Staff Q&A / Kembrel Jones

Kembrel Jones, deputy vice dean of student life at Wharton  Photo credit: Peter Tobia

At the most recent Wharton Spring Welcome weekend, where prospective students try Penn’s business school on for size, two students from Mumbai, India, were impressed enough by the experience to write a letter to the admissions office. In the letter, they gushed about Wharton, saying that any school with a “Dean of Happiness” was all right by them.

“The current students introduced me as the Dean of Happiness, and these students thought that was really my title,” says Kembrel Jones. “That’s my unofficial title with the students.”

Officially, Jones is the deputy vice dean of student life at Wharton—a brand new position created just for him by Wharton Dean Tom Robertson two years ago. Jones came to Wharton from Emory (where he also got his MBA) after helping to take that business school from an unranked position to the Top 20. Jones, who also holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Harvard, worked closely with Robertson for eight years before coming to Penn.

In his role as Wharton’s vice dean, Jones takes care of the needs of the 1,650 MBA students, helping to organize all of the fun events that contribute to the student life at the school—from the Wharton Follies, to the Battle of the Bands to the welcome weekends. He’s also the self-described “Dr. Phil of Huntsman Hall,” with a door open to students who need to vent, blow off steam or cry on a shoulder.

“We have to debunk this mystery or these impressions people have of Wharton and Wharton MBAs. I want people to know just what good people they are. Admissions does the most amazing job at finding these kids who are bright, but it’s not enough to be bright. They’re talented and they’re generous, and they’re thoughtful and they’re collaborative and they are creative,” he says. “They are really, really good kids.”

Now approaching the end of his second year at the school, the Alabama native (seven generations strong) is looking ahead and thinking long-term about ways to connect Wharton students to Penn and the community. “There’s one person at the dean level dedicated to everything [students] do outside of the classroom, and I’ve sort of become the institutional knowledge for what the students do.”

Q. What are your duties?
Basically I’m just here to run interference. I’ll tell you, I think I have the best job in the world. I just really think I do because it’s sort of a given that Wharton students are bright, because you can’t get in here if you’re not, but Wharton students are also generous, and they’re extremely talented, and they share their talents. The variety of things that go on at Wharton—they don’t happen anyplace else. I’m not even being biased. I’ve worked at other business schools. Just in the last few weeks, [the students] asked me to play a small role, a cameo appearance, in the Follies, which is our Broadway show that we put on. Unbelievable, the talent on the stage—the singers, the dancers, the actors, the writers, the orchestra. There was a 20-piece orchestra and they’re all Wharton students. My first year, I just assumed we hired that orchestra. It’s just amazing how people are willing to share their talent.
We have an international culture show where kids from other countries teach kids their dances. It will blow your mind. This week alone, I’ve been to Comedy Night—kids get up and try stand-up and they’re genius—and we had the Battle of the Bands. I want to support them because they, in turn, support me. At the Spring Welcome, we had over 500 guests on campus and I had 350 current students who helped me. I was so excited about how we represented Wharton that weekend [and] I was even more impressed with the current students and how they just pitched in and wanted to be a part of showing the world what we do at Wharton. We don’t sell that weekend. A lot of times those weekends are called ‘sell weekends,’ and a lot of times we don’t feel like that’s what we need to do. What we need to do is say, ‘Here’s Wharton and, for us, Wharton’s the best place we could be. But Wharton’s not for everybody.’ We’re OK with that.

Q. It sounds like the students who are here have shaped your job as much as you have.
When I got here, I interviewed 400 second-years, because I didn’t exactly have a job description. I sort of look at my job as being the director of internal marketing, because I think every organization has to continue to market internally. I mean we can’t just market to get [students] here and then not continue to market going forward.
I think maybe one of the things that I bring to the table is empathy. Sometimes, we think these kids go to Wharton and everything’s perfect and they can figure it out themselves. And what the kids told me was they need someone, basically, that they can talk to. I end up being the unofficial Dr. Phil of Huntsman Hall. Out of 1,650 kids, things happen in people’s lives. I think people know that I will listen, and there’s a sense of trust when the door’s closed that it won’t go any further. They’re human beings and we have to remember that. They are talented, high-achieving, Type-A people, but they still are human beings. ... If they’re hesitant to share with each other, then they know they can come and share with me.

Q. Do you help them feel connected to the University as a whole?
We have this reputation, I think, of being here in Huntsman Hall and we don’t associate ourselves with Penn. And so one of the bylines of that is that we don’t associate ourselves as much with the Ivy League, which makes me crazy. Our goal has been to, slowly but surely, introduce our students to Penn. At the Spring Welcome, for the first time, we used different buildings at Penn so we just didn’t stay in Huntsman Hall. I led 500 students through the campus. We pointed out that, actually, Wharton has a lot of buildings on campus, and people were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that.’

Q. Do you do anything special to make international students feel welcome?
The other thing that we tried to do this year is have school-wide events that don’t focus on alcohol. That’s been a really big push, and our international students tend to be in that group. At our Wharton Relays, we had a huge turnout of our international students. I’m trying to keep these activities that we have not culture-specific.

Q. You worked at Emory, so I imagine you have some pretty clear ideas about what MBA students need.
At Emory, I only had 200 students per class, so we were very connected. [Wharton Dean] Tom Robertson had worked at Wharton 15 years ago, and so as we were building Emory, we would look to Wharton to see what Wharton does. I’ve known about Wharton for a long time, so it’s kind of ironic that I’m here. ... I’m proud to say that with help from everybody at Emory, we were able to go from not being ranked to the Top 20 in all the major publications—BusinessWeek, Financial Times and U.S. News.

Q. What are your goals for student life at Wharton?
The first two years that I’ve been here, I’ve felt like I’ve been doing food, clothing, shelter. I look at this two-year experience and from my perspective it should be like a really good speech. You should open big, you should have three points of true contact and then you should close big. That’s what I’ve been working on these two years, to be sure that we welcome people, that we show people that we care and that we’re happy that they’re here; that we look at certain points that could be low points that we should turn into high points.
The first-year class, when they finished all their finals, at the end of their first quarter, which is the toughest quarter to be here, we surprised them with a cocktail party on the eighth floor. They were exhausted and they had five tests in five nights but I was like, ‘Let’s celebrate, you finished Q1,’ and we turned a moment that could have been not a good memory into a great memory.
When those [moments] happened to me at Emory, I remember those. In a business way, I say, that’s internal marketing, to do those sorts of things. And we’re going to close big this year because we are going to have a graduation weekend [with] four or five brand-new activities.

Q. And longer term?
I tell the students on day one, it’s a privilege to be at Wharton. I mean you worked hard to get here and I applaud you for that, but sometime in your life, somebody helped you get here, and you’re privileged to have had great parents, great teachers, to be given these abilities. I want to create a way that we sort of are reminded of that more on a daily basis, and [to recognize] that we have a responsibility to give back to the world.
In a place this big, it’s hard to have shared experiences with everybody, but I think we can have a shared belief system if we all believe that we’re all privileged and with privilege comes responsibility. That’s what I’m working on this summer, to figure out what we can all rally behind. It’s not all about us. It should be about other people, as well. And the student body wants that.

Originally published on May 6, 2010