Debasish “Deba” Dutta, an experienced higher education administrator who brought innovation to three national research universities in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, took over this summer as the new chancellor of Rutgers University–New Brunswick. He will oversee the Rutgers flagship, which has more than 42,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. Dutta arrives at a singular time for Rutgers, which, as one of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse universities, is building on the strengths of its first 250 years, embracing the social, economic, and  technological opportunities in higher education. Dutta, who most recently served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue, is eager to provide institutional leadership, promote  innovation, and strengthen academic excellence while he addresses how Rutgers–New Brunswick can meet the needs of the residents of New Jersey, the nation, and the world. Dutta, who also has a faculty appointment as a Distinguished Professor of Engineering, spoke about the opportunities that await him and Rutgers–New Brunswick.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What attracted you to Rutgers?

DEBASISH DUTTA: I have long believed in the promise of public higher education and find the mission of a land-grant institution compelling. The opportunity to lead Rutgers University–New Brunswick, a top public research and land-grant institution, was particularly attractive. As one of the new members of the Big Ten and its academic counterpart, the Big Ten Academic Alliance, Rutgers–New Brunswick has incredible peer institutions to collaborate with and compete against, on the field and off. Rutgers has a vibrant and diverse community, which is exciting to be a part of.

RM: How should Rutgers fulfill its responsibility as a land-grant university in the modern age?

DD: I want Rutgers to be recognized as an exemplar of a 21st-century public land-grant institution: innovation, excellence, and accountability will be our hallmark. We will use technology to increase efficiency and to engage faculty, staff, and students in generating new ideas to experiment with. That means applying the university’s outstanding strengths in serving the public and ensuring access to a full range of educational opportunities for our residents. Land-grant institutions have a profound impact on society. Communication and engagement with external stakeholders will be critically important. 

RM: What is your impression of Rutgers so far?

Chancellor Dutta, accompanied by junior Brittany Gibson, speaks with senior Brian Deutschmeister


Chancellor Dutta, accompanied by junior Brittany Gibson, speaks with senior Brian Deutschmeister outside his fraternity house as part of a meet-and-greet walk at Rutgers University–New Brunswick during the annual Good Neighbor event held at the College Avenue Campus.

Nick Romanenko

DD: In my encounters with the faculty and students, the vibrancy of Rutgers has shown through. We are well positioned to enhance academic excellence and student success. We already have the key ingredients: an outstanding faculty and a committed staff. I see excellent opportunities for deepening collaborations with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences and for developing initiatives in emerging areas of scholarship. I have a lot to see, hear, and learn, and I plan to do that.

RM: What are your top priorities for your first year?

DD: I have three. First, I want to understand the institution and the aspirations of the faculty, staff, and students; I plan to spend the first several months getting to know the culture of the university. Second, it’s important for me to establish relationships with the external  community, legislators, and other  stakeholders because it is vital that we continue to remind the public of the value of higher education, especially of public higher education. And, third, I plan to fill key positions in the university and build my leadership team.

RM: You’re an engineer by training. How does that background influence your thinking as an administrator, and what are your views on the role of the liberal arts and sciences?

DD: I have found that a systems-thinking approach—a deliberative and holistic approach to decision-making, mindful of unintended consequences—is helpful in administration. I also consider context as important as data in decision-making. I am a strong proponent of the liberal arts, viewing them as essential in a comprehensive research university such as Rutgers. In a world that is increasingly shaped by technology, the humanities and arts have a significant role to play. The iPhone, for example, just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it would not be the success it has been if humanistic, artistic, and societal issues were not factored in throughout its development and evolution.

RM: What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education? And how do you plan to address them at Rutgers?

DD: American higher education is facing many challenges. Perceptions from outside the university, like those held by the public and legislators, suggest that the most pressing issues include affordability, student debt, diminished job prospects in some fields, and an unclear value proposition of academic research. Within the institution, the view is different. There has been reduction in state support, increasing competition for research dollars, pressure to reduce facilities and administrative costs, and, in general, a lack of appreciation for the research university as a driver of innovation. The schism is growing, and the erosion of public support and reduction of state and federal funding are of concern. At Rutgers–New Brunswick, we will have to work hard and chart a new course that reexamines long-held assumptions and practices. We must be bold enough to try new ideas that are financially sustainable yet increase student success and academic excellence. It can be done.