Wharton Q&A: A New B-School Model, for a New Economic Reality

J.J. Cutler directs not only Wharton’s MBA admissions office, but its career management office as well. The dual role is unique among top business schools, but could prove hugely beneficial to the School.

By Tim Hyland

Yes, J.J. Cutler is a Philadelphia guy. Raised just outside of Philadelphia, Cutler did his undergrad work at Penn, got his MBA from Wharton and spent much of his early career working in the region, enjoying stints at ARAMARK, Johnson & Johnson and a local startup called Lindi Skin. His wife is from Philadelphia, and he currently serves on the board of the Independence Visitor Center Corp.

“We have a fairly deep commitment to Philadelphia,” says Cutler, C’93, WG’97.

Which is a good thing, because as Wharton’s Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, a role he’s held since early 2009, a big part of Cutler’s job is selling top-notch young business minds from around the world on living in Philadelphia—and committing themselves to Wharton. But that’s not all Cutler has on his plate.

Since May, Cutler has also overseen Wharton’s MBA Career Management Office, a strategic move that the School believes could create a more seamless experience for Wharton students and create better opportunities for them when it comes time to begin their careers.

Cutler, now the Deputy Vice Dean for MBA Admissions, Financial Aid and Career Management, recently sat down with Wharton Magazine to discuss the challenges and opportunities of his new role, the School’s recent admissions achievements, the challenges of the job market and more.

You came on board with the admissions office in January of 2009, right in the middle of a recruiting year. How was that transition?
We didn’t miss a beat. The admissions committee that was in place was a pretty strong, stable group. I also met peers at other schools, and then got out on the road very quickly. Within six weeks of the transition, I had been to Tokyo, Dubai and Bangkok, among other places. The following September I was in India, Taiwan, Vietnam, Paris and Madrid. And that was just in my first not-quite 18 months. I wanted to get out and meet with the alumni, find out what they were looking for, go to board meetings, talk to faculty. Admissions has a lot of stakeholders.

On the admissions side, are there any accomplishments thus far that you’re particularly happy about?
Yes—getting to 40 percent women [for the MBA Classes of 2011 and 2012] was probably the biggest numeric ‘stake in the ground’ for us. We were competing with the other schools toward that, and I felt like all of us were getting close. We saw that over the past few years everyone had moved from the 30s up through the mid-30s. But there’s a big difference between 39 and 40 percent. That being said, I think we need to get to 50, and the way you make that happen really isn’t through admissions. It’s about getting the most talented women to actually apply, because once the applications come in, the die is pretty much cast. We can only admit those students who apply. But if you’re a business school, you’re competing against law schools, with family commitments, with medical school.

Why is it still difficult to attract top female students to MBA programs?
Again, part of it is the fact that most of these young people would be good at almost anything they do. Some women are very passionate about business, and some of them are just very, very smart and have other interests. They feel maybe that they can get law school done earlier, or medical school done earlier [because they don’t need work experience]. All of those questions about work-life balance I think are even more of a concern for women. I also think, historically, women haven’t seen as many mentors in business schools. Maybe they haven’t seen business school as being an available option.

Are there any other challenges that you face right now on the admissions front?
The strong legacy we have in finance is both a positive and a negative. I think the financial crisis has probably been a little bit harder on us than on our peers. I also think Philadelphia is a hurdle. It seems that most people who come here [to visit] have never been here before, and that we still suffer sometimes from the old reputation of Philadelphia. When people do come here, though, they see Huntsman Hall and our campus and the city and they realize that it’s really world-class. The good news is that the Wharton brand, in some ways, sells itself. The faculty sells itself. So do things like WIMI [the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative] and the Baker Retailing Initiative—all the research centers, really. The alumni help sell the program in some ways, too. We in admissions don’t really sell much of anything. We just help people gather information about the program.

Your dual role heading up both admissions and career management seems rather unique. Are any other major business schools using this same model?
From what we gather it does appear to be pretty unique. From a student life-cycle management perspective and from a student services perspective, though, we think this was a good idea. Typically in admissions, you build the class and then you turn it over [to the School] and then you start recruiting the next class. A lot of times, people in admissions would say that part of what they wanted to sell in admissions was how well our career services work. In the past, maybe admissions tended to blame career services when things didn’t go well for them, and vice versa, but now, everyone can only blame me [laughs].

In the end, I think it just makes the School more accountable. It pushes the decision-making down a level. In admissions you tend to see things earlier—you see the horizon a little bit. So maybe we can now help prepare career management a bit. For example, there’s a lot more people coming in to Wharton now with private equity experience. We needed to be ready for that. The profile is just different.

Not to dwell on the unpleasant past, but from a career services perspective, can you give us a sense of just how bad things were a year or so ago?
It was a crisis. Between Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008, especially for Wharton, it was a crisis. I think the crisis has passed, but I also think we’re in a new era of sorts. By that, I mean that the mix of large employers and traditional industries and new industries is probably more balanced today than it’s been. More employers are coming in and hiring only one student, which didn’t happen 10 or 20 years ago. A lot of employers are coming in from the energy industry, from the technology sector, from media. We’re seeing other niche industries, too. More entrepreneurs. More sports business. We’re also seeing students go to development banks, to the IFC, going into microfinance.

What are some of your major goals and initiatives going forward?
We want to aim for continued diversity in our classes. And we define diversity very broadly. I think there will obviously be continued emphasis on our core priorities, but also on new industries. We have great diversity in terms of international students and the number of countries that are represented, but we want that number to go up. We believe the best learning takes place in the most diverse environments.

On the career management side, we want to continue to attract diverse employers and new industries. We want to aim for not only our traditional hiring areas but new ones as well. The demand for Wharton talent is incredibly strong, but we need to be able to help those organizations and connect them with our students while they’re here.

Obviously the crisis was a challenge. But this shift toward more diverse careers seems like it could be a good thing, right?
I think it’s good for everyone involved. It’s good for the School, for the world, for society. I think it’s making people view the MBA as a much broader degree—a leadership and management degree—that allows you to develop skill sets applicable in all kinds of organizations.

In the short term, it probably puts more pressure on admissions and career management, because the old model doesn’t work anymore. We just had to reinvent the process for a new world. In past recessions the old world bounced back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. But having the brand we have makes us better suited [to handle this] than a lot of schools. The challenge for us is to be very innovative, to work with students—this first batch of Millennials—and help them create a new economic reality.

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