At Wharton, a New Leader Confronts the Culture Wars

As the nation’s oldest business school, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has had an outsize influence on shaping the culture of corporate America. For more than a century, Wharton has taught aspiring capitalists how to break into new markets, trounce the competition and mint profits.

Today, while the foundational skills needed to run a business are still important, companies are also grappling with concerns that go well beyond the balance sheet. Diversity and inclusion, inequality, climate change, immigration and, more broadly, the role of business in society are all part of the conversation, in the boardroom and the classroom. And earlier this year, to take the school in a new direction, Wharton hired Erika James as its new dean.

Ms. James, who studied at Pomona College before receiving her Ph.D in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan, is uniquely suited for the role. Her research included work on diversity in the workplace, as well as managing through a crisis, which led her to do consulting work with large companies confronting major challenges.

Before joining Wharton, she was dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.


Who were your professional role models when you were growing up?

I knew the life I wanted to have, but I didn’t know the career that I would foster in order to create that life. I’ve always been very attracted to being comfortable, if you will, even though we were really salt of the earth, middle-class people. My mother was a teacher. So my first role model was really the fact that I had a working mother, and most of the friends that I had did not. I just assumed I would work as well, though I never wanted to be a teacher. My stepfather had his own practice as a clinical psychologist, but he never really cared about money. He was just really interested in the work that he did. I was really intrigued by the work that he did, and I doubt I would have learned about psychology had it not been for my stepfather. So I think that I was most influenced by his career.

How did you wind up getting involved in business education?

When I was at Michigan, I realized I really enjoyed research, and I really had interesting questions that I wanted to answer, and those questions were largely around what happens in organizations. What happens in businesses? Why do companies operate and behave the way that they do?

I graduated quickly because I was ready to start working. I was eager to move out into the world and have a paycheck. I was looking more at sort of traditional corporate roles. My dissertation adviser said: “You’ll always be able to do that, but at this moment, I’m asking you to take one year and pursue something in a university setting. If you don’t like it, you can easily jump to McKinsey or American Express or Pfizer.” I really respected her opinion. And so I went and applied for one academic job. I expected to leave after one year, and 20 years later, I’m still in academia.

It’s a surer path to a comfortable life working at Pfizer or American Express than it is entering academia. What made you comfortable with that decision?

There was a lot of heartache in thinking about that decision. I had an offer from Pfizer, and this was when Viagra had just come out, and I was looking at the stock option package that they were offering. In hindsight, silly me for not for not taking that opportunity. But what I realized is I felt so much better about the work I was doing in higher education. I felt that the impact that I could have with my research and with the students was a deeper calling than whatever work I would be doing in human resources for Pfizer.

With your consulting work you were clearly looking at business, warts and all. How has that impacted your work today?

I’ve spent the past 20 years looking at the dark side of the business. There is never a shortage of case studies to study or to write about. What I realized once I started to have an opportunity to engage in leadership roles in business education was that I now have a platform to change the narrative around business. Business for many years had such a bad, negative reputation that I think it was inhibiting people who were quite talented from wanting to pursue business as a career possibility.

How is the Wharton curriculum being reshaped to address the increased focus on environmental, social and governance concerns, and diversity and inclusion?

It’s a twofold process. The conversations in the classrooms are changing because the students are asking for it. 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. If we want to continue to be an attractive choice for business school students, then our curriculum has to reflect what they’re asking for as a part of their business school experience. So that is starting to happen.

I would also say there’s a generation of faculty that’s now coming into significant leadership roles as department chairs, for example, who have much more influence in preparing the curriculum and setting the agenda, and those faculty are increasingly aligned with where the students are coming from.

How is politics finding its way into the classroom?

It’s no secret that academic institutions in general are typically perceived to be more liberal or progressive brands, rather than conservative. But a business school is potentially a bit more balanced. We are a microcosm of what’s happening in the world. And for a period of time now it has become out of favor to not be consistently aligned with the progressive movement. So I think that some of our students, and some of our faculty, have felt that they’ve been pushed underground because their views and ideologies are different from the perceived ideologies of a more progressive movement. And that’s a difficult place. We don’t all necessarily need to agree on everything, but we do need to understand how to engage with and respect the views and opinions and beliefs of all of our community members. I think business schools are struggling with that, as are companies.

Does the M.B.A. still matter?

I’m the dean of the business school, so yes, the M.B.A. still matters.

Do you believe there has been progress when it comes to real meaningful diversity and inclusion and opportunities for Black men and women over the last many years at corporate America?

The data speaks for themselves. There hasn’t been a lot of progress if you look at the sheer number of Black C.E.O.s or Blacks within one or two reporting relationships of the C.E.O. Why is that the case? I think it’s the case that we haven’t fully prioritized it as much as we have talked about it. And the two are very, very different.

In 2020 following the killing of George Floyd, the galvanizing efforts of C.E.O.s and executives is unlike anything that I had ever seen before. The question is how much of what we saw this summer was a reaction to his killing, versus how much of that will be a sustained effort to really think about the ways in which organizations recruit and attract and develop and promote and compensate Black professionals. Time will tell.

Do you ever feel like you’ve had to work twice as hard, or that there have been obstacles as a result of your gender or race?

Of course. But one of the interesting things that I’ve been grappling with is how much of that is pressure that I put on myself, versus how much of that is pressure that I actually have felt from other people. I don’t have the answers, but I certainly put a lot of pressure on myself with the belief that I had to be that much better, that there was no room for error or mistake. It sort of drives me in ways that has obviously led to opportunities that are quite extraordinary.

How do you expect Wharton will change during your tenure?

I don’t think we can just assume that because we’re Wharton we can just rest on our laurels and say, we’ll always be safe. We have to be mindful that our competition is not just other business schools. Our competition is complacency, and when you’re the best, it is very easy to become complacent. So one of the things that I hope that my tenure as dean will do is to motivate us to think about how do we want to define business education in the future, and not only rely on what we’ve done in the past.

I think the fact that I’m Wharton’s first female dean means there are likely going to be differences in how I engage with our alumni and with our students and with our faculty that are reflective of who I am as a woman at this level in business education. There just aren’t a lot of us.

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