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Geoffrey Garrett is the first to admit he looks an unusual choice for dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. But, adds the equanimous Australian, “it makes more sense the more I think about it”.
Those considering the appointment might easily come to the same conclusion. Although his knowledge of Wharton is limited – he spent just two years at there in the mid-1990s – he has teaching experience way beyond that of the traditional tenured professor. Indeed, his CV reads like a list of the world’s top universities: Oxford, Stanford, UCLA, Yale. His most recent role as dean of the Australian School of Business (now UNSW Australia Business School) means he has taught on three continents.
Prof Garrett has not only transferred between numerous universities, but in and out of business, academia and not-for-profit organisations. This, he argues, is to the advantage of Wharton, consistently ranked as one of the world’s top business schools.
“Could I have been a good dean at the Wharton School 10 years ago?” he asks. “I would say no, because I wouldn’t have had the perspective.”
Sitting in a leather chair in the dean’s office (the décor of which has changed little since Tom Gerrity held the post in the 1990s – Prof Garrett is swift to point out that his packing cases from Australia have yet to arrive), the newly appointed dean skilfully shies away from talking about any plans he may have for Wharton. He is still listening to professors and staff there, he says, and only when this exercise is complete will he make decisions.
Nonetheless, the picture he paints of Wharton in the future points to a school with a much more global mindset and an increased focus on technology-driven learning. The background for all of this will be the growing role of business in society, says Prof Garrett, a political scientist by training.
While the 1990s was all about globalisation and the 2000s was the technology decade, the next 10 to 15 years will be dominated by the pervasiveness of business, says Prof Garrett. “If you look at the world today and into the future, there are three characteristics: societal demands are going up, the capacity of government is at least stagnant, and the way big problems will be addressed in the future will be private sector-led. Wherever you look you see an expanding role for business.”
He acknowledges that being dean of a US business school will be very different from being dean of an Australian one. “For 100 years the world has come [to the US] and they stay. People come to you. Australia is exactly the opposite.”
This may make it more difficult to imbue a global perspective in students, but Prof Garrett believes all students at Wharton should have some kind of international experience. “The notion that international experiences can change your life are personal biography to me,” says the dean.
“The thing that was important for me when I came to the US to do a PhD was that I wanted to see the world; it was both the education and the opportunity to live in another country. International experiences are, at a minimum, mind-expanding and, at a maximum, life-changing.”
Wharton already has a second campus, but the school chose to invest in the US – in San Francisco – rather than overseas. The location does bring advantages, though, according to the dean. Specifically, the Californian location says that Wharton is a school for entrepreneurship as well as finance, and it gives a different perspective on the Pacific Rim. “You don’t have to be in Asia to educate Asian students,” adds Prof Garrett.
The San Francisco campus is increasingly being used to teach full-time as well as executive students – 70 of the full-time MBA students now study for a semester in California and there are plans afoot for undergraduates to do the same.
However, in March the school will take a substantial leap forward with the opening of the Penn Wharton China Center in the central business district of Beijing, the school’s first bricks and mortar outside the US. The centre will focus on teaching executive courses, research and career development.
But overall Prof Garrett acknowledges that heading a business school is not about quick fixes. “You can’t be too impatient for change,” he says. “It’s a very long game. The long game I see for Wharton is a wonderful one. I cherish the heritage, but I don’t want to be bounded by that.
“A wise person said to me recently [that] if you change 3 per cent a year, over time you will change 50 per cent.”
Prof Garrett is certainly pleased and gracious about his appointment as Wharton dean. “I have no doubt the job I had in Australia was the best job for me in Australia. This is probably the best role for me in the world.”
An international CV
With a PhD from Duke University, Prof Garrett taught politics and multinational management at Oxford, Stanford and Wharton before moving to Yale in 1997. Following a stint at the University of California, Los Angeles as dean of the International Institute, he became professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He was appointed dean of the Australian School of Business in 2013 and dean of Wharton in 2014.