it might have been. 

What do you think vaccine availability will look like for students and faculty in the future via NYU Health?

From the earliest days of the pandemic, NYU has been committed to serving the NYU and broader community in the distribution of the vaccine.  However, it is important to emphasize that NYU is bound by New York State protocols on vaccine distribution and adheres strictly to the rules specified by the State on priority groups and order of vaccination. While supply has been constrained for various reasons over the last several weeks, this has been a nationwide problem, and not just one at NYU. I possess no special knowledge on vaccine availability beyond this that enables me to predict vaccine availability for the NYU Community via NYU Health. So what follows is strictly just my personal opinion. 

As we all know, the Biden Administration announced last week that they were going to order an extra 200 million doses of the vaccine (sufficient for 100 million vaccinations) from Pfizer and Moderna, bringing the total ordered from these two sources to 600 million doses (sufficient for 300 million vaccinations). In addition, the positive news from Novovax and Johnson & Johnson last week concerning the efficacy of their vaccines gives one hope that supply chain problems will ease up and speed up the delivery of the vaccines. 

But, to be sure, many obstacles still lie ahead that make looking too far ahead difficult. Even if vaccines become readily available, we still do not know how long their effects will last; the extent to which they will work against the various variants that have already been identified and the ones yet to come; or whether vaccinated people may still be silent spreaders. And, tragically, many less developed countries are having significant difficulties in obtaining and administering vaccines. But, in my mind, making the vaccine available widely at least locally remains the first and most important step back to any version of normalcy for us. 

The part-time MBA program is one of the best ranked in the country (4th in US News & World Report). What do you think makes it so competitive? What advice would you give to Langone students to make the most of their experience and make it more comparable to full-timers?

Most obviously, it is the talented group of professionals we call our students; input quality is a critical ingredient in making a program successful. But attracting these talented individuals to Stern also requires us to offer them a great educational experience. At Stern, we are fortunate to have not just outstanding faculty on our roster but also to be able to draw from the extraordinary economic ecosystem that surrounds us and call upon that talent as classroom instructors and guest lecturers. 

Langone students have made a careful and conscious decision to keep the requirements of a full-time job with the rigors of pursuing an MBA. This decision necessarily affects the time they have available, and changes the nature of their experience vis-a-vis full-time students who have put their careers on hold. But different does not and should not mean any less enriching. From the School’s standpoint, our responsibility is to give each of our students the support required to make the most of their experience in and out of the classroom, and helping, within the bounds of all that is feasible, to remove obstacles that might hinder this experience. So to every student, I would say this: if you feel there is something we can do better to enhance your experience, tell us. We will listen and respond the best we can. 

And I would repeat two pieces of advice I give to all students when they first arrive (including at Langone Lab) to make the most of their Stern experience. Experiment fearlessly during your period at Stern. Move out of your comfort zone. Take courses in areas with which you have no familiarity. Challenge yourself continuously. Only from such experimentation will you learn what you are good at and what you are capable of. Second, engage as much as possible and then some with your fellow students; the supporting network you develop from this will last you a lifetime.  I cannot count the number of alumni I’ve met who have told me that their closest friends and the most important parts of their network are those from their student days at Stern. 

During your tenure at Stern, you have spearheaded a number of different programs, notably the one-year MBA programs. What inspired you to launch these degrees?

We live in a world of constant and rapid change and face a simple choice: We can either react to that change as it occurs or we can attempt to anticipate it, harness it, and drive it. Stern has always chosen the latter path. We were among the first institutions to recognize the globalizing world and to incorporate it into our programs, from the International Studies Program for our undergraduates to one of the world’s first global Executive MBAs, the TRIUM program. We were among the first to recognize the growing importance of data in business and to launch a Master’s in Business Analytics. We were among the first to recognize the emergence of cryptocurrencies and blockchain and to launch a blockchain course and a Fintech specialization. 

The last few years have seen an especial burst of innovation at Stern in keeping with the increased pace of change in the world. Programmatically, we have seen the introduction of the focused MBAs; the Executive MBA in Washington, DC;  the joint NYU Stern-NYU Shanghai MS programs in data analytics and quantitative finance aimed at pre-experience students; and the online MS in Quantitative Management. In fall 2021, they will be joined by the inaugural class in our new undergraduate degree, the BS in Business, Technology & Entrepreneurship (BTE).  

Each has been motivated by the recognition that business education is today more important than it has ever been and demand has been increasing from non-traditional sources and for non-traditional forms, as with focused MBAs and pre-experience MS degrees. And each has enabled us to shine a spotlight on significant strengths at Stern (analytics, technology, entrepreneurship, fashion and luxury, …) that sometimes get obscured by our overwhelming reputation in Finance. We have seen very strong demand for all of these programs, including, in the very first year of its launch, the BTE degree. Universities have not, traditionally, been the most dynamic of institutions in altering their operating models, but a one-size-fits-all approach works even less well today than it did in the past.  And it behooves business schools, as institutions that talk about innovation and leading change, to model that for our students. 

What is the biggest piece of advice you can give to MBAs graduating this spring?

Never be afraid of change; it is the one constant in this world. Welcome it and direct it to improve the world for the better. Your natural talents, your education and your experience have equipped you well for this. You are graduating during the most unusual period in higher education in memory, a period of great adversity that came on with extreme suddenness and with no playbook on how to deal with it. You have already shown your adaptability and your ability to make the best of a challenge. 

You have led a number of high-profile initiatives in the last couple years such as Endless Frontier Labs and establishing the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. What’s next?

Each of these initiatives, including the EFL and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, is just a launching pad for further work and not an endpoint in itself. The EFL, as with the Andre Koo Tech MBA and the soon-to-be-launched BTE program, is aimed at increasing our connections with the technology and entrepreneurship ecosystems in NY and around the globe, connections that will benefit all of our students. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion was created to lead and coordinate our many efforts as a School around these goals; these efforts run the gamut, from the NYU College and Career Lab aimed at pre-high school students to initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in our faculty. We have achieved many successes, but while we may take some pride in what we have accomplished to date, we remain acutely conscious that there is still a great deal to be done. 

But each of these initiatives also forms part of a larger unfolding narrative at Stern around what it takes to develop the next generation of business leaders. This will require an understanding of technology and its capabilities—and, equally, its limitations and biases; the ability to lead diverse and global teams; to develop sustainable business models; to establish and champion ethical systems; to understand and embrace stakeholder responsibilities; and much more. 

Did you rediscover any old hobbies or pick up any new ones during quarantine?

Regrettably, no. At several points during the pandemic, I tried to consciously steer myself towards old habits like reading (I was once a far more voracious reader than I am today) or to take up new ones in which I’ve long had an interest like making cocktails. But, so far, I must confess, I have met with only limited success; Negronis and Screwdrivers remain the limits of my capability.

Once we are back on campus, what’s the first restaurant in Greenwich that you are going to visit?

Oh my. I’ve so many favorite local places (Altesi Downtown, BondST, Gnocco, Il Posto Accanto, to name just a few…). And, truthfully, when the weather was warmer, I did manage to eat out at several of them, at least at all that were open, though, except twice, I avoided indoor dining. I would like very much to make a round of all of them again when circumstances permit. 

Photo Credit: The Office of the Dean

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