At Wharton, a New Leader Confronts the Culture Wars

Here is another superb article from for The New York Times in which he shares his conversation with Erika James . To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

Credit:  Guerin Blask for The New York Times

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Erika James recently took over the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Already, she is enmeshed in debates about race, politics and the role of business in society.

As the nation’s oldest business school, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has had an outsize influence on shaping the culture of corporate America. For more than a century, Wharton has taught aspiring capitalists how to break into new markets, trounce the competition and mint profits.

Today, while the foundational skills needed to run a business are still important, companies are also grappling with concerns that go well beyond the balance sheet. Diversity and inclusion, inequality, climate change, immigration and, more broadly, the role of business in society are all part of the conversation, in the boardroom and the classroom. And earlier this year, to take the school in a new direction, Wharton hired Erika James as its new dean.

Ms. James, who studied at Pomona College before receiving her Ph.D in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan, is uniquely suited for the role. Her research included work on diversity in the workplace, as well as managing through a crisis, which led her to do consulting work with large companies confronting major challenges.

Before joining Wharton, she was dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Who were your professional role models when you were growing up?

I knew the life I wanted to have, but I didn’t know the career that I would foster in order to create that life. I’ve always been very attracted to being comfortable, if you will, even though we were really salt of the earth, middle-class people. My mother was a teacher. So my first role model was really the fact that I had a working mother, and most of the friends that I had did not. I just assumed I would work as well, though I never wanted to be a teacher. My stepfather had his own practice as a clinical psychologist, but he never really cared about money. He was just really interested in the work that he did. I was really intrigued by the work that he did, and I doubt I would have learned about psychology had it not been for my stepfather. So I think that I was most influenced by his career.

How did you wind up getting involved in business education?

When I was at Michigan, I realized I really enjoyed research, and I really had interesting questions that I wanted to answer, and those questions were largely around what happens in organizations. What happens in businesses? Why do companies operate and behave the way that they do?

I graduated quickly because I was ready to start working. I was eager to move out into the world and have a paycheck. I was looking more at sort of traditional corporate roles. My dissertation adviser said: “You’ll always be able to do that, but at this moment, I’m asking you to take one year and pursue something in a university setting. If you don’t like it, you can easily jump to McKinsey or American Express or Pfizer.” I really respected her opinion. And so I went and applied for one academic job. I expected to leave after one year, and 20 years later, I’m still in academia.

It’s a surer path to a comfortable life working at Pfizer or American Express than it is entering academia. What made you comfortable with that decision?

There was a lot of heartache in thinking about that decision. I had an offer from Pfizer, and this was when Viagra had just come out, and I was looking at the stock option package that they were offering. In hindsight, silly me for not for not taking that opportunity. But what I realized is I felt so much better about the work I was doing in higher education. I felt that the impact that I could have with my research and with the students was a deeper calling than whatever work I would be doing in human resources for Pfizer.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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