A new leader changes everything. There are new priorities and expectations – and new ways of doing things too. This year, two Ivy League powerhouses – Harvard Business School and the Wharton School – hired new deans. In Boston, the ‘West Point of Capitalism’ picked an insider, Srikant Datar, to build on his predecessor’s work. In contrast, Wharton made a splash by bringing aboard Emory Goizueta Dean Erika James to lead the top MBA program in the United States according to U.S. News & World Report.
Dean James is more than a typical hire. In many ways, she is a symbol, being the first woman and first African American to lead the Wharton School in its 139-year history. Her elevation marks a historic moment in business education. Make no mistake: James is fully aware of its potential impact on those who may follow.
“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,” she told Robin Roberts during an ABC Good Morning America interview. “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.”
Her hiring also comes with expectations from students and alumni alike to use her platform to make a social difference. “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 Curtis Johnson (’14), a director at Disney. “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.”
Dean James’ elevation certainly requires a transition. At Emory Goizueta, for example, she was responsible for 350 full-time MBAs and another 800 undergrad business major. However, Wharton houses 5,000 students, including 2,600 undergrads and 1,800 full-time MBAs. That doesn’t count 240 full-time faculty members (and an equal number of part-time and adjunct instructors). So what can business students expect from a James administration? It may be helpful to look back on her track record at Goizueta, where she boosted faculty hiring by 25% (with 46% of these hires being women). She devoted greater resources to the school’s entrepreneurship and social enterprise programming, with special focus paid to serve the local Atlanta community. This included a Start: Me accelerator and a cross-campus collaboration unit known as The Hatchery.
At Wharton, James has already rolled out a lecture series called Beyond Business, which tackles issues like racial unrest, corporate philanthropy, and c-suit diversity. “The conversations in the classrooms are changing because the students are asking for it,” she told the New York Times. “Their expectation is that that’s in our syllabus. We’re going to have coursework and reading material and discussions on corporate social responsibility. We have to.”
It hasn’t been an easy start for James. Due to high COVID levels in the Philadelphia area, Wharton moved the fall semester online, a move that “devalued the experience” according to one student. A Wharton student survey further reflected student discontent with the decision. That said, Wharton received 1,253 more applications than the previous year. In response, the school added 60 additional students to the 2022 class, bringing full-time enrollment to a record 916 students.
The numbers were unquestionably strong at Wharton last year. In reality, they are a reflection of Wharton’s commitment to fundamentals that make the program so distinct. One of these fundamentals is teamwork, explains Blair Mannix, MBA Director of Admissions, in a 2020 interview with P&Q.
“We feel very passionately about the team-based learning environment. Business is a team sport, not a solo sport. We strongly believe that our students need to learn how to work in teams and lead teams. We offer them many opportunities to do so, from the Management 610 class with intensive, immersive coursework on teamwork to the Wharton Customer Analytics Accelerator where teams of students solve real-world data problems. It is not enough in this 2020 world to teach our students how to operate alone within existing organizations, they need to be embedded in teams and learn how to influence and get work done from the inside.”
This year, Wharton is also finally slated to open Tangen Hall, an innovation and startup space that brings together entrepreneurs campus-wide. Here, MBAs can work with engineers, computer scientists, and science professions to harness technology and foster innovation. This wealth of expertise and resources can be intimidating…but it is also what draws top MBA candidates to Huntsman Hall.
“I chose Wharton because it scared me,” writes Anisha Mocherla, a 2020 grad. “The sheer size of the class, the distance from California, and the breadth of opportunities were all outside my comfort zone. I wanted an MBA experience that would push me and I knew I would find it at Wharton. The school embraces a student-driven culture; it does not prescribe you an experience. As a student, you are responsible for creating your own path. I knew it would be one of the most rewarding, but challenging experiences. I could not pass on this opportunity.”
That’s exactly the type of spirit that the new dean hopes to instill in the next wave of Wharton MBAs. “We have to change our own self-talk,” James observes. “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.”