Interview: New Wharton Dean on Elite B-School's Future

Wharton dean interview

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Few prizes in the business school world can outshine the one Geoffrey Garrett received in March, when he was plucked from relative obscurity and installed as dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. At the time he was the dean of the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, and Wharton was, and is, one of the preeminent business schools in the world, ranked among the top three by TopMBA.com, The Financial Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek. At the time, Wharton was also struggling with declining applications and a sense that it was no longer at the top of its game. TopMBA.com editor-in-chief Louis Lavelle spoke to Garrett on the occasion of his first 100 days in the position to discuss his plans for the school.

The announcement of your appointment was greeted with skepticism in some corners. Among other things, critics pointed out that the last business school you ran, the Australian School of Business, fell dramatically in the Financial Times ranking from 48 to 62 on your watch, that your experience leaves you unprepared for the fundraising task you’ve inherited, and that there were better qualified internal candidates at Wharton who were passed over for the dean’s job. You’ve also held positions at 10 different institutions since 1986, including three business school deanships in little more than three years. The implication was that you’re simply not up to the task of running a world-class business school like Wharton. Is the criticism unfair? 

I think the criticism is reductive. My academic and professional experiences have given me an appreciation of what makes business and business education so distinctive here – an overwhelming sense of dynamism and innovation. I do view the world from the unique perspective of being an insider/outsider in two cultures: I have spent my career in the United States explaining the world to Americans, and the past six years outside the US explaining America to Australians and Asians. My experiences have been both exhilarating and humbling, and I feel confident that the insights I’ve gained will allow me to do the job at Wharton better.

There seems to be a sense that you’re taking over at a time when Wharton’s reputation may be slipping—in some corners it is no longer spoken of (with Harvard and Stanford) as part of the triumvirate that defines the top tier of US business schools, but rather alongside schools like Booth, Kellogg and Columbia. First, do you think Wharton has slipped, and what can be done to restore its reputation?

Wharton has an incredible legacy that has carried it through the decades and continues to do so through our alumni that go out and power the world. Simultaneously, we may be very well be living in the greatest period of transformative change since the industrial revolution. I think there are big trends in the world that are affecting business education – and business itself – that Wharton is both responding to and leading.

Every day when I walk into my office I see the original name of the school on Dietrich Hall – The Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. I cherish deeply our heritage as the leading finance school in the world. But rather than rest on our laurels, we want to use that heritage to seize the big opportunities of the future.

That means focusing on the new faces of finance that are powering the world economy, where our alumni are dynamic global leaders, and where our faculty have done the deepest research.

But it also means linking what makes Wharton great in finance with what makes the school unique in the rest of business education. Here I think the key is quantitative analytics. In the era of big data, better analytics leads to better decisions, and better decisions are the foundation of leadership.  Wharton is the best-positioned business school in the world to integrate sophisticated, data-based analysis into leadership.

So no, I don’t feel that Wharton has slipped. In fact, I’m impressed with how vigorous and vibrant the environment here is. I believe Wharton is better positioned to train tomorrow’s leaders than any business school in the world.

The notion that Wharton has lost its luster comes from media coverage of the fact that applications have been trending downward for five years before this year’s uptick, even as rival schools have seen significant increases year after year. The conventional wisdom is that following the 2008 financial crisis there were just fewer applicants interested in a career in finance—or in a finance school like Wharton. What’s your reading of the application numbers, and what, if anything, does it mean for Wharton’s future?

Admissions numbers dip and rise naturally in all business schools. The important factors for Wharton are the caliber of its class (this year’s GMAT average was 725), its high yield (meaning better-suited students), the diversity of its student pool (42% women, 35% international students from 71 countries) and our high job placements (97.8% of last year’s class accepted job offers within three months of graduation).

Looking forward, I think the unprecedented and ever-expanding role of business may well characterize the next decade or more. Social needs are mushrooming while the capacity of government to meet them is lagging. The private sector will become increasingly central to supporting societal well-being, from public-private partnerships to build infrastructure to live-work-play developments that drive urbanization and urban renewal; from microfinance in Bangladesh and Philadelphia to alternative investments to sustain Social Security.

Wharton is very well placed not only to study the expanding role of business, but to help lead it too. Our expertise in healthcare economics and management, social enterprise and impact investing are well known. Our new Public Policy Initiative promises to give business perspectives a central role in Washington decision-making. The Penn Wharton China Center that will open next March in Beijing will provide the opportunity to work with government and business to continue China’s economic miracle amid myriad significant challenges.

In discussing your vision you’ve spoken about “internationalizing the curriculum, building international alliances and creating international opportunities for students and faculty.” What are your specific plans?

Wharton believes in partnerships with other institutions to share knowledge with scholars across the globe.  In fact in March, we look forward to the launch of the Penn Wharton China Center, the first presence we have had outside the United States. We continue to look for and explore those opportunities.

You’ve been quoted as saying that “globalization and technological change are poised to transform business education. I have no doubt Wharton will be in the vanguard of this transformation in America and around the world.” What will that transformation look like at Wharton?

Wharton has had a strong global brand for decades. More importantly, Wharton believes in bringing the world into the classroom to prepare our students to be truly global leaders. We offer 10 intense, in-country Global Modular Courses around the world, faculty and student exchange trips, partnerships with dozens of international institutions and a new point of presence in Beijing slated to open in 2015.

That global perspective is what compelled us to take a leading role in online education. Through our work with Coursera, the School can touch more people than ever before in the world. So that’s an early example of technology opening up new avenues to deliver our intellectual content. As we go forward, the progression of using digital modes of programming will shape new methods of pedagogy that will continue to open up possibilities beyond geographical borders.

Last year, Wharton put much of its MBA curriculum on the Coursera MOOC platform for free, by far the boldest move into MOOCs by any major global business school. You’ve been an advocate of MOOCs and of incorporating new technologies into instruction, a position not unlike that of Penn President Amy Gutmann. What do you see as the future of MOOCs at Wharton?

Wharton and Penn have been able to project our brand of high quality education around the world through MOOCs – to extraordinary effect in a very short period of time. But there are other benefits to our vanguard role in online education. One is the sheer inspirational value of reaching over a million students in our first year with Coursera. The other great advantage of teaching students at massive scale is you can do real-time experiments with what works in the classroom: “Did I explain this concept well enough? Did the students get it?” You can do real-time assessments and adjustments, with spillovers to teaching “regular classes”.

Online education cannot replicate and will never be a substitute for the unique magic of our on-campus experience and the relationships built on face-to-face human interactions. But I view online and on-campus education very much as a positive sum game.

(Find out what one pair of Wharton professors think MOOCs will mean for business education)

You taught at Wharton for two years, from 1995 to 1997. How has Wharton changed in the last 20 years?

Several people have asked me how Wharton is different today than when I was here almost 20 years ago. The biggest change isn’t in Wharton; it is in me. When I was here almost 20 years ago, I was an aspiring research academic, and that requires real tunnel vision. Today, my frame is much wider. I focus on identifying big opportunities and catalyzing the talents, ambitions and aspirations of other people to realize them.

What I see so vividly now is the unparalleled breadth and depth of world-leading talent at Wharton – among our faculty and staff, students and alumni – coupled with an innate and unique entrepreneurialism in the DNA of the place and everyone associated with it. 

Written by Louis Lavelle

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Strong article. Good questions and great answers.