Education is in Erika Hayes James’ blood. Both of her parents were music teachers. When the Hayes family moved to the U.S. from Bermuda, Erika’s mother, Gloria, continued to teach music while earning two master’s degrees — one in education and the other in education administration. When Erika got toward the end of her time as an undergrad at Pomona College, a small liberal arts college in Claremont, California, she dreamed of one day becoming president of a similarly sized school.
Fast-forward about three decades and James has indeed forged a path in education — but far more successfully than she dreamed back at Pomona. After six years as the dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Erika James will take over as dean of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in July. When Wharton announced the hiring in February, it made headlines across the country — both because of Wharton’s prominence and history in global business education, and for the fact that James is the school’s first female dean.
THE EARLY PATH OF BECOMING AN INFLUENTIAL BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR AND MENTOR
But it’s a bittersweet move for James, who found her academic footing at the Goizueta School. After earning a doctorate in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, she planned to enter the private sector for a while. But her dissertation adviser recommended she apply for at least one job in academia. So James — despite multiple offers on the table at consulting firms in New York City — did just that and applied for a job at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Tulane rolled out the red carpet. It would be enough to get James to New Orleans and effectively change the trajectory of her life.
Three years after taking the position at Tulane, James left for Emory University. “That was the time in my life when I really committed to becoming an academic,” James, speaking exclusively to Poets&Quants, says of her three years as a professor at Emory. Around that same time, James met the man that would eventually become her husband in a movie-like airport encounter. Jimmie James, who was on the executive path at ExxonMobil, was based in Houston when he and Erika first met. The two maintained a long-distance relationship even through marriage as Erika moved from New Orleans to Atlanta.
But in 2001, Jimmie’s rise through ExxonMobil would take him to Washington D.C. They both saw the opportunity as a way to live closer together — or actually together — and Erika began searching for a job in the D.C. and northern Virginia area. She found a job at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where she taught as a professor for 13 years.
If Tulane was where James got her academic footing and Emory was where her love of academia blossomed, Virginia is where she developed her chops. James quickly became one of the school’s best researchers and professors. She pioneered a new position at Darden — the Associate Dean of Diversity — and became a mentor and champion of young women in the MBA program at Darden.
TRANSITIONING BACK TO EMORY GOIZUETA
But in 2014, when the deanship of Emory’s Goizueta Business School opened, James jumped at the opportunity.
“In the 13-year span that I was gone, so much had changed,” James recalls. “And I was eager to create an environment at Emory where I felt faculty could really thrive. That we were attracting and retaining the best faculty, the most committed faculty in terms of scholarship but also their commitment to the students and the teaching experience.”
In 2014, James says, the industry was a lot different than it was today — even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The business degree — whether MBA or BBA — was still quite popular. Although, we recognized there was increasing competition in terms of the delivery methods,” James explains. “Business education and also competition from different disciplines were starting to surface, an increasing amount of students that normally would choose business were choosing the sciences because of the push from STEM.”
BALANCING AND GROWING THE FACULTY
One of James’s first goals at Goizueta would be to make sure faculty had the resources needed to do the research they were passionate about.
“What I experienced then was a very collaborative set of colleagues,” James says of her first time on faculty at Goizueta in the late 90s. “And being able to partner with colleagues here at the same school with research was a very motivating experience for me. The resources at the school were such that I felt like we had access to whatever we needed to do research that was interesting and fulfilling. I got to ask the questions that were most engaging, work with people that I had deep respect for, and teach really talented students who were eager and thirsty both to learn ad advance personally and professionally.”
While James says her predecessor did a good job of making sure the school was in a good place and had necessary funds available, the economic crisis had happened in between the time she left and returned.
“All business schools and universities had to make some very hard decisions in terms of allocations of their resources,” James points out, noting schools had to prioritize different aspects of the programs. “We were a little skewed in terms of the percentage of tenure-track and teaching faculty that we had.” Both groups, James says she supported, but, “Research was paramount. And I was afraid that we were getting dangerously thin on the number of tenure-track faculty.” So James decided to focus early on increasing tenure-track faculty as well as reassuring that they had the resources needed to produce the scholarship they desired.
CREATING THE SCHOOL’S FIRST SPECIALIZED MASTER’S DEGREE
James tapped a colleague who had been a professor at Goizueta from before the time she arrived at Emory from Tulane — Kristy Towry, who James named the vice dean for Faculty and Research. Towry was essentially James’s right-hand person. “Together we put a strategy together,” James says. The two looked at the spread of tenure-track and teaching faculty across the already established academic disciplines like accounting, finance, and marketing while looking at future academic needs according to what they were hearing from students and industry. “We were very mindful of what we saw as the incoming academic needs in terms of what needed to be filled from a teaching standpoint,” James says. “We prioritized certain disciplines in areas that I thought we could be particularly strong in or areas where there was a burgeoning demand.”
With that strategy in place, James and Towry focused on hiring faculty members for accounting, finance, marketing, and other traditional business fields but making sure they were experts in up and coming areas like business and data analytics and behavioral-based research. “For us, both of those academic areas cut across various disciplines,” James says. “We could take these constructs and hire faculty across different disciplines, which was a strategy we took.”
A result of that hiring strategy was the launch of the masters of science in business analytics program in 2017 which was Goizueta’s first and is still its only specialized master’s degree.