As Patrick Harker quits his job as dean of the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania he will be remembered most readily as the academics’ dean, a standard-bearer for academic tradition. That is ironic for a man who was one of the youngest deans ever in a top US business school and has pushed back many boundaries in business education. But his reputation has been earned for two good reasons.

First, he believed education at a top business school was about tackling difficult problems and working hard – not necessarily about having a good time. It was a view that resonated well with many in his profession. Second, he took a well-publicised stand against business school rankings.

On the latter, Prof Harker, 48, who becomes president of the University of Delaware this month, laughs that many people saw his decision as madness. But his views found favour with other US deans looking for a champion against the deluge of media assessment of business education.

Prof Harker believes the campaign he pursued with Harvard had some success. “We changed the rhetoric,” he concludes. But while applauding the moves by the two top schools, few others chose to emulate them.

Indeed, a frustrated Prof Harker points out that in the run-up to this year’s US News and World Report MBA rankings, which rely heavily on recommendations from deans themselves, he still got piles of promotional material from the very business schools supporting his stance. “What a waste of trees!”

His views on rankings relate as much to the prominence they are awarded by business schools as to the rankings themselves. “Their [the business schools’] worth is defined by what magazines say about them,” Prof Harker says. “They don’t do the hard work and say: ‘This is what we stand for; this is the kind of student that will succeed here.’” He believes rankings often lead managers to limit their choice of a school to one ranked in, say, the top 10 of a media listing.

On the academic side of running a business school, Prof Harker fought to maintain standards when many schools were bowing to pressure from MBA students and there was an increasing commoditisation of the degree. “As an institution we do them [students] a disservice and recruiters a disservice if we don’t push them,” he says.

All this came when business schools were questioning whether the MBA taught students what they really needed to know. “You always have to be a little bit paranoid and you have to question yourself: are we producing the kind of people the world wants?” At Wharton, he says, “the answer seems to be ‘Yes’ ”.

Prof Harker is unrepentant about his stand on academic standards. “Educating students and creating ideas – it’s not a very complicated business.” So it is not surprising he is sceptical about business schools that create programmes just to make money.

How to maintain academic standards yet sell the Wharton brand more widely – “engaging with the world in an effective way”, as he puts it – was one of the greatest challenges facing Prof Harker.

Lowering standards to develop mass-market products was not an option, he says. Alumni would not allow Wharton to offer “cheap” degrees, while faculty would not allow the school to reduce the quality of students. “If faculty believed students were not high quality, there would not be enough money to bribe them with,” he quips.

But for Prof Harker as dean, money was one of the big issues, and he lists fundraising as one of his big successes: in eight years he has raised close to $500m. The big achievement, he says, was to engage with alumni and increase the number of small gifts.

Increasing the money in the pot has meant he has achieved his second goal of increasing faculty size: he has added 20 members. This has enabled the school to set up a group concentrating on legal issues and ethics – the only top-drawer business school to have done this.

This also enabled him to open a second campus in San Francisco, but growth there has been slow. “The most valuable thing you manage is faculty time,” he says.

As a result, discussions among faculty earlier this year concluded the time was not right for Wharton to open a campus outside the US. Still, Prof Harker believes this will happen within the next decade.

Meanwhile, the school is reaching out to clients outside its local geo­graphy through its Knowledge@Wharton family of online research publications – the service has close to 1m subscribers – and through executive education.

Wharton already does $70m of business a year in executive education and has offices in China and India. Just how to evaluate the new Asian economies will be one of the biggest jobs for his successor, Tom Robertson, believes Prof Harker. “How do you actively engage with China and India? You can’t do it by flying people in. If you’re going to be a player you have to be there on the ground.”

He sees Insead, which has a second campus in Singapore, as a potential model for Wharton: the two schools have had an alliance since March 2001. But, he says, it all comes down to the inclusion of the faculty, and the reason they are not all earning mega-bucks on Wall Street is because of the lifestyle they enjoy as academics.

As for Prof Harker, he, too, is keen on teaching. Next spring, as president of the University of Delaware, he will teach a class in service management – the first class he has taught in eight years. And when one group of freshmen enrol on their degree programme this autumn they will be in for a surprise. Their mentor will be none other than the president.

So what will he bring to the table as president? “What I have learnt about myself over the past eight years is how entrepreneurial I am,” he says. And that, he concludes, he learnt from the faculty at Wharton.

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