Seven Years, Three Pillars: Looking back at Thomas Robertson's tenure as Wharton dean
Looking back at outgoing Wharton dean Robertson’s tenure
March 27, 2014, 9:31 pm · Updated March 28, 2014, 11:44 pm·
Dean Thomas Robertson, who led Wharton since 2007, repositioned a business school faced with a number of challenges.
In 2014, U.S News and World Report ranked Wharton as the number one MBA program in the country for the first time, tied with Harvard and Stanford business schools. In 2013 97.8 percent of Wharton MBA graduates received job offers within three months of graduation, the best placement record in the school’s history.
Still, during Robertson’s tenure Wharton’s faced a changing business world and Robertson recognized that the school needed to shift. He proposed three pillars for the Wharton school: Global Presence , Innovation and Social Impact.
Global and social impact
As part of making Wharton more global, Robertson built up courses and institutional relationships to send Wharton students and faculty abroad.
“You can’t just be domestic,” Robertson said. “But you can’t just talk about developed economies either. It can’t just be BRIC countries. Much of the growth in the world may come from Africa, or certain parts of Latin America.”
“We have to teach to a notion that there are 200 countries in the world, not just the few developed countries,” he added
Along with the Office of the President, Robertson developed the Penn Wharton China Center, which is scheduled to open later this year Wharton also has alliances and collaborations with INSEAD, campuses in France and Singapore, the Indian School of Business and Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management .
Introduced in 2010, Global Modular Courses bring about 300 Wharton students, including undergraduates, MBAs and executive MBAs, to destinations abroad for a three- to seven-day workshop. Past courses include “Conflict, Leadership and Change: Lessons from Rwanda” and “Luxury Branding and Retail in Italy and Beyond”.
The Wharton Global Initiative sends Wharton faculty abroad to two different places each year through the Faculty International Seminar, where they meet with leaders, senior government officials and senior executives. The possible destinations for 2014 are China and Thailand or Myanmar.
“Before, Wharton had several international activities spreading across different places, but putting them together gave Wharton focus and leverage,” said Professor Harbir Singh, the vice dean of Global Initiatives.
The school also saw an increase in international students on campus. They now constitute 36 percent of the MBA student body and 21 percent of the undergraduate body. Thirty-five percent of faculty members are foreign-born.
After Robertson leaves, Wharton’s newfound global presence will continue. “Global investments will continue to be important. It’s likely we will maintain and enhance these activities, ” said Singh.
Social Impact, another pillar that Robertson introduced, has been well-received by students.
Over 40 percent of the incoming MBA class — more than 300 students — signed up to attend an August pre-term program designed to introduce them to the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “Impact investing is a particularly hot topic among students and faculty at Wharton who are interested in social impact,” said Katherin Klein, the vice dean of Social Impact.
Weathering the financial crisis
Robertson took over Wharton just before the 2008 financial crisis and led the school through a difficult time for business schools.
After the financial crisis, Wharton added courses about the financial crisis and risk management to prepare students to face a risky and uncertain market . The school also focused more on business ethics. “This wasn’t the first [financial crisis] to ever occur . We were able to help students think about the financial crisis,” Robertson said.
Despite the pessimistic economic situation, Robertson led the School’s $500 million fundraising campaign and exceeded its fundraising goal. Wharton also increased the number of faculty members, built an addition to Steinberg-Dietrich Hall, renovated Vance Hall and moved its San Francisco campus to a new location.
“We were able to continue to develop resources so that we can do all the things we wanted to do,” Robertson said.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “What’s Wrong with Wharton,” reporting that the applications to Wharton’s MBA program declined 12 percent in the previous four years. Some business school experts and applicants interviewed for the article attributed the decline to a shift in students’ interests from finance to technology and entrepreneurship.
“Business school experts and students say [Wharton] has lost its luster,” the article said.
Under Robertson, Wharton did place stronger emphasis on “innovation,” one of the three pillars. Innovation applies to both the school itself and its students and faculties. Key projects include new teaching methods incorporating technology, as well as the Innovation Fund for student-led projects. In the last six years, the percentage of MBA students starting a business upon graduating has increased from 1.5 percent to 7.7 percent, surpassing Harvard Business School.
“If we don’t reinvent ourselves, we will fall behind,” said Robertson. Twenty-five years ago, “half of our students would work in industries that don’t exist. Students graduating 25 years ago now work in private equity or Internet based business or green technology that just didn’t exist then. ”
Robertson believes that online initiatives will play a larger role in the future. Wharton just launched business radio on SiriusXM last week and offers foundational business core classes on Coursera, a website that offers MOOCs, or massive open online courses. The future of Wharton MOOCs is fairly open. The school is investigating how to monetize online education.
“We’re experimenting a lot,” Robertson said. “So far it’s been philanthropy, we are giving them away for free. Given that we are a business school, can we make money on it? Moving forward, the question is, ‘How does teaching change because of online? How do we develop the branding further? How do we break-even online, or maybe even make some money?’”
Though Robertson didn’t seek reappointment, he will remain at Wharton, taking a sabbatical year before coming back as a marketing professor. He also served as a marketing professor from 1971 to 1994.
“As wonderful as this job is, I don’t control my own calendar,” he said. “I am taking back my calendar, and I will schedule what I need to do.”
Correction: This article was edited to reflect that Robertson became Wharton dean in 2007, not 2006.