Wharton Dean Seeks to Raise School’s Profile as ‘Force for Good’

PHILADELPHIA

The new dean of the Wharton School, Thomas Robertson, is the antithesis of one of the business school’s most famous graduates, Donald Trump.

Soft-spoken and genteel, Robertson is nevertheless as quietly ambitious as The Donald is loud: He is in charge of the effort to nearly double Wharton’s endowment to $1.2 billion over five years while making the highly-regarded University of Pennsylvania business school a “force for good in the world.”

“The greatest challenge facing the world, one might argue, is the inequality of income around the world,” said the 64-year-old dean, who took the helm at Wharton in August. “I think the future viability of the world is tied to solving some of these economic problems.”

“Sounds really grandiose,” he added wryly, as if such pronouncements were uncharacteristic.

If he talks more like a social activist at times than the head of a business school, it’s deliberate. Robertson’s biography on the Wharton Web site states his mission clearly: to champion Wharton as a force for good worldwide and create global economic and social value.

To state a social goal so directly is unusual for a business school dean, said Lisa Maw, executive director of Net Impact, a San Francisco group committed to using business for global improvement.

It signals Wharton has become more serious about schooling its MBAs for social good and not just for jobs on Wall Street.

Other business schools, such as Harvard’s and Yale’s, are ahead of Wharton on the social welfare agenda, Maw said. But Wharton, which is hosting Net Impact’s conference for the first time next year, is catching up.

“Wharton is such a top, outstanding program,” she said. “If they are willing to dedicate their resources in becoming a leader in this area they can do it.”

Raising more money will help. Ramping up the endowment by $550 million on top of the $690 million in the coffers might not be hard for Robertson. At Emory University in Atlanta, he nearly doubled the Goizueta Business School’s endowment when he was dean, and increased faculty ranks by 73 percent. Raising money for Wharton, one of the nation’s top-ranked business schools, could be easier.

But it’s not all about money. Robertson believes, as business schools increasingly do, that business skills can be deployed for social good especially in the developing world. It’s in everyone’s interest to do so because these countries become stronger trading partners and consumers. They also can become better managers of the money given to them by the U.S. and others.

“The key to their economy is sound management and new ideas and very often that’s missing,” Robertson said. “So you can put tons of money behind it and that’s value, and you can talk about forms of government and you can talk about corruption and you can talk about gender inequality and those are valid concerns. But the major concern is lack of management, lack of entrepreneurship.”

Robertson said major business schools tend to focus on developed economies plus a few developing markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. But underdeveloped nations should be included.

Some of Wharton’s efforts include developing high-quality chicken feed at a Zambian plant that led to higher yields of chicken, helping address the problem of hunger. Wharton professor Ian MacMillan worked with the veterinary school to develop the feed, as part of Wharton’s Social Wealth program.

Several finance professors are also interested in further exploring microfinance where poor people are given a little money to start businesses and become self-sustaining, creating an economic ripple effect.

Wharton is planning to create a Business Institute for Global Good, a research center that would tap the school’s various disciplines to find business solutions for global problems. It’s also looking into starting a global environmental initiative to consider best practices for businesses and proposed regulations to protect the environment.

“It’s one of the critiques of business schools, that they don’t pay enough attention to the social good,” Robertson said. “You’d like (students) to want to make money and so forth, but you’d like them to have a broader social view and want to contribute to society.”



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