Wharton’s CFO Reflects On His First Year and Looks Ahead
- by Richard Rys
Harlan Sands W84 shares his thoughts on returning to work at his alma mater and his philosophy on overseeing the finances at a business school.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would have an opportunity to do this,” says Harlan Sands W84 from his office in Steinberg-Dietrich Hall. Behind him is a window looking out to Cohen Hall, where he took his first class as a wide-eyed Wharton undergrad and couldn’t have predicted that the path he’d eventually follow would lead back to campus. More than three decades later, Sands left his senior VP finance position at the University of Louisville and returned to his alma mater this past January, in the role of Wharton’s Vice Dean of Finance and Administration, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Administrative Officer. We sat down with Sands as he approaches his one-year work anniversary to chat about the challenges facing the School today, what he’s learned since returning to Wharton, and why he keeps up his old-school Navy fitness routine.
WM: How would you describe the experience as an alumnus returning to work at Wharton?
HS: Coming home after 33-plus years has been exhilarating. These are the bricks that I walked as a 17-year-old freshman. To have a chance to contribute now—I have trouble putting it into words. It really says something about the place that it evokes such strong feelings after this many years. One of the reasons that I am here is because the impression that Penn and Wharton made on me as a young kid and the opportunity that it gave me is something that I never forgot.
WM: Your career has taken a number of twists and turns—from the Navy to the Miami public defender’s office to higher education. How has that path informed what you do today?
HS: Those were formative experiences and very different ones. As a military officer, you wear a uniform, you represent the country, you have a certain amount of rigor and discipline that come with your every day job. All the functions I had in the military really depend on that hierarchical cohesive experience. To go from that to spending three years defending the accused where the power of government is against you and your clients—folks that have no resources to defend themselves—it really got me back to my roots as person, as a professional, as a leader. When I talk about how I look at things, and how we approach the engagement with students and manage an enterprise like Wharton—you can’t underestimate how those experiences contribute.
WM: Why come back to Wharton as an administrator?
HS: First of all, Geoff Garrett, the Dean. If you’ve met him, you know he’s magnetic. He’s got an amazing amount of energy and vision and drive. He sets the tone for how we can all be successful. Second, I’ve been in higher education now for almost 20 years, and the opportunity to get to the gold standard of what we do at a place where I spent my formative years is a pretty powerful pairing. Number three, Wharton is a very complex place. Even though I’ve done some exciting work at other institutions, it’s such a unique and invigorating challenge.
WM: What are the challenges that Wharton, and business schools in general, face today?
HS: The challenge in higher ed and business schools in particular is really about staying relevant. The rate of change in terms of pedagogy, the changing demographics of where our students, faculty, staff are coming from and going—it’s a very dynamic time. The days of managing around the edges, where we know tuition will move a couple points north, the student flows will remain the same, the budgets will stay stable, and you’re really only managing around one or two percent change? Those days are over. The rate of change—in our economy, in skill sets demanded by the business world—is driving us to be more nimble. So how do you translate that into doing the right things now that are going to put Wharton where it needs to be for the next 10, 15, 20 years? That requires a healthy amount of thought and collaboration and reflectiveness. Trying to carve out time to think about that and ensure the school runs well, too—that really drives us.
WM: How would you assess your first year as vice-dean?
HS: In academic time, that’s only like two weeks. [laughs] I have tried to spend as much time as possible talking to folks—listening, learning about what really is the essence of the place. I’m starting to get a real sense of how many things we do extremely well and where we need to invest in support services as pedagogy, teaching methods, and student needs evolve. Many of our graduates don’t realize how large and complex Wharton is, with a lot of moving parts. My role is to make sure all of our support staff are focused on the core mission of the school: providing a world-class student experience and helping faculty deliver leading-edge teaching and research. That’s it. Anyone who is not directly on the front lines should be working with every ounce of energy they have to support the people that do.
In higher ed, it’s important to strike a balance between extensive collaborative discussions and consensus-building—which is critical—and taking decisive action that can help the organization pivot. Corporations have quarterly reports and analyst meetings. If units don’t perform, or profits sag, decisions become easier at that point. In higher ed, the ship moves much more slowly and turning the ship takes a bigger radius. So after a year here, do I have my arms around everything? No. But am I figuring out where we should spend our time? For sure.
WM: What aspect of your job do you enjoy most?
HS: I’m a proponent of something the military called MBWA: management by walking around. I learn more outside my office than I do inside. I try to convey that to our staff in finance and administration. A lot of the stuff we do is transactional, but you should get out and engage with some of our customers on a one-and-one level.
A big part of the job is also financial stewardship—how we invest the precious resources that we are given to manage. We look at it as an investment, not a budget, and investments in the aggregate, not as independent units. When you do that, you’re able to say, “OK, if we can do this more efficiently, that’s money that gets reinvested in direct student support, in faculty, in other things.” That’s a critical component of good fiscal stewardship in higher ed. Some of those things involve tough decisions and hard conversations, but they’re worth it.
WM: Can you talk about the School’s plans for new capital projects?
HS: We have very generous donors, and that hopefully will translate into state-of-the-art facilities over the next few years that are going to be amazing and will transform the student experience even further. We are focused on creating more innovative teaching and research spaces, where we change the way learning happens and get beyond traditional lecture halls. We have some exciting projects in the works.
WM: Any learning moments or “this is why I came back to Wharton” anecdotes from this past year?
HS: Let me start with the “why I came back” moment. I saw a classmate of mine who I hadn’t seen in 30 years and is now a Wharton board member and a very generous donor to the school. We had dinner, and he talked to me about his children, his experience at Penn, sub-matriculating into Wharton as an MBA, and then he went to work on Wall Street. The way he talked about how important the Penn experience was to him and how he sent three kids here—I thought to myself, this is why I came back. What he did while he was here enabled him to be successful somewhere else, so he’s giving back.
The second example was when I met with the Wharton Investment Management Club. We give them real world experience helping manage a small portion of our endowment portfolio. These students know so much about current markets and various investment strategies, I realized that I was in need of some serious prepping before the next time I met with them. It’s great to be in a place where I am learning from students and faculty all the time. That’s another reason I came back—because you’ve got to bring your A-game every day.
WM: What do you do for fun outside of Wharton?
HS: I’m an avid reader. Books and four or five publications regularly. My wife and I are kind of foodies, so we like to go out and eat. Philly’s a great eating city. I do a decent amount of physical fitness, as much as my increasingly older body lets me. I’m old school when it comes to that—a little running, push-ups, sit-ups. Really helps both mind and body. I have two teenage boys, so the fitter I feel, the more I can keep up with them—and if you’ve had two teenage boys, you know that’s a big-time hobby. We are “all in” on the Sixers, and the games have been a great way to get them excited about the city.