Patrick Harker


Some recent moves connecting the Wharton School to the global economy are just first steps in building an even better business school, said the Wharton dean.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke


Now that Wharton has a French connection and a branch in San Francisco, don’t think that’s the end of it. Patrick Harker, 42, Wharton’s dean for the past year, said in an interview two weeks ago that Wharton’s going to change even more.

Behind his affable manner — a warm handshake and eyes that focus on whoever he’s addressing — is a mind working at warp speed to stretch Wharton, its faculty and its students in new directions.

Q. What are your favorite projects since you’ve become dean?
Well, that’s a hard question. There are a lot of good things.

Q. The major ones?
There are three major things that I’ve initiated this year. The West Coast facility, Wharton West. We’ve just announced last week our relationship between Wharton and INSEAD [one of the world’s outstanding business schools, located in France], which really does provide a new opportunity for the school and for the students here. And third is a new learning lab which will be publicly announced within a couple of months.

Q. Before you tell me about the lab I just briefly want to you to tell me about what’s important about the two new Wharton locations.
They’re really all three interrelated. Because what we’re trying to do is create an environment here where a student comes to the Wharton School and gets the highest quality learning environment. And that means recognizing that we can’t provide everything. All knowledge is not contained within the walls of the Wharton School.

And so, for example, on the West Coast, we knew that we didn’t have good ties with some the industries there — not just the high-tech industry, although that is an obvious component, but we’ve also launched a new initiative around sports entertainment and media. It’s a huge industry; it’s very poorly understood and it’s moving from a mom-and-pop operation to truly large, some may argue not-well-managed organizations. But there are two very efficient organizations. A good example of this is the company YankeeNets. They own the [New Jersey] Nets, the New York Yankees, and now Manchester United in the U.K.

We need the West Coast not only to teach there, but to plug into those industries and try to understand what’s going on, so that our faculty can start really getting in depth with their shirt sleeves rolled up doing research with those companies and bring new courses and new material into the classroom.

It’s the same with INSEAD. Clearly the number one school, business school outside the United States is INSEAD. They have campuses built in France and now a new campus in Singapore.

Q. Besides exchange programs and a joint research center, how does INSEAD add to your school?
Around 46 percent of our students today are born and educated outside the United States. So a lot of those folks want to go back to their home country or home region. If it’s a large multinational company, that’s not a problem. Companies come here, our students get access to the companies. But if the students want to go to a mid-class company, or a startup company, high-growth company, we can’t make all these ties. Conversely, INSEAD has the same problem.

And then second, with our faculty, again the world’s becoming very small. Globalization is not some big concept to us. Almost half your class is from outside the U.S. Everyday in the classroom the university faculty members are faced with, Well, what does this mean in Indonesia? Fine, you tell them it’s a principle. “I don’t think it works in my country.” And when you go back to your office as a faculty member, you have to ask yourself, Hmm, I wonder if it does work there? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the principle I’m trying to preach and teach doesn’t apply. So I better learn what’s going on.

Q. Okay, so let’s get back to the third initiative — the learning lab.
We schedule classes for an hour and a half, twice a week, and we teach them. And we’re really good at teaching. We’re very proud of our teaching. But that’s not the point. Teaching isn’t the point; learning is the point.

What’s the most efficient, effective way for students to learn a given concept or a given skill? In some cases, it’s using a case in class. In some cases it’s using a simulation. In some cases it’s a traditional lecture. In some cases it’s an experience. It’s not clear what’s always the most efficient, effective method for students to learn.

What we need to do is do some experimentation where there are other ways of getting the student to learn the material. And that’s what the idea of this learning lab is. It’s truly a laboratory where you can take a whole class.

We have a class this semester, a Mike Gibbons securities analysis class — he’s the chairman of finance — where his whole class is being taught using a simulator that was initially developed by another faculty member, Marshall Blume, in the finance department, and then Mike adapted it from an equities market to a fixed-income market. There are no exams, no homework, it’s all just simulator. And he thought very carefully about, in the simulated environment, how do I make sure the student doesn’t get penalized for bad luck versus not understanding the concept?

Q. But what’s being simulated?
The fixed-income market. The students are buying and trading fixed incomes. And underneath of that, fixed-income instruments. And underneath of that, there’s a marketplace that he’s controlling and making more and more complicated over time. And through that they’re learning principles and underlying theory of the market and as he makes the market more complicated he enriches the theoretical story as well.

Q. So he still talks to them?
He still talks to them, but it’s a very different reason why they come to class now. They come to class because they’re motivated by trying to understand how to make their own strategy work in the simulated environment. It’s very different from, I’m gonna cram this information in your head and you regurgitate it back to me.

That’s just one experiment. We did another one, with not with a whole class, but one section of a marketing core course, where it was the designing of a new product. And it was a very rich, multimedia exercise. The faculty kept up-to-date on how students made decisions.

What the faculty led them to do was see what videos they watched, what texts they read, how did they migrate through the maze of information to make a decision.

In the long run, we’ll start to break down this idea a class as being 13 weeks long, an hour and a half, twice a week. I honestly don’t know where our future will take us but we have to start doing some serious experimentation to really look at what is more effective. What we don’t want to do is use technology for technology’s sake.

Q. So what’s your vision for the future of Wharton?
I think in the long run, we will remain a Philadelphia-based institution, but with significant powers around the world. The phenomena we study are changing rapidly and globalizing rapidly. I think you’re going to see many more connections to the world than we have, and we have a lot right now. But I think it’s just going to get richer and richer.

On the cover: Harker with Jon M. Huntsman Hall construction in background.

Originally published on April 19, 2001