The first woman and person of color to become dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School arrived for work this morning with a unique splash. Erika James, the former dean of Emory’s Goizueta Business School, did a live interview from Philadelphia on a network television show, the first time any business school dean started a job on TV.
James, of course, arrives at Wharton during a time when social justice and racial inequality have become the focus of a national conversation, the subject of widespread protests, public policy discussions, and emotional outrage over the treatment of Black Americans in all walks of life. An ongoing pandemic and a recession that is already impacting higher education budgets will make James’ first year in the job all the more challenging. In common with most other business schools, Wharton plans to deliver a hybrid fall semester, with both virtual and in-person formats.
The school welcomed its new dean with a social media blitz, even publishing a graphic (see below) that allowed well-wishers to write personal messages to her with the hashtag #WelcomeErikaJames. It is notable that she is the first woman and African American to lead the school in its 139 years. It is no less interesting that the school’s most famous alumnus is none other than President Donald Trump who earned his undergraduate business degree from Wharton in 1968.
‘SO MANY EYES ARE WATCHING ME’
James, 50, succeeds the Australian-born Geoffrey Garrett, who served as dean for six years and is now on his way to become dean of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. She arrives at Wharton with the benefit of having served a half dozen years as dean of Emory University’s Goizueta School and after a long career as a professor known for her research in crisis leadership and workplace diversity. Before becoming Goizueta dean, she taught at Tulane University and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. During her 13 years at Darden, she pioneered a new position — the Associate Dean of Diversity — and became a mentor and champion of young women in Darden’s MBA program (see Erika James, New Dean At Wharton, Reflects On Her Journey).
In her interview with ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, James was asked about the sense of responsibility she now feels from her far more visible perch. “This is an awesome responsibility, not just in terms of the magnitude of the role of being the dean of the Wharton School, but so many eyes are watching me and you and people who are in these positions to really make a difference. So yes I personally feel that while my focus has to be primarily and predominantly in taking the country’s first, biggest, and best business school and making it even better that will only happen if we ensure we have the right talent in the right positions. And I believe that talent exists everywhere and comes in all colors and packages.”
The dean said that companies need to broaden their efforts to recruit a larger slate of diverse candidates for positions. “We often say there’s not a pipeline of diverse talent,” she said. “Well, there’s not a pipeline if you look in a very narrow set of places. One of the things companies can do differently is to broaden where they go to identify exceptional talent that might be untapped.”
‘EAGER TO SEE WHAT JAMES’ APPOINTMENT WILL MEAN FOR BLACK RESIDENTS AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS’
That is as true at Wharton as it is at many other business schools as well. Of the dozen members of Wharton’s senior academic and administrative team, James is the second African American after Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Angela Bostick who joined Wharton less than a year ago from the Goizueta School. In an exit interview with the student newspaper on campus, her predecessor conceded as much. Garrett told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he is very encouraged by James’ hiring, but added that a lot of progress must be made in terms of diversifying the student body and faculty. “On the faculty side, I think we’ve made some progress but it’s just much slower than anyone would like, and it’s it’s really because of the nature of faculty hiring,” Garrett said. “It’s not time for anyone to rest on their laurels. We’ve got an enormous way to go.”
The leaders of Wharton Women In Business also wrote a welcome to Dean James in the student newspaper saying pretty much the same thing. “While we celebrate Dean James’s appointment and Wharton’s new era led by a Black woman, we also recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done at Wharton in terms of diversity,” they noted. “Wharton faculty still skews male and overwhelmingly white. Women make up only about 20% of Wharton faculty, and only 5% are underrepresented minorities, including African-Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans. ”
So expectations are high. In an essay written by a Wharton MBA alum, Curtis Johnson, James is being called upon to use her position to advance an agenda that no previous Wharton dean ever had to prioritize. “As a Black alum of Wharton, I am eager to see what James’ appointment will mean for issues and topics that disproportionately impact Black residents and community members,” wrote Johnson. “Wharton is wholeheartedly focused on global impact – and rightfully so, as it has continually demonstrated its ability to effect far-reaching change…There are urgent needs in nearby communities that deserve the attention and intention of Wharton and other business leaders. That James calls herself a “virtue capitalist” is compelling, as it underscores her understanding of the intersection of business and social change. The opportunity to create meaningful, measurable impact within areas of great disparity in America – justice reform, educational inequity, health and wellness access – all exist within Wharton’s surrounding communities, from Philly to New Orleans, Louisville to Flint, Michigan, and beyond.”
‘WE HAVE TO CHANGE OUR OWN SELF-TALK’
James said she believes more persons of color have been unable to reach the upper levels of the business world due to structural racism and the failure to build effective relationships in organizations. “Clearly there are systemic issues within organizations that prohibit or impede progress for people of color and women,” she said. “Many years ago I did my doctoral dissertation and looked at the social and informal networks that people create in organizations to help facilitate their career progression. The networks for white Americans in Corporate America look very different from the networks if Black folks in Corporate America. The access they have to people who are in the room making decisions around the projects, pay and promotion impedes or can facilitate progress. So we need to make sure that the relationships people are able to establish and build can help promote diversity at the upper levels of the organization.”
Her advice to young people? “We have to change our own self-talk. Oftentimes, we impede our own progress because we don’t have the confidence to say, ‘Yes, I am ready for this role. Yes, I can meet these challenges. Yes, I have the expertise and background that is necessary.’ When we get out of our own way and truly bet on ourselves that is when we start to create other people’s confidence in us.”