Soumitra Dutta first saw Oxford University through the eyes of a parent, when his daughter began her studies there. But nothing really compares to being cast into the very core of the institution. As the new Dean at the Saïd Business School, he admits the reputation of the wider university was already apparent.
“It’s a pleasure, it’s a privilege, it’s an honour to be part of the whole Oxford experience,” he says. “Oxford is more than a university, it’s the UK’s gift to the world.”
When considering Dutta’s impressive résumé, the choice to take up the position at one of the world’s leading business schools still speaks volumes. Prior to joining Oxford Saïd, Dutta already had an enviable career to look back on.
After graduating in engineering from the prestigious IIT Delhi he completed his Master’s and PhD in Computer Science at Berkeley. He joined INSEAD as the Roald Berger professor of business and technology, before accepting the position as Dean at Cornell’s Johnson School and playing a key role to launch the Cornell-Tech campus in New York.
In addition to a role in President Obama’s White House roundtable with business school deans on effective workforce policies, he has been Vice Chair and Chair of AACSB International, the leading accreditation body for business schools worldwide. He is, by anyone’s standards, a heavyweight in the world of business education.
But Dutta is still overwhelmingly appreciative of the opportunity that Oxford’s Saïd Business School has presented him with, citing (among other things) the fascinating people whose company he has shared in the first six months of his tenure:
“Beyond the impressive physical surroundings that make up the University of Oxford, what you have of course are incredible people. It’s these individuals, after all, that Oxford is truly comprised of. I have met, by sheer chance, presidents of nations, Nobel laureates, the chair of the Man Booker Award, and many professional scientists who have done a variety of fascinating and impactful things. You are guaranteed to come away from these interactions deeply stimulated and inspired.”
The University of Oxford is shoulder to shoulder with the universities of Harvard, Stanford and MIT in the global edition of BlueSky Ranking of Universities 2022/23.
And yet, for all his praise and the many anecdotes from his illuminating first few months at Oxford Saïd, he concedes that Oxford – the university, the brand, the idea – is a difficult a concept to easily summarise. But he’s clear about one thing:
“In a word, the University of Oxford and specifically Saïd Business School are global.”
Dutta’s assessment is certainly accurate. After all, though Oxford Saïd has only recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, the business school already boasts an incredibly international student body.
“If you were to look at one of Saïd’s MBA classes, for example, around 93% of that class hails from outside the UK,” Dutta notes. “And, as such, you have a such wide range of perspectives and experiences. It’s a wonderful thing.”
For the new Dean, the global dimension to Oxford Saïd is so much more than just a talking point. It’s inextricably linked, he says, to the institution’s purpose.
“Globalism is entrenched into the very fibre of Oxford Saïd. It’s nestled deep within the DNA of Oxford. And that international focus, as well as the broad appeal that is highlighted by our diverse MBA cohorts, injects yet another sense of purpose into an already deeply purposeful institution,” he says.
“We are acutely aware of the fact that, for many of the students that travel to Oxford Saïd to study, there is the opportunity for them learn and then return, share with and ultimately change their own countries and regions dramatically. It’s this awareness that pushes us forward.”
Dutta’s global mindset has a natural home at Oxford Saïd and beyond. As an educator and a leader, he is also Chair of the Global Business School Network (GBSN). Borne out of a desire to increase management education capacity in emerging markets, GBSN has a growing network of over 100 leading business schools – including Oxford Saïd – from six continents. Dutta’s big picture thinking is a reflection of both organisations.
“It’s about taking a broader, holistic view,” Dutta explains. “At GBSN, just like at Oxford Saïd, we have the potential to drive real change if we think big, and back thinking up with action.”
Asked to reflect on his leadership roles, Dutta notes that much of the value of international networks, as well as world-leading business schools, lies with their capacity for bridging the execution gap. And, from GBSN’s work with the likes of Johnson & Johnson in Africa, or Oxford Saïd’s collaboration with Goldman Sachs via the schools executive programmes, it’s clear that such bodies can have real impact.
“But”, Dutta asks, “are we doing enough, fast enough?”
“The reality is that business will have to be a clear leader in helping shape the solutions to many major global challenges – not least the challenge of climate change. So the question that I often ask myself is ‘how will we change these organisations, and do so quickly enough? Will they change slowly, too slow in fact for them to make the impact?’”
Soumitra Dutta is clear in his view about the responsibility of business to the wider world around it.
And, he holds equally high expectations of institutions like Oxford Saïd to guide the industry.
“There are two glaringly clear vehicles for change that we can leverage. Firstly, it’s about the graduates we send out into the world. You cannot simply expect an organisation to just change – among other things you must seek to change it from within” he insists.
“And then it’s about leading by example. We too must do better. We have to change the way we operate within the school. It’s crucial that we, as educators, start taking holistic views of those global problems, and addressing them as such. Oxford is uniquely placed in the sense that it can leverage so many fantastic colleges and faculties all under one roof. Cross-discipline collaboration is the way forward. Oxford – whether it be Saïd specifically or the wider university – is particularly good at this kind of collaboration. But we too can improve.”
“We have to work at it structurally, and from an incentive point of view. We need to incentivise collaboration across the system,” Dutta says.
It’s understandable that the Dean holds himself and his colleagues at Oxford Saïd to such a high standard. Whether through the students that arrive from all over the globe in Oxford to study at Saïd, the SMEs that look for support via the school’s executive education department, or the multinational corporations that look to the likes of GBSN for support, Dutta is reminded every day of the impact that a world-leading academic institution can have on so many communities and businesses.
And, he’s often quick to remind Saïd students of their responsibilities as change-makers. “I remind our students and graduates that they are benefiting from, or have benefited from, a unique privilege – an Oxford education. They have learned in the Oxford environment. But, with this privilege comes a tremendous responsibility. At some point in their careers, they will be making decisions that’ll impact the lives of many people, some directly and some indirectly.”
“The decisions they’ll make really will matter. They aren’t just spreadsheet calculations done by some formula, but will address real, human issues, and will impact people in a fundamental manner. Oxford Saïd alumni must be mindful of the impact of their decisions on society, on the environment around them, and keep that in mind as they go about building their careers,” Dutta explains.
A reminder that with all things – achievement, greatness and professional success – comes responsibility to those within and beyond your community.
My conversation with Soumitra Dutta reaffirmed that he is a deeply principled man. But he is also, by his own admission, ‘a dreamer’. And, like anyone else, once that responsibility to be a change-maker is assumed, Dutta is left with an overriding sense of optimism about the future:
“It’s up to us what we want to dream about and what we want that future – whether it be the future of Oxford Saïd or otherwise – to look like.”
“Limits on those dreams are merely what we manufacture ourselves. They’re limitations that we imagine we have. Oxford gives you the right to dream and the right to lead. That’s a very powerful force to have behind you.”