The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School announced on April 17 that Dean Thomas S. Robertson will be stepping down at the end of June of next year. A search committee will be put in place by the university to fill the position.
The Scotish-born Robertson was appointed dean of Wharton in August, 2007– eight months before investment bank Bear, Stearns & Co. collapsed and was sold in a fire sale to J.P. Morgan Chase and 13 months before the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. For a school that had just sent 47.6% of its MBAs into financial services, and one at which Lehman was Wharton’s sixth largest employer, it was not exactly great timing.
A soft-spoken intellectual with a gentle demeanor, Robertson astutely steered the school through the economic implosion. Wharton worked harder to get smaller boutique investment firms, hedge funds and private equity players to recruit its MBAs. The job market recovered and Wharton quickly bounced back.
Robertson’s job, however, was made more difficult because he assumed the leadership of the school after a less-than-successful run by Patrick Harker, who left to become president of the University of Delaware. Harker, a classic engineer by training and demeanor, took over the school in early 2001 when Wharton had been number one in the BusinessWeek rankings for eight straight years. Within 20 months, Wharton plunged to fifth place, behind Harvard, Stanford, Chicago and Northwestern. It was the school’s worst showing ever in the BusinessWeek ranking and directly attributable to lackluster leadership.
Robertson, however, was coming to Wharton as a seasoned dean and a former veteran member of its marketing faculty, having taught at the school from 1971 to 1994. He cut his dean’s teeth at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School from 1998 to 2004 and is widely credited with positioning the school as an international leader in business education. He led Goizueta into an unprecedented era of growth, increasing the size of the faculty by 73%, doubling revenues, and nearly doubling the endowment. He also developed new international alliances for the school, spurred major growth in executive-education programs, added a major new building, and launched a new PhD program.
He was teaching marketing at Goizueta for three years when Wharton came to him with the offer of the deanship. At Wharton, Robertson strengthened Wharton’s academic departments by significantly increasing the size of the standing faculty and raising support for both new and existing centers and research programs. He also championed the review of Wharton’s degree programs and made major commitments to the new MBA curriculum.
“The base of it all is intellectual capital, hiring lots of brilliant faculty and having a fantastic staff,” he told Poets&Quants in an earlier interview. “That’s where I get deeply involved. You’ve got to get that right.”
No wonder, then that the school said his legacy will perhaps be best known for his effort to increase the impact of Wharton knowledge. Robertson staked his deanship on three core themes: innovation, global initiatives and social impact. He appointed vice deans and managing directors in each of these areas to make sure that Wharton became a key player in educational technologies, international business, and social responsibility.
Still, Wharton never regained its No. 1 status in the BusinessWeek ranking lost under Robertson’s predecessor, but the school has moved into third place, just behind the University of Chicago’s Booth School and Harvard and just ahead of Stanford and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Poets&Quants currently ranks Wharton fourth in the U.S. after No. 1 Harvard, No. 2 Stanford, and No. 3 Chicago.
Moving into the deanships at both Goizueta and Wharton were relatively easy transitions for Robertson. Besides his earlier teaching duties at Wharton, he has also taught marketing at Harvard Business School, UCLA’s Anderson School, and the London Business School where he was chair of the marketing department from 1994 to 1998 and deputy dean in charge of the school’s portfolio of degree and non-degree programs.
Dean Robertson intends to return to the Wharton Marketing faculty to teach and pursue his research interests once he leaves the deanship on June 30, 2014.