Wharton to Overhaul MBA Program

Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson

Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson

Wharton will soon unveil a new MBA curriculum, the result of a year’s worth of study and work by the faculty, according to Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson. The school’s faculty is expected to vote on the change in November so that the changes could be implemented next fall for the Class of 2013.

“They are looking at the total experience: the culture, the content and the structure of our program,” says Robertson. “There has to be more of a focus on managing under ambiguity and the importance of ethical behavior.” The overhaul will be informed by what Robertson calls his three pillars, having to do with driving innovation, making the school more international, and cultivating a culture that is a force for good. “If I am going to have a legacy here, it’s going to be around those three pillars. They are a major part of differentiation for Wharton.”

In a wide-ranging interview with PoetsandQuants, Robertson talked about his number one priority to build the intellectual capacity of the school, the improved job market for MBAs, the increasing tendency of international students to return to their home countries for jobs, and his recent decision to turn down $200 million to open a Wharton campus abroad.

“The base of it all is intellectual capital, hiring lots of brilliant faculty and having a fantastic staff,” he says. “That’s where I get deeply involved. You’ve got to get that right.”

Known as a soft-spoken, highly accessible leader, Robertson had been dean at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business from 1998 to 2004 and was a professor of marketing at the school when Wharton’s headhunters came calling in 2007. Joining Wharton was a little bit like returning home. Robertson had been associate dean of executive education at the school from 1984 to 1988. He also taught marketing at Wharton and chaired the school’s marketing department. From 1995 to 1998, he was deputy dean of London Business School.


Coming from Emory, a program with 375 full-time MBA students, to Wharton, with a total full-time MBA enrollment four times larger with 1,674 students, was an eye opener, even though he had spent many years at the school. “The scale and the scope of the place has incredible benefit,” Robertson says. “Wharton is like a candy shop. There are over 200 MBA electives, 25 research centers, 11 teaching departments, and more than 100 student organizations. The student groups run 41 conferences a year on everything from restructuring, private equity, China, and social impact. Some 500 to 600 people came to last year’s real estate conference.”

Robertson says, “2009 was a tough year, but last year was much better. More students are taking jobs in private equity and hedge funds and 25% of the MBAs take jobs internationally. More Indian and Chinese students are going back. Their economies are in such good shape now. If you’re in Shanghai or Mumbai, these are great growth markets. In the states, it’s more of a mature MBA market. But it’s the Wild West in Shanghai.”


Robertson moved into his office at Wharton on Aug. 1, 2007—eight months before investment bank Bear, Stearns & Co. collapsed and was sold in a fire sale to J.P. Morgan Chase and 13 months before the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. For a school that had just sent 47.6% of its MBAs into financial services, and one at which Lehman was Wharton’s sixth largest employer, it was not exactly great timing.

It did not help that Robertson assumed the leadership of the school after a less-than-successful run by Patrick Harker, who left to become president of the University of Delaware. Harker, a classic engineer by training and demeanor, took over the school in early 2001 when Wharton had been number one in the BusinessWeek rankings for eight straight years. Within 20 months, Wharton plunged to fifth place, behind Harvard, Stanford, Chicago and Northwestern. It was the school’s worst showing ever in the BusinessWeek ranking and directly attributable to lackluster leadership.

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