01 Mar 2020 14:00 IST

Wharton business school names its first woman dean

Erika James is also the first woman of colour to head the 139-year-old B-school

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania announced on February 26 that Erika James will become the school’s next dean, effective July 1. James, 50, who has been dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School since July 2014, becomes the first person of colour and the first woman dean in Wharton’s 139-year history.

The announcement concludes an eight-month search to replace Geoffrey Garrett, who will take over as dean of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in July. It is not the first time that Wharton has gone to Emory for a dean. Before the Australian-born Garrett got the job, the University of Pennsylvania had turned to Tom Robertson who also had been dean of the Goizueta School when he was plucked from Emory and into Wharton in 2014.

“Erika is an award-winning scholar and teacher and a strong, proven leader who serves as dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said in an announcement from the school. “A passionate and visible champion of the power of business and business education to positively transform communities locally, nationally, and globally, she is exceptionally well prepared to lead Wharton into the next exciting chapter of its storied history.”

In choosing James, Wharton has selected a consummate professional, a highly accomplished and polished business school leader. Always impeccably dressed, James is both charismatic and smoothly articulate. She brings to the job a deep knowledge of the challenges facing business education gained from both her deanship at Goizueta but also a stint as an associate dean of executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. And James is probably the only dean ever to have been the subject of a case study which in 2008 described her as “a successful professional, a loving spouse, an adoring parent, physically fit, emotionally upbeat, socially polished, and seemingly cool, calm, and collected.” The case study explored the life and career of an associate professor.

Her academic and leadership experience will be tested at what is one of the top three business schools in the world. Wharton has more than 5,000 students across four-degree programmes, including more than 2,600 business undergraduates and nearly 1,800 full-time MBA students. The standing faculty numbers 241 professors across ten departments, with another 243 non-standing full- and part-time faculty members. At Goizueta, currently ranked by Poets&Quants as having the 22nd best MBA in the US, two-year, full-time MBA enrollment is less than 350 students, while the two-year undergraduate programme enrolls roughly 800, less than a third of the size of Wharton’s undergraduate student population.

With the hire, Wharton is making a commitment to innovation, diversity and inclusion. During her time as dean at Goizueta, James was instrumental in growing the school’s faculty base by 25 per cent as well as building a new innovation and entrepreneurship lab that is designed to reach students from across Emory’s campus as well as the Atlanta start-up community. James is further credited with boosting diversity in Goizueta’s faculty: She was awarded the Earl Hill Jr Faculty Achievement and Diversity Award from the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management last May.

Reaction from some of James’ team members at Goizueta was one of sadness yet joy over the opportunity she has received. “We are excited for her and she is so deserving of this new role,” says Jaclyn Conner, an associate dean for the school’s executive MBA programmes. “She has set us up extremely well. We are sad to see her go but happy for her at the same time.”

James’ appointment comes at a time when several of the most prominent female deans have recently moved on from their jobs to other duties. Sally Blount, the first woman to be dean of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, stepped down in 2018 after an eight-year run. Blount, who returned to the faculty, was succeeded by another woman, Francesca Cornelli, who had been the first female awarded tenure at the London Business School. Judy Olian, who had been dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management for 12 years, left in 2018 as well to become president of Quinnipiac University. But no woman, until James, has ever led a business school as highly ranked as Wharton. The last US News & World Report ranking placed Wharton’s MBA programme first in the nation, ahead of Stanford, Harvard and Chicago Booth.

“Erika has consistently and constructively drawn upon her own scholarship in the areas of leadership development, organisational behaviour, gender and racial diversity, and crisis leadership,” Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett said in the school’s statement, “applying her own insights into human behaviour to foster a work culture that allows people to thrive personally and professionally. She has led faculty and student workshops on such topics as unconscious bias and building trust across divides and has been engaged as a consultant by some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious firms.”