Wharton's Reputation

In between meetings in University City, I decided to stop in on Dean Thomas Robertson's Wharton town hall meeting in Huntsman Hall. I'm not a very active alum, but I am a proud one, so I was eager to get a sense of the state of the school. I'd also never heard our current leader speak, and as one who revered as a demigod the dean of the school during my time there (Thomas Gerrity), I wanted to get a sense of what made the current guy tick.

I only caught about half of the gathering, but I left decidedly underwhelmed. What topped it for me was Dean Robertson's response to an alum who said that the recent high-profile indictment of Wharton alum Raj Rajaratnam on insider trading (also implicated was former McKinsey chief Anil Gupta, also a Wharton alum) had an adverse effect on Wharton alums in the workplace, and what was the school doing to protect its reputation and its alumni's reputation. At this point, you expect a business school dean, circa 2011, to engage in high-falutin' rhetoric about the centrality of integrity in a business school education, and the iron-clad promise of the school to uphold the most virtuous standards in its dealings and its teachings. The question is whether deans pull this off with authenticity or with spin.

Instead, Dean Robertson went in a different direction. Noting that the school has 86,000 alum, he asked rhetorically if a town of 86,000 residents would have a jail. Of course it would, he answered himself, and so of course a school with that many alum running around is going to have a blip or two. In other words, "hey, don't look at us - we're helpless to prevent so many alum from staying out of trouble." Hmmm, not exactly the "I accept this burden of leadership" moment I was waiting for.

Tellingly, in the front page article on the subject of the indictment in that day's Daily Pennsylvanian, Dean Robertson was not quoted; instead, the only quote from a Penn person was from a law professor noting that high-profile indictments serve as effective deterrents for others out there thinking of engaging in similar behavior. In other words, even in the school paper in his own backyard, Dean Robertson was not out in front, making sure that Wharton was taking the lead on this issue and using the crisis as an opportunity to protect, extend, and define the Wharton brand.

In summary, my fellow alum's question was a fair one to ask; he and I paid lots of money and spent lots of time earning our Wharton degrees, and every bad apple out there sullies the value of that accomplishment. Alas, our current dean fell short in giving a worthy response to that question. When faced with evidence that reinforces everyone's cynical image of Wharton, I would hope that we can do better than a shrug of the shoulders.

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