Wharton to Overhaul MBA Program

Three months before the Class of 2002 was to graduate into a rocky economic climate, the school lost its director of career services. Ultimately, it took Harker a year and one-half to fill the post—even though the economy for MBA graduates was in a nosedive. Leaderless, the placement function at the school “became complacent,” according to one graduate of the class. “Precisely when we needed them to be innovative and proactive, they were unable to deliver.”

Wharton recovered to number two four years later, but never regained its number one position in the BusinessWeek survey, which directly measures the satisfaction of graduates and the companies that recruit at the school. Harker was able to keep Wharton as number one in The Financial Times poll, which does not measure student opinions of their MBA experience nor recruiting companies’ perspectives on a school’s recruiting function. Wharton tumbled into second place in the FT survey earlier this year, behind London Business School.

HIRING A DEAN OF HAPPINESS.

Robertson is no babe in the woods when it comes to the rankings game. One of the first things he did as dean was to recruit Kimbrel Jones into a new position called deputy vice dean of student life. His assignment: address the lingering issues between the administration and students left by Harker. Even before Harker left for his new job, an editorial in the Wharton Journal, the student newspaper, noted that student concerns about improper financial aid practices and questionable professional conduct at Wharton had been greeted with “deafening silence” by the administration.

Enter Jones, a man with a perpetually upbeat if not effervescent personality. As associate dean, he had worked closely with Robertson at Emory for eight years, helping to get the unranked Goizueta School of Business onto the top 20 lists at BusinessWeek, The Financial Times, and U.S. News. Students call Jones, who has a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Harvard and an Emory MBA, “the dean of happiness.” He dubs himself the “unofficial Dr. Phil of Huntsman Hall.”

THE THREE PILLARS OF WHARTON’S STRATEGY.

Robertson’s strategy, however, is far from a feel-good gambit. His three-pillar strategy for Wharton focuses on innovation, international business, and what he calls fostering Wharton and the MBAs it graduates as a “force for good.” To reinforce those themes, he has named vice deans for innovation, international business, and social impact—all new positions at the school.

“One of my major goals is to imbue a culture of innovation at the school and everything we do,” he says. “I gave a talk yesterday to our incoming students and told them they will work in industries that currently don’t exist, just as earlier students have. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as private equity and hedge funds or derivatives. We’ve just appointed a vice dean of innovation. Karl Ulrich, who has taught entrepreneurship and e-commerce, will lead innovation for us and we’re relying on him for technological innovation and program innovation.”

“All the schools are international. At Wharton, about 40% of our MBAs are international and one-third of the faculty. The domestic students are in a very rich learning environment. Each learning team of six students will have two or three international students. We’re running courses in Brazil, China, India, Israel, South Africa, France and other countries. We started these weeklong modular courses two years ago in South Africa. Last year we added China and India, and this year we’ll be in eight countries.

“There is a bias to teach to the well-developed economies or the BRIC countries,” he says. “But there are 200 countries in the world and most of the economic growth will be in about 140 countries—not just the well-developed ones. We want our students and our faculty to have exposure to all of that. If a faculty member shows up and spends too much time talking about Goldman Sachs or Procter & Gamble today, it isn’t going to work. Our students would complain. I think we’re 70% of the way there. I have a vice dean of international in charge of this, and you would probably be surprised at all the things we’ve done.”

WALKING AWAY FROM $200 MILLION AND AN INTERNATIONAL CAMPUS.

Robertson, however, believes that it’s sometimes the things you don’t do that are as important. “We’re walking away from $200 million to go into a particular country because it doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Chinese executives want the U.S. cultural experience. If you show up in Shanghai with nothing but Chinese executives in the classroom, it’s not particularly interesting and it’s not what they want. Although the business schools in China are improving measurably, the big disadvantage is that the students are all Chinese so they are not getting the benefit of a diverse group. We are incredibly international, but sometimes the fascination with globall is whether you have an international campus. I don’t think we’re going to have an international campus.”

As for his “force for good” pillar, Robertson harks back to Benjamin Franklin, the founder of the University of Pennsylvania. “Franklin said he would rather be useful, than rich. And when Joseph Wharton founded the school, the justification was that creating knowledgeable business executives would contribute to social welfare. If you create economic value, you’ll create social value. We have 250 MBAs in the Social Impact club. We’re involved in Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 women project to provide women around the world with a business education, and the 10,000 small business project to help entrepreneurs in the U.S. In social impact, we’re trying to ask where are we going to put our stake? We do so many things, but they tend to fall below the radar screen because each of them is small.”

When he became dean, Robertson pledged to double the school’s $690 million endowment within five years. At the time, Harvard Business School’s endowment was $2.8 billion. The economic meltdown has played havoc with that plan. Yet, Wharton’s endowment is up to $800 million, despite the setbacks.

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