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When any dean is appointed to a business school, change can be expected. But Thomas Robertson, who took up his post in the summer as the 13th dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has set the bar higher than most.
Business schools, he believes, should not only teach students how to run a corporation but also be a force for good in the world.
“If you were to walk into a classroom at any leading business school you would tend to find discussion around developed economies and Bric economies, leaving a further 150 countries that are never mentioned,” he says.
“Companies are starting to see that it is time …to focus at the bottom of the pyramid, as the future economic growth of the world is in these countries.”
This is where management education can help. Business schools can come into their own as they can, for example, help to educate the non-governmental organisations that will in turn transform these countries.
Much of Prof Robertson’s thinking comes out of his time at Goizueta Business School at Emory, when he spent periods in Africa and experienced life in a developing country at first hand.
“Money is not the problem. It is the ability to use the money. There is a tremendous need for management, leadership and entrepreneurship, [in the developing world].”
“When I first got to Wharton, people told me we had a special responsibility, we should be at the leading edge of knowledge and should be taking a leadership role in the world, to improve the world.
“I do think Wharton has a special role to play – as do many other major schools.” Wharton, he says, should help to create social value.
One way in which Prof Robertson intends to achieve this is by expanding the faculty. He had only been in the top job for a matter of weeks when he made a series of senior leadership appointments, such as vice-dean for global initiatives and brand development and vice-dean of executive education – both areas in which he intends to make his mark.
“Faculty is the focus of everything we do. The most important thing I can do is maintain the quality of the faculty, move them in new directions and increase the size.”
Prof Robertson firmly believes that if there is any social institution that should be engaged in basic research and development for business it should be business schools.
“I would like faculty to work on relevant problems, but that doesn’t mean there has to be an answer in the short term. We are trying to develop knowledge and value in the medium to long term …A lot of faculty research is longer term and I think it should be judged that way, rather than [on its] short-term impact and the pressure of the immediate.”
As for global initiatives, Prof Robertson believes that Wharton can already tick the international box. It has well established connections with Singapore Management University, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration in Bangkok.
The alliance the US school has with Insead at its Fontainebleu, France and Singapore campuses has paid dividends, he says, and will be renewed. The two are looking at how to stimulate more joint research among faculty and how to carry out more joint executive education.
“We [at Wharton] have done a lot internationally and the question will be ‘Do we go further, would we put a stake in the ground somewhere else?’,” he says.
One possibility would be to establish an EMBA outside Wharton. But there are many caveats. “We would not do it for the money. It has to be sustainable and there has to be a major research component [to it].” This means, he adds, that Wharton would not establish an EMBA based on demand alone.
Prof Robertson acknowledges that it could be difficult for a school to maintain pre-eminence if it does not have a presence in a limited number of other markets.
“We will do things in India and China. We have been looking at opportunities, but we are not going to do it for the money. There must be a major research component.”
A further question for the future, says Prof Robertson, is: “How large do we want executive education to be?”
As an executive education provider Wharton has both tremendous scale and scope, almost unlike any other business school, and can offer many specialisms, he says.
It already offers a range of non-degree programmes internationally, either on-site at companies around the world, in Singapore, via Wharton’s Insead connections or in various locations through the school’s overseas affiliations.
Prof Robertson says that changing markets mean that custom programmes now account for two-thirds of Wharton’s executive education offerings. With some companies looking for schools that offer global connections, an emerging trend is that of executive education alliances with other business schools.
What routes Wharton intends to take are questions for the future, but in the meantime Prof Robertson is settling into his role as dean.
At 65, Prof Robertson has a great deal of experience of the pressures of the top job. A former dean of Goizueta Business School at Emory University and deputy dean at London Business School, he has also held academic positions at Wharton, Harvard and UCLA.
He is comfortable with the idiosyncratic world of academics yet his forays into the business world as board member and consultant ensure that he also has a shrewd idea of the needs of industry.
The dual experiences bode well for Wharton. For many, the role of dean brings as many pitfalls as it does pleasures, with a demanding travel schedule and fund-raising duties that account for much of any dean’s time. But Prof Robertson relishes the prospect.
“It is highly involving and is a wonderful platform on which to play and do interesting things and maybe do good for the world. I wanted the job and I am glad to have the job.”
2007: Dean of Wharton, University of Pennsylvania
2004-2007: Professor of marketing, Goizueta Business School at Emory University
1998-2004: Dean, Goizueta.
1995-1998: Deputy dean, LBS
1994: Professor, marketing, London Business School
1971- 1994: Wharton faculty member, professor, marketing
American Marketing Association: Best paper award, 1996 winter conference
European Marketing Academy: Best paper award, 1995 annual conference
Planning Forum Award: First place prize article in Planning Review, 1993
Sainsbury Chair: LBS
Pomerantz Chair: Wharton
Candler Chair: Goizueta Business School