Wharton Doubles Down On The Bay Area

The Wharton School is placing a big bet on business analytics


Adding more action learning to the curriculum would impact both the MBA and undergraduate programs. The school is in the second year of rolling out a revamped undergraduate curriculum with a new introductory experience and four years of leadership training and exercises. “Now we are going to do an integrated capstone experience for all 650 of our graduating seniors,” he says. “That is a big lift for us but we think it is really important. Students want to apply what they are learning. The more often we can do that, allowing students to work on real world problems they care about, is a real win for us.”

Asked if he believes the MBA degree is as valuable as it once was, Garrett quickly mounts a defense of the experience, especially from a top school. “For us, I would say the value is increasing,” he maintains. “Why is the two-year, residential MBA degree in less demand? The simple answer is opportunity cost. The opportunity cost for students and employers has gone up a lot. If you are going to stay in the full-time MBA business, the only places that will do well will be the places where the degree’s value exceeds the costs and opportunity costs. We are clearly in that group.

“For the programs that continue in that space, that will make us more valuable because there will be a scarcity value to that. In a lot of higher education, there is a bifurcation. But I think bifurcation is a bit misleading because the number of places that can stay in the high quality, high-interactivity, on-campus, residential model is small. Much of the market will go in a convenience direction online. For many schools, they don’t have much choice but to move in that path. For us, we are in the wonderful position of being able to choose, and what we choose is to keep adding value to the face-to-face on-campus model by being forward looking and investing in the student experience. What we are adding is making our MBA more valuable, not less valuable.”


While Wharton has been a leader in developing and distributing MOOC courses and specialization certificates online, Garrett says he has no interest in doing an online MBA. In fact, he insists, Wharton will not even allow online courses to be used for academic credit toward a degree. “The University of Pennsylvania has been a big leader and an early mover in online education. But we are not only not going to do an online degree. We are not even going to give credit online toward a degree. That is an easy one. We won’t do that. For other schools, it makes more sense.

“Instead, we have taken the position to do an enormous amount of experimentation online as long as it is not for credit toward one of our degrees. That has been a very bright line for us. Anything online that is not-for-credit, we are going to experiment like crazy. The direction we are going is that over time, we’ll have much less lecture -ike, face-to-face material with online supplments and the sessions in person will be much more interactive. So the in-class experience will change.

“The simple business school metaphor for that is the tiered classroom. What’s the point of having a tiered classroom except to maximize line of sight for the professor with every student in the room. That is how the classrooms are designed. That’s great if it’s all about the professor. The second you want it to be about groups, a tiered classroom is terrible. So the physical plant in terms of decommissioning the tiered classrooms is just a metaphor for the broader challenge of doing something like that. I know the direction of change. It’s pretty clear.”


So far, Garrett says, Wharton has not aggressively used its vast library of MOOC material to flip many classrooms but that will come in time. “But we know that around the world, a lot of people are using our MOOCs to create learning communities in companies where a company will provide facilitation around our content. I would expect over time that we will have more and more use of online material in our classes because our experimentation with MOOCs has been so large. Fifty of Wharton’s 240 professors now have their own touch-and-feel experience with running their own online classes. For them, online isn’t some hypothetical exercise. It’s a reality. They’ve done it. There is no doubt that that is going to defuse backward into the way we do things on campus, even if all these products were designed for remote access.”

His biggest surprise as dean? “If it was based on first impressions, it would be the scale, scope and quality of the place. Those are obvious. Everyone aspires to be the best in the world. There is excellence everywhere. Just having a statistics department in the school is a historical vestige. We have a whole department made up of lawyers and philosophers. Most business schools cannot do that. And we do almost everything a business school could do which is not true of any of our competitors, including having 2500 undergraduates.”

Asked if he believes he got the job as dean because university President Amy Gutmann thought the school needed a more global perspective, Garrett says he isn’t sure. “It would seem obvious but you have to ask Amy Gutmann, apart from the fact that I looked like the most unlikely Wharton dean in history. I think it’s an interesting moment. When I became dean, I think Poets&Quants pointed out that the dean of Harvard Business School was from India, the dean of Stanford was from South Africa, and I was from Australia. That told you something.


“But between the time I was here 20 years ago and now, we used to have a very good course called Geopolitics. That was the late 1990s. That class was transformative. But that class has kind of gone away here. There were curriculum changes, and we created more flexibility and somehow it lost out in the shuffle. But it reflected the notion that the West had won. Capitalism and Democracy had won. What are we seeing today? That doesn’t look as true. In my post-dean life, I would like to get back to teaching that kind of stuff. I do it in executive education frequently but obviously my travel demands make it really hard for me to commit to being in the same place and the same time for two days a week for seven weeks straight. I think we are living in a world now where you have to understand that context matters again.”

Asked how global he thinks Wharton is, Garrett relates a story early in his stint as dean. “You know I often talk about an experience I had which was very eye-opening and very humbling for me. When I first became dean, I went to Kuwait City which is not on anybody’s map. But I went there because we have a small number of very high quality alums in Kuwait. So it was a Sunday afternoon in December and it was almost snowing because it was unusually cold. We have a handful of Wharton alums in Kuwait, but because the dean was on the program there were 250 people who came to listen to me on a Sunday afternoon.

“They had no idea who Geoff Garrett was. All they knew was that the dean of the Wharton School was in town. And that was a pretty profound experience. It showed me the global reach of the brand. It was amazing and humbling. The joke was I got introduced as Geoffrey Wharton. It was a slip but I used this to tell another story about the respect for the school and the office. When I am in New York and try to get into a building, I’ll give them my ID and they will tell me they don’t have Geoffrey Garrett listed as a guest. I ask them to look up Dean Garrett and sure enough I’m in. So I joked that if I change my name to Dean Wharton it would be all over. It tells you about the power of institution, but it is also very humbling because it means you are a custodian of that. And you have to be aware of that every second of every day.