Wharton’s Geoff Garrett: USC Not A Step Down

Geoff Garrett. File photo

What will be some of your top priorities at USC?

Geoff Garrett: Well, I think it’s clear that the things that tend to make it into the media headlines about challenges in full-time, two-year, residential MBA program — and I use all those words very precisely: two-year, full-time, residential MBA — I think the opportunity costs of doing that degree are very high today, and therefore if you want to be a school offering a full-time MBA, the value proposition has got to be really powerful.

And I think there’s lots of evidence that Marshall’s MBA does offer that value proposition. Part of it is, I think, about entrepreneurship. I think the local program is very strong. Marshall faculty appointments in the last several years have been absolutely first-rate. So, there’s a real commitment to educational excellence.

I do think if you pivot then to how business education’s changing, I think it’s changing in at least two important directions. One is that there’s a rebalance, with much more emphasis on what I might call learning by doing, experiential learning. Entrepreneurship is one example of that, but there are many others. Leadership, for example.

Learning by doing is becoming much more important than what I might call learning by studying, having your head down in a book or listening to a lecture or standing behind the podium. So, my sense is that Marshall is well along the way to really embracing experiential learning as a core part of the school’s educational mission.

The other thing that I would say about change is that business education is booming. That’s absolutely true at the undergraduate level, where over 20% of USC undergraduates are in the Marshall School. That’s basically the same percentage as Wharton undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s something I’ve enjoyed at Wharton, and I look forward to it at USC: having the business school be central to the mission of the university, with undergraduate education being a leading indicator of that.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, I think we’re living in a world where lifelong learning is a reality. It’s not a cliché. Degrees are foundational, but everyone’s going to need to keep refreshing their skills, and I think that’s the world in which business schools have a real opportunity. But of course they’re competing against online, consulting companies, startups, you name it.

But I think lifelong learning is just going to become an increasingly important part of the educational landscape. Certainly, I’d like to explore ways for Marshall to be more involved there. I mean, I think it’s been a leader in online, which is clearly one of the directions of change, but there are other ones, too.

About continuing education: Do you foresee more of an opportunity to build out some of those non-degree or certificate programs for adult learners?

Geoff Garrett: Yeah, I just think that’s a very big world. And I think it’s one that business schools are only at the beginning of. As I said, if you look at it as a business school, the entry barriers to offering degrees are very high. Once you get outside of degrees, the entry barriers are low and anybody can compete. So, as I said, the business schools are competing against online providers that aren’t universities, against consulting companies, against tech startups. So it’s very competitive. The lifelong learning space is very competitive. But I don’t mind competition. I think it’s very healthy, I think it has positive outcomes for everybody.

If I think about the advantages that the Marshall School has, I mean, business schools that are in large metropolitan areas have lots of advantages these days. Maybe particularly with lifelong learners. And the fact that L.A. is the second-largest regional economy, city economy, in the U.S., California is obviously one of the largest economies in the world, and L.A.’s literally sitting on the Pacific Rim.

I think the market — if you put your business hat on — the market is immense. Yes, it’s a competitive market, but I think the opportunities are also really extensive. You don’t change these things overnight, but I would just expect that world of lifelong learning to become increasingly important.

Thinking about degrees as being foundational means that there are two pathways for lifelong learners. One is a school offering its own alumni the opportunity to refresh their skills. I think that’s very important. And then there are lifelong learners who’ve never had the opportunity to go to one of the best business schools. For those people, getting a taste of the school for a shorter duration of programs using online, etc., can be incredibly valuable.

So, I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. But as I said, I still believe degrees are foundational. We just need lifelong learning on top of the degree base. Then, of course, we have differences in business degrees, and the Marshall School is doing all of the degrees. It goes from undergraduate to Ph.D. with several varieties of MBA and specialized master’s in the middle. Predicting where the market’s going to go is not always so easy. That’s true in education as much as any other field. The fact that Marshall’s been an innovator and an explorer in a lot of those fields is to its credit — something, again, I look forward to becoming more involved in over time.

A lot of students are concerned about transparency issues within the Marshall School and within the university as a whole. What would you tell those students?

Geoff Garrett: What I would say about myself is, I don’t want to get too much in the clouds about leadership style but if I think about my own personal style, it’s to be very transparent, very open, very plain-speaking.

I also have come to appreciate over time the incredible value of involving lots of people in decisions. You know, if you involve more people in decisions and if they feel very free to speak their minds, to share their best ideas, I think that increases collective intelligence and improves the quality of decision-making. So, on the input side, I think you make better decisions if you involve more people, and I certainly want to practice that.

But involving more people in decisions has a second benefit, which I think is equally important, and that is that the more people feel that they were involved in decisions, the more likely they are to roll up their sleeves with you and help in implementation. So, over time, my experience tells me that a word like consultation isn’t just something you say. It’s something that you have to do, and I just think it’s the best way to run organizations. That certainly will be the way I enter the Marshall School.

When you joined UPenn in 2014, you said that you were an unusual pick for the job. Would you say that’s the same coming into USC?

Geoff Garrett: No, I’m much less unusual now, because I have the experience of leading a large business school and a lot of students, including a lot of undergraduate students. So, in that sense, I’ve actually been struck by a lot of the similarities between Wharton and the Marshall School. And in particular the centrality of both business schools to the broader university is something I really cherish.

In 2014, I was an unusual dean because I was halfway around the world in Australia. And as I think you know, I’m a political scientist by trade. Academically, I didn’t grow up in business schools. When I was at USC in the second half of the last decade, I really enjoyed teaching a class to undergraduates in arts and sciences. I think the class was called “U.S. and the World.” There was a lot going on at the time and I was trying to talk about it all, beginning with the knock-on effects of the tragedies of 9/11 and then through the financial crisis in 2008. So I enjoyed that, but I did it as an applied social scientist. So that’s why I said I was an unusual choice to be Wharton dean.

But I think it’s important for everyone to know that business schools these days are becoming much more interdisciplinary places, with lots of economists, lots of psychologists, sociologists, even a few political scientists like me. So I hope I don’t look like an unusual dean now. I certainly feel that while all institutions are unique, I’ve been wanting to spend a lot of time listening to people at Marshall and learning from them. I think at least at a structural level, I have a pretty good understanding of where a school like Marshall fits because that’s where Wharton is in the educational landscape.


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