Kumble Subbaswamy: the viable, undeterred UMass leader under review

By Nick Canelas

Kumble Subbaswamy smiles at his introductory news conference as UMass chancellor in 2012. (Collegian File Photo)
Kumble Subbaswamy smiles at his introductory news conference as UMass chancellor in 2012. (Collegian File Photo)

Kumble R. Subbaswamy is three years into his chancellorship at the University of Massachusetts. By next fall, nearly all undergraduates will have never known another leader.

Three years isn’t long. But in that time the University has experienced various change and controversy, and made headlines for reasons both positive and negative.

And yet Subbaswamy is still a mysterious figure. Many within the UMass community still only know him through his prepared statements that appear when something noteworthy occurs.

Now, Subbaswamy is under the spotlight. As is the case with all University figureheads per Board of Trustees policy, a committee appointed by President Robert Caret in March evaluated the chancellor’s performance thus far. The results are still unknown. However, the events that have occurred during his brief tenure give them plenty to work with.

Perhaps it’s also time for a more public review, with Subbaswamy’s analysis at the forefront.
The chancellor agreed to an hour-long sit-down with the Daily Collegian with the only restriction being the duration of the conversation. It gave him the opportunity to candidly assess the state of the University three years into his tenure, and provide a glimpse into how his background prepared him for this position.

***

The entrance to the chancellor’s office stands out among the white plainness of the Whitmore Administration Building halls.

The University seal, which rests on a wall beyond the desk where a student-receptionist sits, invites all visitors into the lobby at the end of a long hallway. The lobby’s polished wooden doors are wide open, and their dark color shines in the bright light.

Beyond the lobby is another sleek, wooden door around the left-hand corner of the entrance. This one is also open, and houses the chancellor’s assistant, who can be heard making and taking calls on Subbaswamy’s behalf. She’s welcoming and pleasant, and phones Ed Blaguszewski, the University’s head of News and Media Relations, to inform him the chancellor’s visitor has arrived, albeit 20 minutes early.

It’s a Friday afternoon in early April, and Amherst is experiencing its first spring-like temperatures since a bitter winter struck the Commonwealth. Two days earlier, Subbaswamy was in Boston attending Board of Trustees meetings as well as fundraising gatherings associated with the University’s alumni and donors. The next day was spent at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield discussing collaboration and efforts to benefit the regional economy.

On this day, the chancellor is back in his roost. At 1:02 p.m., Subbaswamy emerges. He is short in stature and of moderate build, but his presence is hulking and his enthusiasm is evident as he enters the lobby with quick, energetic steps. Wearing a gray suit with a white button-down shirt, maroon tie and a UMass Amherst pin on his left lapel, he leads his guest into his office with Blaguszewski, who serves as “timekeeper” for this meeting, in tow.

Subbaswamy’s office is spacious. At first glance, there’s a Minutemen welcome mat and a long meeting table surrounded by chairs with a tall bookshelf in the back corner behind it. To the left of the door is a three-cushioned sofa with a small end table on the far side, which faces an L-shaped desk occupied by two raised flat-screen monitors.

The chancellor takes an immediate interest in his student-reporter-guest, asking about his major and post-graduation plans. He’s also not afraid to show humor either, bringing up a satire piece in the Collegian’s April Fool’s edition in which he’s depicted as an irritable resident outraged at the University’s decision to ban all guests in residence halls after noontime Super Bowl Sunday.

“That was funny, by the way,” he says.

Subbaswamy, who acquaintances refer to as “Swamy,” is a well-known resident of western Massachusetts, but as is with many in power, his name is heard almost exclusively in the midst of crisis, something the University hasn’t been short of during Subbawamy’s three years as chancellor.

“Someone described being the head of a university like this like being a mayor. So in that sense, it comes with the territory.” — Kumble Subbaswamy

He inherited a football program under sharp scrutiny for its costly move to Football Bowl Subdivision, was bombarded with phone calls as students participated in “riotous behaviors and celebrations” off campus in the now well-known “Blarney Blowout” and dealt with severe public criticism following the University’s decision to stop admitting Iranian nationals into certain science and engineering programs based on its interpretation of a 2012 law. Those are a few among the many.

From the outside, it looks like a public relations nightmare. But Subbaswamy, who is humbled by his upbringing and educational background, says certain challenges come naturally with running a large state university.

“Someone described being the head of a university like this like being a mayor,” he said. “So in that sense, it comes with the territory.”

Subbaswamy is private, remaining proprietary about life outside the chancellorship. But he’s also outgoing and open about the state of the University under his watch, addressing all aspects.

He sits upright and moves his hands wildly as he speaks. He provides an understanding of his roots, his passion for education and how it’s led to three years worthy of dissection.

***

Subbaswamy was born in Bangalore, Karnataka, a populous metropolitan city in South India, to a middle-class family that instilled the value of education at a young age. To live any kind of quality life, he said, you needed an education.

He was raised with what he called a traditional Hindu upbringing. That meant a detachment from material worth and a fundamental belief in doing what’s right.

“I don’t want to sound philosophical or anything like that, but if I would say there’s one thing that is completely internalized in me is you do the right thing and let the consequences fall where they do,” Subbaswamy said. In other words, he said, the decisions he makes will not always garner the most praise, but will always be what he believes are in peoples’ best interest.

Those qualities have proven invaluable during his UMass tenure. He said he’s naturally inclined to look at the big picture, and humble enough to handle big egos –which he said are common working in education – without letting his own interfere.

Before the chancellorship ever crossed his mind, Subbaswamy aspired to be a research physicist. This inspiration came as early as high school, when his physics teacher, Raghavendra Rao, introduced him to the subject in a way that was both interesting and enjoyable.

“You could tell that this physics teacher was truly excited by the discipline and being able to convey excitement,” he said with his own dose of fervor.

Rao’s enthusiasm was contagious for Subbaswamy. He saw a beauty in applying mathematics in order to make predictions on physical phenomena, such as how high a ball will bounce. The unknown in the world fascinates him. He’s always in pursuit of knowledge and discovering solutions.

***

When asked what a normal day is like as the chancellor of the state’s flagship university, Subbaswamy bursts into laughter.

“Normal is an interesting word,” Blaguszewski quips

Subbaswamy meets with Gov. Charlie Baker in a December presentation hosted by the University.(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Kumble Subbaswamy meets with Gov. Charlie Baker in a December presentation hosted by the University.           (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

The reality is, there’s no such thing as a normal day. Most days are calendar driven. They consist of an array of meetings – faculty meetings, strategic planning meetings, meetings with student groups – as well as budgetary decisions and other revisions that get presented to him on a daily basis. Perhaps more than half of Subbaswamy’s time, he said, is on external matters such as meeting with the University’s leading alumni and most supportive donors, as well as meeting with business leaders to discuss collaboration with companies on research and outreach projects.

“It’s a broad range of issues that can change from hour to hour,” he said. “At once it’s exciting and at the same time exhausting because you’re changing directions in so many ways.”

Subbaswamy likens his job to being a “cheerleader-in-chief,” serving as the primary promoter of the University and its best interests. It’s his job, he said, to make those within the institution feel good about where they are by highlighting the positives and minimizing the negatives.

“In that sense, it’s the job of a conductor, the job of a cheerleader – all those rolled into it,” he said.

He’s also involved with every major decision that’s made on campus, such as facilitating which departments would be housed in the new Integrated Learning Center that opened last fall. He was appointed by the Board of Trustees to have the final say in such procedures.

He’s also involved in collaboration with other sectors – such as student affairs and academic affairs – in making major decisions such as the unpopular guest policy for the Super Bowl.

“A lot of routine decisions get made within those parts, but if there is, say, a policy where we want to not allow visitors for that weekend, that’s a collective decision,” he said. “We get together and say, ‘What are the pros? What are the cons? What are we trying to achieve? What is the message? Have we consulted with students?’ And then decide the right way to proceed in order to establish the institution’s reputation and safety.”

Perhaps the part of Subbaswamy’s job that gets the most play publicly is managing situations of crisis and putting out fires, which he’s experienced plenty of over the last three years.

“In that sense, it’s the job of a conductor, the job of a cheerleader – all those rolled into it.” — Kumble Subbaswamy

However, he said that’s something that more than 40 years in the United States’ education system has prepared him for.

***

Subbaswamy reflects nostalgically on his anxious arrival in the U.S. and how quickly he was ready to return home and never come back.

“I think if I had had enough money, I probably would’ve gone back home,” he said with a laugh.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, according to Subbaswamy, one’s only option to pursue a research career in science was to go abroad. For Subbaswamy, that meant leaving for America – specifically Indiana University– at just 20 years old after receiving his master’s degree from Delhi University in 1971.

He had never flown before taking off for Bloomington, Indiana, and experienced jetlag and loneliness in the 48 hours after checking into his residence hall, never leaving the room once he moved in. He didn’t know anyone, didn’t know what he could and couldn’t eat, didn’t know what he could and couldn’t afford and although he knew English, it was a second language he said he wasn’t fluent in.

“I really felt lost,” he said.

Subbaswamy overcame the initial adjustment period socially once the semester began. He made friends who welcomed him into their homes and introduced him to American culture. He was appreciative of their friendliness and became more comfortable with his surroundings.

But there was a significant educational adjustment as well, although that was for the better. He never strayed from what he wanted to do, but learned under a far different system from the undergraduate level in India.

The system in India, he said, was based on memory and consisted of one exam at the end of the academic calendar in which one was expected to regurgitate the information given. Subbaswamy called the U.S. educational template at the time a “what-have-you-learned-based system, which means you actually solved some problems and not just derived some things that you learned in school.”

His educational experience, gave him an appreciation for what America offered.

“I think you almost have to come from somewhere else to really realize what an asset for this country the educational system is, especially the research universities in terms of all the impact that they have not only to undergraduate education and the workforce, but the research output and the cultural capital they provide for the community,” he said.

Subbaswamy’s appreciation for academics led him to a career in education – along with his research – that is still ongoing. His titles have ranged from research assistant, to professor, to department chair and to dean at the University of Kentucky, University of Miami and Indiana. Most recently, he served as provost at Kentucky from 2006 to 2012.

He calls his interests eclectic, which has carried him through different positions during his career.

“For someone like me, it was almost inevitable that I ended up being a dean, being a provost and so forth because I had the opportunity to have a close encounter with and help shape a range of fields,” he said.

Those interests only grew stronger when the chancellor’s post at UMass became vacant.

***

Ernest May is no stranger to university leaders.

May, a music professor who serves as secretary of the faculty senate, has worked with about a dozen chancellors in his nearly 40 years at UMass, all of whom had ranging personalities and priorities. No greater contrast between chancellors exists than the one between Subbaswamy and his predecessor, Robert Holub.

Robert Holub announced in 2011 that he would step down as UMass chancellor following the 2011-12 academic year. (Collegian File Photo)
Robert Holub announced in 2011 that he would step down as UMass chancellor following the 2011-12 academic year. (Collegian File Photo)

Holub was a brash character who, if he had an idea, May said, would implement without consultation. He had his eye on big ideas designed to bring flare to the University, which is evident in the new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Complex and Integrated Learning Center. Those ribbons were cut by Subbaswamy, but made possible by Holub.

With that desire for glory came an arrogance that frustrated many working within UMass, and severed relationships between the campus administration and constituencies, the Board of Trustees and local legislators, just to name a few. Other plans, such as building a medical school in Springfield and the reorganization of the colleges, received significant pushback. But Holub’s mind was already made by then.

“Holub was very much centralized,” May said. “If he heard in his brain it was a good idea, it happened and he was not consultative at all.”

Richard Bogartz, a psychology professor who serves as presiding officer on the faculty senate, loathed Holub’s chancellorship so much that just saying his name evokes emotion.

“Ordinarily I don’t speak (Holub’s) name, but in this context I apparently have to,” he said.

Bogartz is seated low to the ground in his small office in Tobin Hall, tucked beneath the clutter of papers sprawled throughout his desk and the towering bookshelves masking the walls. But when prompted to speak of Holub’s tenure in Amherst, Bogartz, who was barely visible above the desk before, suddenly took over the room, his passion and animosity fueling his explanation of the former University leader.

“Holub, at faculty senate meetings, when he thought things might not go his way, would brag that he and the then-provost (James Staros) together, between them, had 50 years at universities,” Bogartz said. “So by virtue of that experience we ought to go along with them.

“He felt he could speak any way to anyone because he’s the chancellor, and so he did.”

In September 2010, a report in The Boston Globe indicated only half of UMass students graduate in four years. The article, titled, “At UMass, top rung remains out of reach,” signified dark times in Amherst. The University was hindered by years of pay cuts, the old buildings and facilities made the campus visually unappealing, and many of the top students in the state were opting to pay more money to attend out-of-state schools, believing it would provide them a better education, according to the report.

“Holub was very much centralized. If he heard in his brain it was a good idea, it happened and he was not consultative at all.” — Ernest May

Holub’s egotism coupled with the University’s troubles highlighted in the Globe proved detrimental to the former chancellor. That following summer, Holub announced he would step down after the 2011-12 academic year amid reports that a committee charged with evaluating his performance had given him a negative review and recommended that his contract not be renewed.

That opened the door for Subbaswamy.

***

Subbaswamy has made many stops throughout America since immigrating for graduate school, but never visited New England until 2011. He hoped to change that when the chancellor’s post became available at UMass. Education, research and outreach, Subbaswamy said, are practices he values. And the chancellorship embodied all of those elements.

On March 26, 2012, the Board of Trustees unanimously elected Subbaswamy to be the 30th chancellor in University history. He officially took over July 1 of that year.

“This is just my calling. I think it’s almost like everything I’ve done prior to this has been preparation for a position like this,” he said.

Subbaswamy made it his primary initiative to restore the relationships and trust lost under Holub, and has done so in a way that has been all-inclusive, according to May. He’s been a breath of fresh air to those who’ve interacted with each of the last two chancellors.

“He’s intended to be much more collaborative, much more inclusive and he doesn’t care how long it takes,” May said. “He’s really striving for consensus, which is really hard to get in a place this big.”

Subbaswamy’s approach to change has also differed from Holub’s. The University needed time to absorb and adjust to the initiatives Holub laid forth for both budgetary and identity reasons, May said, and Subbaswamy has afforded that by gearing his focus toward undergraduate education. It’s an approach unprecedented among past chancellors, according to May.

“He’s the chancellor who’s by far the most focused on the quality of undergraduate education of any of the chancellors I have served under,” he said.

One of the major undergraduate initiatives, May said, was making sure students could get into required courses without long waiting lines. That meant expanding on the number of faculty when necessary, and in turn, the number of courses available to students. May said Subbaswamy is trying to give “equal weight” to investments between undergraduate education as well as graduate education and research.

“Not every chancellor has shared those priorities,” he said.

“This is just my calling.” — Kumble Subbaswamy

According to Bogartz, the contrast between Subbaswamy and Holub is most visible during faculty senate meetings, which take place about once per month. As chancellor, Subbaswamy is the president of the faculty senate. Yet he always raises his hand and asks permission to speak at meetings. He’s always receptive to people’s suggestions, and respects any objections to his own ideas.

“He just emanates respect for everyone around him,” Bogartz said, later adding, “His predecessor wasn’t aware of those things.”

Bogartz listed on a yellow notepad all of Subbaswamy’s qualities that have stood out to him the most. He noted his respect, honesty and knowledge. Most importantly, Bogartz said, the chancellor has followed through on his initiatives over the past three years, highlighting Subbaswamy’s creation of a joint task force for strategic planning and his push for a more transparent resource allocation plan as some of his strongest movements.

“When he sets up a plan,” Bogartz said, “it’s followed through.”

***

When interviewing for the job, Subbaswamy said the message that “came through loud and clear” was the feeling among students, particularly the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate, that there wasn’t enough communication and openness between the administration and the student body. He’s made it a point to be transparent in regards to decision-making and consulting in the last three years.

According to Vinayak Rao, who served as SGA president over the last academic year, Subbaswamy has largely fulfilled that promise. Rao has worked with the chancellor more than any other undergraduate this year, meeting with him to discuss various issues, and has been a beneficiary to the chancellor’s all-inclusive manner.

But, he’s encountered instances where the chancellor left students uninformed on certain decisions.

“He can always do more, but I would say he’s achieved it to the best of his ability,” he said.

Vinayak Rao (left) and Kumble Subbaswamy (right) attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Integrated Learning Center in December. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Vinayak Rao (left) and Kumble Subbaswamy (right) attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Integrated Learning Center in December. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

The University announced in mid-February that it would no longer admit Iranian national students into certain
graduate programs in the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences to avoid violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The decision was effective Feb. 1.

According to Rao, who said he didn’t find out about the policy until it was posted on the UMass website, students, including himself, were not consulted when the decision was initially made. However, it was Subbaswamy’s action thereafter that stuck with the president.

Rao met with Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Enku Gelaye and Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone shortly after the decision was announced to discuss his issues with the policy. Rao never reached out to Subbaswamy, but learned from Gelaye that the chancellor intended join this discussion before an emergency forced him to change his plans. He sent his apologies to Rao.

“Here I am. I didn’t ask the chancellor a single question about this; I didn’t speak to him about this,” Rao said. “That’s how much he puts students ahead – it took an emergency to not come in. That speaks to his character.”

Subbaswamy reached out to the SGA in subsequent meetings, seeking student input in the discussion. Less than a week after the decision went public, the University announced a revision to the policy that admits Iranian students into science and engineering programs with individualized study plans to meet the requirements of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012.

“It meant a lot to me,” Rao said of Subbaswamy’s collaboration with the students. “It showed me that he really wanted to set the record straight and take the fault for what happened, although I’m sure there were multiple people involved in that decision. He’s the one who claimed responsibility for it and that’s what a true leader does.”

Looking back two months later, Subbaswamy admitted he wished he handled the situation differently.

“It was done in a fairly compressed time frame with various decisions that had timelines,” he said. “I wish I had done more consultation before coming to that point and more independent checking with how other institutions were handling some of the regulatory burden.”

The situation was damaging to the University from a publicity standpoint. However, the way the chancellor acknowledged his mistake, revisited the situation and calmly managed the crisis stood out to those involved with the University, particularly Rao and May. May, in fact, used it as a prime example of what most separates Subbaswamy from Holub without naming the former chancellor specifically.

“No administrator is going to be free of making mistakes,” he said. “The question is how you handle those mistakes. Something like the Iranian student admission thing, Swamy did the right thing.

“There are chancellors who wouldn’t have handled it that way. They would’ve said, ‘No, we’ve made our decision. This is it.’ I would say the flexibility to recognize when something is going awry and to fix it is a hallmark of an excellent chancellor.”

***

Subbaswamy’s openness is a pleasant surprise. He was prepared to discuss the troubling events and controversial decisions that have clouded his brief tenure at UMass. Before each answer, he nods his head and occasionally adds light laughter before he provides protracted answers.

Damage control is part of the job, but the publicity that these occurrences received make crisis seem as common in Amherst as homework and exams. Arrests, protests and unrest are commonplace in some respects, but social media only heightens the attention when things go disastrously.

That couldn’t be more evident in the events during and after “Blarney Blowout” on March 8, 2014, when 55 people were arrested following the pre-St. Patrick’s Day off-campus drinking event. The event made national headlines as pictures of the large gatherings and the various arrests made by police, who were clad in riot gear and equipped with pepper spray in an attempt to disperse the crowd, circulated through social media.

At this time, Subbaswamy was receiving calls from student affairs and the University’s media office, which were explaining the situation to him. He followed by asking himself a series of questions, such as who to call and how to contain the situation, and what statement needed to be released.

He responded with an email to students: “I want to make it unequivocally clear that the University of Massachusetts Amherst condemns the outrageous behavior of those students who acted out without any regard for public safety and the community in which they live. They have brought shame on our fine university and run the risk of devaluing the college degree that all of our students work so hard to achieve.”

The magnitude of the situation, Subbaswamy said, determines the course of action. The widespread scope of the 2014 “Blarney Blowout” was due to the impact social media, which in turn increased the damage control.

“The whole thing happened over a two-hour period. By the end of the afternoon everything was back to normal here,” he said. “There was a general assumption by people who just saw those pictures that there was some huge rioting going on and that the campus was in great unrest. Parents or relatives or even my own friends in Los Angeles who would call and say, ‘Is everything OK?’”

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Next on Subbaswamy’s mind was how to learn from the experience and make sure it didn’t happen again. The University called in Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis to conduct a thorough review on how the incident was handled, and offer advice to both Amherst and campus police on how to manage large-scale events in the future.

The University took significant measures to ensure last year’s events wouldn’t be repeated this year. Planning sessions were put in place well in advance of March 7, when this year’s “Blarney Blowout” was scheduled, and Subbaswamy was constantly updated on the progress of these meetings. Students, who were interviewed as part of the Davis report, played a critical part of that preparation, according to Blaguszewski.

The result of these planning sessions was a campus-wide guest and parking ban on campus for the entire weekend of March 7, and a free “Bring the Spring!” concert set for that day at the Mullins Center, featuring popular acts such as Kesha and Ludacris.

While the strict policy was met with criticism amongst students, the measures proved successful as the crowds were small and only six arrests were made. The hope, Subbaswamy said, is to change the culture at the University and introduce the next generation of students to a campus free of rowdy celebrations the weekend before spring break.

But has a precedent been set for how this weekend will be handled in the future?

Not necessarily. According to Subbaswamy, the next generation of students may not require such strict policies if the awaited expectations from them are met. The chancellor, however, didn’t rule out making the concert an annual event.

“Having a concert that particular weekend before spring break may be a good thing because you dig out of winter such of what we had this past winter,” he said. “I think students may need an outlet such as that.

“Certain things may be necessary. The huge expectation of trying to call on police may not be necessary, the curfew may not be necessary, we’ll evaluate. But I’m confident that in a matter of a couple of seasons we will change expectations of student behavior because students themselves have come forward and said, ‘We want this to change.’”

***

Perhaps Subbaswamy’s greatest challenge has been cleaning up messes he didn’t make. The biggest one being the football program he was handed.

The University invested millions to move the program to FBS – the highest level of college football – starting in 2012, and has received significant pushback from a number of faculty members. Some have been outspoken about this opposition for the program, such as Max Page, a professor of agriculture and history who serves on the program’s Ad Hoc Committee. Others have quietly supported the program’s elimination.

Kumble Subbaswamy joins newly hired athletic director Ryan Bamford (left)  at his introductory press conference in March. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
Kumble Subbaswamy helps introduce newly hired athletic director Ryan Bamford (left) in March.                         (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Subbaswamy recognizes the mixed feelings toward the program. But it’s clearly begun to wear on him. In December, the chancellor spoke passionately in defense of the issue when the committee spoke at a faculty senate meeting, and stormed out in frustration. The message was clear at the time and is still clear now: Subbaswamy’s tired of defending, and debating, a decision made by the chancellor before him.

“Just having to spend so much time containing something that I didn’t create is a little frustrating,” he said.

An even greater dilemma occurred when The Boston Globe published a story in September about a UMass student and campus police informant who died of a heroin overdose in his off-campus apartment in October 2013.

The Globe report revealed the student had been caught selling LSD and the club drug Molly a year before his death. Instead of punishing the student, campus police offered to keep the crime a secret if the student became a confidential informant.

The program was in place before Subbaswamy arrived at UMass. But he was at the forefront of questions about whether the University did enough to help the student struggling with addiction.

The chancellor was aware of the Globe story before it came out, and met with Rao to explain to him what the situation was. He asked for his input on the situation, which helped lead to the review of the program, its suspension and its official end in January.

“He takes advice and he listens,” Rao said.

***

Gelaye is in some ways a reflection of the man who hired her. She is unassuming, yet confident in her role. Pleasant, yet mindful of her authority. As the vice chancellor of student affairs, students are her No. 1 priority. That’s apparent as a pair of students exit her office as she welcomes another student-guest in.

Gelaye, who was one of Subbaswamy’s first major hires at UMass, works directly with the chancellor on a regular basis. She’s part of his “leadership team” that includes vice chancellors, Provost Katherine Newman and other members of the administration. This group discusses policy, approaches and relevant events at the University.

Gelaye also meets one-on-one with the chancellor, who’s her direct supervisor. They discuss what’s happening in student affairs and assure her goals are in line for the University’s direction. She’s seen Subbaswamy’s commitment to students firsthand. Not only through policymaking and strategic planning, but also through interaction with those he meets.

One pleasure Gelaye finds in her job comes at the start of the academic year, when parents move their first-year students into their new, temporary homes. Always present is Subbaswamy, interacting with parents and students in the parking lot while handing out lunches as they pass by. What Gelaye often finds is parents know who Subbaswamy is before they come to campus and are excited to meet him.

“It blows my mind,” Gelaye said.

Kumble Subbaswamy speaks at the Dash & Dine event on April 11. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Kumble Subbaswamy speaks at the Dash & Dine event on April 11 as Massachusetts Senate President Stanley Rosenberg looks on. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Gelaye has joined the chancellor in lunches with students on multiple occasions. He asks students, “How’s life on campus?” with no expectation of positive feedback. In fact, hearing students’ concerns is preferred, Gelaye said.

“It’s not about adoring your leadership or giving your leadership a sense of reality,” she said. “We’ve got to have a complete picture of what life is like for students.”

Subbaswamy’s commitment to students shows in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, where UMass has improved its mark from No. 52 to No. 30 among public universities from 2010 to 2014, and moved from No. 91 to No. 76 nationally in the last year. According to the Princeton Review, the University has improved its four-year graduation rate to 80 percent.

Beyond the statistics, Gelaye said the chancellor’s generated excitement around the University. She’s seen that excitement through the search committees she’s participated in, where prospective faculty members apply because they want to work with Subbaswamy. It’s also present through the confidence parents and students express to her toward the direction of the University.

“I don’t think there are words to capture how important that is for a campus,” she said. “Even though we’ve had a lot of difficult issues to contend with, there’s a lot of confidence in his ability to manage these issues and make decisions that are good for the University in the long run.”

***

Rao’s tenure as SGA president has concluded. One of the final contributions he was asked to make to the University was to serve on the review committee appointed by Caret. This committee led a series of discussions with various constituents on campus, seeking honest opinion and evaluation from those it spoke to in order to form a proper assessment of Subbaswamy’s three years as chancellor.

Negativity was hard to find.

“It’s amazing,” Rao said. “A majority of the feedback we received was extremely positive.”

Rao wouldn’t provide further details of the review given its confidentiality. However, the outlook appears good for the chancellor, despite the criticism the University has been subject to the last three years.

“Swamy is what you might call a servant leader,” May said. “He’s a humble man, he’s not a politician, he’s not a brilliant orator, he’s a person who actually does things. … He’s a workhorse, not necessarily a show horse.”

Kumble Subbaswamy spoke at Tedx Amherst on Sunday. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Kumble Subbaswamy co-hosted TedxAmherst on Sunday. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Bogartz declined to provide criticisms of Subbaswamy for this story.   To him, it’s too important that he paint the chancellor in the best light possible. With that being said, he expects nothing short of a glowing review from the committee.

“The only possible thing I could imagine where he wouldn’t be reappointed is if they had some political reason to put their own man in,” Bogartz said. “Then it doesn’t matter how good he’s been. They can put their man in. That’s not unheard of in politics.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen. I would bet heavily against it, but you never know.”

“He’s vision-driven,” Gelaye said. “What I’ve noticed about whatever we’re doing, whatever situation we’re in, whether it’s a day-to-day question or a crisis, is that he’s very grounded in his approach.”

When asked for his thoughts on the review, Subbaswamy dismisses the possibility of concern. Not because he’s confident he’ll have his contract renewed, but because he said he’s concerned with good of the University. He’s concerned with fulfilling his desire to be a “change agent” for social justice. He’s concerned with meeting the goals he set three years ago.

“When you get to a position like this, you do what you do because you’re trying to make the institution better,” he said. “You take a job like this with a longer-term goal than, ‘I want to get renewed.”

This mentality, he said, goes back to his upbringing. He has an obligation to put UMass first. He acknowledges that reality, citing the characteristics that were instilled in him early in his life – that detachment from material desires – as the foundation for his work.

“He’s vision-driven. What I’ve noticed about whatever we’re doing, whatever situation we’re in, whether it’s a day-to-day question or a crisis, is that he’s very grounded in his approach.” — Enku Gelaye

He did, however, offer one dose of reflection on his tenure thus far.

“I feel really good about the three years looking back,” he said. “From what I hear from the various sectors of the University and having just gone through the review, I feel very good. I think we as a community feel pride in ourselves and I think UMass Amherst is in a really strong position compared to four years ago.”

***

The conversation nears its end. Subbaswamy wraps up his thought and Blaguszewski stops the question-and-answer cadence and holds out five fingers to alert both sides that, surprisingly, the hour is almost up.

This is the final chance to learn more about the chancellor, who, as outgoing and personable as he may be, remains reserved about his life outside the chancellorship. When asked about his personal life, he dodges any particulars.

“This job has so many different features to it, including participating in arts events, sports events, seminars and the reading I have to do to keep up with what’s going on in a book somebody writes within the faculty,” he says. “My job has sort of integrated into the entertainment aspect as well.”

He admits to having interests outside his work, such as being by the ocean, food, music and most importantly relaxation. He keeps his family close to the vest. He has a wife, Mala, and two grown children – a daughter, Apurva, and son, Adarsh. He reveals little about them and discourages their involvement in this story, requesting to keep them a private part of his life.

When the time is up, Subbaswamy is back to making small talk with his guest, discussing the weather among other topics. Then he makes his way back to the L-shaped desk, once again walking sprightly. His eyes will soon be fixated on the monitor in front of him, mind away from any potential distractions.

Soon, he will learn just what his peers think of his performance over three years; whether or not he, as he put it, “checked all the boxes” listed when he inherited a University trending downward. But to concern himself with that wouldn’t be in line with the values he proudly grew up with. Past decisions can’t be changed. Public perception can’t be controlled. The review is over, results permanent.

Subbaswamy has meetings to schedule, events to attend and a University to lead. Everything else in his mind is secondary. As the door closes and he disappears from view, he’s already on to what’s next.

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.