Credentialism vs. Substance

A speech delivered by Dean Patrick Harker at the 2004 MBA Convocation describes the foundation of a great business education: service, trust, morality—and a lot of hard work.

It’s a pleasure to get together with you again.

A lot has happened since we last spoke on the first day of pre-term. Math camp is behind you, as is the Leadership Retreat. You’ve been matched up with your learning teams, and you’re a full two days into your “real” classes. More importantly, you’re two days closer to graduation!

You’ve probably also noticed it’s a little more crowded on campus. That’s because you’ve been joined by your second-year MBA colleagues and our Wharton undergraduates — bringing our daily census in Huntsman Hall up to nearly 5,000 students.

An additional 20,000 students from Penn’s 10 other undergraduate, graduate and professional schools have also arrived. I hope you’re getting a sense of what a large and vibrant intellectual community you’ve joined.

This evening, as tradition dictates, we gather to mark the official beginning of your academic experience. Your faculty welcome you as candidates for the degree of master in business administration, and we have some thoughts we’d like to share as you begin this journey.

During your first weeks with us, we’ve given you a look at all of the opportunities available to you — both inside and beyond the classroom. Each of these activities is important and will shape your experience here. They will also define your readiness for the next chapter in your business careers.

Among this vast menu of choices, however, your academics are paramount. Extra- and co-curricular activities augment, but cannot supplant, the learning that you must do through coursework. After all, the degree of master in business administration — by its very name — requires that you master a body of knowledge and a practice of analysis and action that will make you effective business leaders.

Jane Jacobs, in her recently published book, Dark Age Ahead, explores what she believes are the root causes of the vast changes taking place throughout the world today, changes that she believes predict a steep decline in human progress.

It’s true that our world has changed dramatically in just a short period, and I believe we are in a time of real crisis.

Social, political and economic polarization along ideological lines has perhaps never been so serious, threatening the global marketplace, and, with it, the full energy of human potential.

We stand at a turning point. If we allow public discourse to degrade any further into a battle of simply who is right and who is wrong or whose beliefs are superior to all others; if we attempt to super-impose the economic or political ideologies of one culture on top of another without regard to the values and history of that culture; if we do not seek to expand basic human freedoms of self-determination and full social and economic participation – then, our future is, indeed, bleak.

Jacobs identifies problems under five categories of specific concern that she believes underscore our ability to turn this situ­ation around: the roles of family and community; independent scientific inquiry, government, public trust in the professions, and higher education.

The final two — public trust in the professions and higher education — are of particular interest to our academic enterprise here at the Wharton School. Jacobs contends that in higher education there has been a disturbing shift: that there is more emphasis today on credentialism than there is on true learning.

I’m hard pressed to argue with her observation. I don’t like the generally accepted notion among some students that the hardest part about business school is getting in. It implies that you won’t have to work still harder to get out successfully — that is, with the degree.

This comes up in discussions with my fellow business school deans with increased frequency these days. They, too, are witnessing a diminished expectation that academics are the core of the business school experience.

I’m deeply disturbed by this mindset, and your faculty here at Wharton are determined to do our part to reverse the equation. When you were shopping for business schools, you no doubt placed a great amount of importance in the “brand” of each institution you considered. You wanted a credential that opened doors, that made you stand out, that gave you an edge in the job market.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that desire. And it’s true that the Wharton MBA degree has that effect. Ours is a brand of growing strength, already recognized and valued the world over. But like every brand, it is vulnerable to decline – because without substance, any credential is worthless.

If it’s just an empty designation, if you — as an individual — don’t have the substantive knowledge and skills that built the reputation of the brand in the first place, you won’t be able to sustain the expectations that come with a recognized credential.

Without “true learning” by all members of our community, the Wharton degree may still open doors. We could all ride the wave of reputation for a while. But I know this to be true: when we coast, there’s only one direction we can go — downhill.

It’s important to remember that the doors a credential opens swing both ways. If enough of our graduates leave this institution without possessing a higher set of skills, and a broad knowledge gained from rigorous study, analysis and experimentation, doors will begin to close with the same speed that they were once flung open to welcome those with the Wharton degree.

These facts impose a set of responsibilities on the faculty and students alike in the academic enterprise. “True learning” that will give the credential of your degree lasting value requires, first of all, that the faculty offer a broad core curriculum to give you a solid grounding in the underlying disciplines of all business.

It also requires that we present the curriculum through the most effective learning methodologies — a combination of lecture, case discussions, technology simulations and experiential opportunities — so that you can learn most effectively.

Learning is not a passive activity — you have the responsibility to work hard to “get” not only what your faculty are sharing with you, but also what your classmates can contribute to the learning experience, because each person in the classroom must be engaged and must contribute thoughtfully to the learning process.

This isn’t just a matter of showing what you already know. It is also about realizing what you don’t know, taking risks, examining everything from new angles, challenging assumptions.

Business thrives on innovation, and innovation doesn’t spring just from the wisdom of the ages. It arises from the knowledge we create through experimentation and analysis.

It is not an accident that we have students from all over the world, from a range of industries, and with widely different goals regarding their Wharton educations and their plans for after they graduate.

Wharton is a learning laboratory — a community of learners — students and faculty alike. We actively encourage debate and the open exchange of ideas. We believe one of the greatest advantages of our diversity is that it brings the breadth of ideas and perspectives best suited to promote innovation, because innovation and change are born in the cracks, in the “in between” of one idea and another.

You and your professors will work together to nurture the environment where this type of learning and knowledge creation can best occur and where your Wharton MBA credential will gain its substance.

This brings me to the second of Jacobs’ concerns that we each have a responsibility to correct: the decline in public trust in the professions.

For business, this has been most clearly evident in the accounting and corporate governance scandals still playing out on the world stage, and I believe there is a clear link between the emphasis on credentialism in higher education and the decline in public trust in business.

The practice of business requires more than substantive knowledge of the how of business – how do you maximize profits, increase market share, design effective strategy and management solutions, for example. Business leaders must also have a firm grasp on the why of business — why and for whom we do what we do as business leaders.

When Joseph Wharton approached the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania 1881 with a proposal to establish a “school of finance and economy” — the first such institution in the world — his goal was to ensure that business would be studied in an environment that would shape the progress of economic development on a global scale. He hoped, above all else, that the school would produce graduates who would — and I’m quoting here — “serve the community skillfully as well as faithfully in offices of trust…maintaining sound financial morality.”

You enter business school at a time of great crisis. A dense cloud of suspicion and mistrust hangs over business practice — and with good reason. We are in danger of losing sight of our most basic responsibilities to shareholders, workers and customers. Too often we place personal gain and personal power above those responsibilities.

Again, when you were making the choice to go back to school for an MBA, I’m sure you considered the ROI equation. You wanted to advance your career, earn a higher salary and become more influential in firms for which you’ll work — or will create — after you graduate.

There is nothing wrong with this type of personal ambition. It’s healthy, and it fuels business growth, but business is about more than just making money. That may sound like blasphemy here at this bastion of market capitalism, but it’s true.

Business is essentially about serving others and about making their lives better — not just by increasing stock values and the net worth of individuals at the top of the economic scale, but also by providing meaningful, safe work at a living wage; protecting benefits and retirement savings; safeguarding the environment; producing reliable products and services at afford­able prices; and by expanding opportunities to participate in the economy and enhancing the quality of life throughout the social order. Business is — as Joseph Wharton said — about service and trust and morality.

Your academic work must take place against the backdrop of this reality. By the privilege of your educations, you will become the stewards of the global economic system. That system must be inclusive, enhancing opportunities for everyone on the social scale.

For more than a century, these have been the defining features of the Wharton degree and the value of the credential you will earn if you successfully complete this program: that our graduates have gained an unparalleled level of business knowledge, coupled with the desire to continue learning and creating knowledge; and that they possess an unwavering commitment to apply themselves to serve others.

It is our joint responsibility — you and your faculty — to safeguard the value of the Wharton brand through our work together in the academic enterprise.

I urge you to honor your commitments as members of this community and to the great responsibility we all bear for the future of our global community.

Thank you.

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