When the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania launched its search last year for a dean to replace Patrick Harker, observers speculated that the B-school would look outside Penn for a replacement. With the June 21 announcement of its choice—Thomas Robertson, a former dean of the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University and a former Wharton faculty member—it appears to be getting it both ways.
Robertson, who will take over Aug. 1, served as dean at Goizueta from 1998 to 2004 and is currently a professor of marketing at the school. He also is the executive faculty director of the Institute for Developing Nations at Emory, giving him experience in international education, a key area for Wharton's future.
Wharton officials called him a "statesman-like, soft-spoken, accessible, and visible leader" in an announcement to students by university President Amy Gutmann and Provost Ron Daniels. Robertson was selected on the strengths of his academic accomplishments, fundraising skills, and experience as an administrator, they said. They also noted his experience in developing Emory into an internationally known business school.
Deep Roots at Wharton
Robertson is credited with boosting the reputation of the Goizueta School, increasing the size of the school's faculty by 73%, and doubling the school's endowment and revenues during his tenure as dean.
In addition, Robertson had "deep roots" in the Wharton School, according to the announcement. He was Wharton's associate dean for executive education from 1984 to 1988 and also served as a professor and chair of the school's marketing department. Prior to Wharton, he taught at UCLA's Anderson School and Harvard Business School. He also served as deputy dean of the London Business School from 1995 to 1998.
Robertson, a native of Scotland, is an expert on marketing strategy and competitive behavior and has written a dozen books.
In a phone interview June 21 while traveling from Atlanta, Emory's home, to Philadelphia, Robertson said he was aware that he was heading to a bigger school with a wider array of issues. "I've been at Wharton before. I've been a dean. I'm sure there will be problems that will arise that I've never seen. But going into it, I'm fairly comfortable with much of what I'm expected to do."
John Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), said he is not surprised that Wharton chose a candidate who already had significant experience at the school. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," he said. "Wharton has plenty of top business school leaders that go through the different elements of administration and elsewhere and then come back."
Large Applicant Pool
His appointment comes after a semester-long global search for a replacement for Harker, Wharton's current dean. The school hired executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles (HSII) to help conduct the search and considered a pool of 143 applicants. "We were looking for someone who would have to fill a very tall order," said Provost Daniels.
The school's search committee whittled down the original pool of candidates to 20, ultimately settling on Robertson because of his experience as a veteran dean and his vision as a business school leader, Daniels said. Still, it is a "low-risk" appointment for the business school, said Gabriel Hawawini, the former dean of INSEAD, a school with which Wharton formed an alliance under Harker. "The big question is whether he will adopt a conservative leadership style or will he make bold moves," said Hawawini in an e-mail.
But while Wharton has remained one of the top U.S. B-schools, observers note that it doesn't have the same global reputation as Harvard, the school with which it's most often compared (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/10/06, "Who's Next for Wharton?"). Now that Robertson has secured the position, he will be faced with a number of competing priorities and challenges. Here are some of the top issues he'll have to confront once he arrives on campus:
Improving communication with students
Robertson will want to avoid some of the mistakes Harker made when he first joined the school. The departing dean got off to a shaky start when he failed to find a replacement for Wharton's placement office in the three months before graduation and the summer following graduation in 2002. The school quickly lost ground with recruiters and students, tumbling from its place atop BusinessWeek's 2000 B-schools ranking to fifth in 2002. "The [placement office] became complacent. Precisely when we needed them to be innovative and proactive, they were unable to deliver," said one 2002 graduate to BusinessWeek at the time.
The rift between Harker and students never fully mended. One of the most recent criticisms of Harker's tenure was that he was unresponsive to the needs of Wharton students. An Apr. 16 editorial in Wharton Journal, a student business school publication, said that students' concerns about improper financial aid practices and questionable professorial conduct were greeted with "deafening silence" by the administration. The authors of the editorial asked that an incoming dean hold regular, publicized office hours for students. They also asked for the dean to hold "town hall" meetings with students on a quarterly basis.
Robertson said one of his top priorities will be getting to know the students, faculty, and staff. "I've got to get out there and just get integrated a little bit," he said.
David Orowitz, a second-year Wharton student who is executive vice-president of the Wharton Graduate Association, said the student leaders at the school are looking forward to having a collaborative relationship with the new dean. "We want the administration to share a vision with us on how Wharton will continue to evolve," he said. "We also want them to have informal relationships with student leaders so we know what's going on and they know what's going on,"
Increasing Wharton's international presence
One of Robertson's top priorities is expanding the school's global reach, he said. The school has international partnerships with schools such as
onclick="popup(this.href,770,600);return false;" target="popup">INSEAD, but has yet to establish a campus in another country, he said. At least half of the top Executive MBA programs already have international campuses. The school needs to explore establishing joint degree programs with other international schools and creating new international programs. "We don't really have an international or global footprint," he said.
Robertson's long-term international vision for Wharton impressed the search committee, said Daniels. "I think that Tom has a sense that as much success as we've had, that this is very much a work in progress," Daniels said. "He's determined to advance Wharton's international standing and to make that international perspective that much more integral to the Wharton program."
Making Wharton stand out from its competitors
Wharton needs a leader who will continue to help the school distinguish itself from its competitors, said Fernandes of the AACSB. This is where Robertson's strong marketing background will help the school, he said. —When you get to the top of the heap, having a little extra edge in the marketing of a business school is probably that little edge you need to distinguish yourself," Fernandes said.
Indeed, Hawawini, the former dean of Insead, said Robertson will need to come up with fresh ideas and innovations for the school. "His top challenge is that Wharton does not need fixing," Hawawini said. "Maintaining the status
quo, however, may not be the recipe for continued success."
Robertson said he plans to come up with fresh and innovative ideas to keep the school ahead of its competitors. The school's administration, alumni and students have high expectations for him, he said. "Wharton is used to being a super B-school and having top rankings. We have to continue that and at the same time move in new directions because the world doesn't stand still," Robertson said.
Retaining Wharton's faculty and attracting new professors
Harker said in a 2006 interview with BusinessWeek that he believed one of the primary challenges facing his successor would be to retain the school's top-notch faculty (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/10/06, "Leaving a 'Global Mindset'"). During his time at the school, he helped grow the size of the faculty, as well as attract those with new academic expertise.
Robertson said he is aware of the fierce competition between business schools for talented faculty. He plans to work at developing strong relationships with the existing faculty, while continuing to look for new talent. "The faculty wants to know the school has a vision for the future and that it will remain a top-flight business school," he said. "I have to present that vision and encourage and nurture the faculty and continue to hire really great ones."
Robertson was praised by President Gutmann and Provost Daniels for being a "highly successful fundraiser." Raising money for Wharton will be one of his top priorities, especially as the university embarks on a new capital campaign. A previous capital campaign at the school raised $450 million, the largest sum in the school's history. The money will be needed to recruit and retain faculty and global brand-building.
Alumni said they are confident that Robertson will be able to thrive in this role. "To bring on this new dean, who has international experience and more importantly, can bring a lot of marketing depth to the table, was a very wise decision on the part of the university's board of trustees," said Tama Smith, the current chairman of Wharton's Global Alumni Association.