By Nancy Moffitt
A Conversation With Patrick Harker, Wharton’s New Dean
For Wharton, using technology in the educational process is a given, says Wharton’s new dean, Patrick T. Harker. What’s not so clear, Harker says, is how Wharton can best blend technological and traditional educational tools to create what he calls “a community of learning.”
Harker, 41, is already immersed in a search for answers.
On February 8, he was named Wharton’s 12th dean after a lengthy search during which more than 200 candidates were considered. A faculty member for 15 years, Harker has held numerous leadership positions at Penn, including serving as interim dean and deputy dean since last summer. In these capacities, Harker oversaw development of the MBA program’s e-commerce major and expanded the school’s distance learning initiatives.
He joined the Wharton faculty in 1984, was named UPS Transportation Professor for the Private Sector in 1991, and served as chairperson of the Operations and Information Management Department from 1997 to 1999. Harker earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Penn in 1981, then received a master’s degree in economics and a PhD in civil engineering, also from Penn, in 1983.
Harker, who played defensive tackle for the Penn Quakers, says that as a college student he assumed he would simply become an engineer. But on a whim, he took a transportation course that changed his perspective entirely: for the first time, he saw and was intrigued by social ramifications of technology. Similarly, as a scholar, his research has probed the social and economic issues facing the service sector. Today, as an administrator, he continues to scrutinize and evaluate technology’s influence – this time on the learning process.
Harker is a resident of Haddon Heights, N.J., where he lives with his wife, Emily – a Wharton alumna who he met at Penn – and their three children. During an interview with the Wharton Alumni Magazine, Harker talked about his vision for the school, the challenges he faces, and the ever-changing world of business.
What will your top priority be as Wharton’s 12th dean?
Harker: Our top priority is essentially the same as it’s always been: attracting and retaining the best faculty. We are nothing but people. Yes, we have buildings and technology. But they really aren’t important if we don’t have the intellectual capital to deliver new and exciting content and ideas. Wharton’s intellectual capital – its faculty – have built this school. If you think about the past year, which was a transition year, we’ve not missed a beat and that’s because this faculty refused to go back. Tom Gerrity’s greatest legacy to this school, and (former deans) Russ Palmer and Don Carroll before him, was developing a faculty who are hungry, who want to be the best management faculty in the world, period.
The rest is really tactics. But the key is to get a group of people who want to excel. How do we continue to draw these people? The most important thing is to have an exciting intellectual environment here. And that means great colleagues and great students. For Wharton to stay on top, the school must create opportunities for its faculty to express their ideas and creativity through innovative research and educational programs.
What will your biggest challenge be?
Harker: Our biggest challenge will be going through the process of rethinking learning. This doesn’t have to do with curricula, it’s about all the new forms of learning and ways of teaching and the new opportunities that they present. The world of business schools is opening up pretty dramatically. We are facing competitors from new sources – namely, in the distance learning market. They are going after the business school market, and some, at the high end of the market. We need to prepare for that. We can’t just do what we’ve always done.
No one ever said that teaching in a box – an hour and a half two days a week – is the only way to teach, but that’s largely what we’re doing. We’ve experimented with Wharton Direct and some other things, but we have to accelerate those experiments because the marketplace will not allow us to stick with the old way. We know this because of what is happening among our student population: 25 students did not come back for the second year of their MBA so they could pursue dot-com opportunities. This may be a blip, but it may not. We don’t know. We also had a couple of undergraduates who didn’t come back, also to go off to dot-coms. And we’re seeing our students accelerating their program, with some MBA students finishing in December, taking classes through the summer and getting out. We’ve always had that, but we’re seeing a little more of it. We’re starting to see students behaving differently.
For Wharton, using technology in the educational process is a given. What’s not so clear is how to use technology to create economies of scope, not scale. Many schools are essentially saying we can create educational nuggets and shove them down distribution channels either in a classroom or over the Internet with the goal of selling to a lot of people. This is not the educational business we want to be in.
Students who come to Wharton should expect instruction on any relevant issue, and if we don’t teach it, we will use technology to deliver the world’s expert to your classroom. Doing more than we currently do rather than taking what we have and offering it to more people. It’s a very different view. We are evaluating the best way to teach particular course concepts, be it via lecture, case study, project, software or by linking with other schools and learning communities via the Internet.
In our executive education programs, we’re seeing more and more interest in not just teaching a standard course but working closely with companies to create custom programs with custom content to not only teach their senior executives but also to drive those perspectives down into the whole organization. We can’t do that by bringing all those people to West Philadelphia. We have to take West Philadelphia to them.
We’ve learned a lot from the Wharton Direct experiment. We learned that it’s not distance education or on-campus education, it’s the mix that works. It’s not about the technology. It’s about the appropriate technology for the content. There are some things you can only learn via case discussion. There are some things you can learn better using the computer. We have to break out of this mindset that says one size fits all.
Are you surprised to find yourself in this role?
Harker: Yes. When I assumed the deputy dean’s position last year I had no real thought of becoming dean. But the challenge of the position appealed to me. We are at a very exciting time in our history, and it’s fun being on the cutting edge.
Are business schools as relevant as ever in this dot-com era in which some suggest that education is less important than executing a good idea quickly?
Harker: Business schools are incredibly relevant in the dot-com era. The kind of knowledge that we are providing will not go away. Yes, you can start up a dot-com, but at some point you have to run it. And it’s easier to run when it’s in your garage. When it involves a thousand people, then you may have a problem. Lots of dot-coms start up, and then the venture capitalists parachute in an MBA to run the company.
When I meet with our alums, particularly our young alums in Silicon Valley, they tell me that the one advantage they have over many of their peers is the broad understanding of business they have. People without the MBA or the undergraduate degree really only understand a narrow slice of business. You can’t just be a cowboy. You can do that for a little while in the dot-com world, but sooner or later you have to turn a profit. The world is moving so fast that people think they don’t need to know those basics, but they do. Gravity still works and there are still some fundamentals of business, which we have to reinterpret and challenge with the dot-com revolution all around us, but that are no less vital.
What would you like to be remembered for as dean?
Harker: I would like for us to take the school to the next level and create a true community of learners where the boundaries between teacher and student start to be broken apart. In the end, the university should be a hub, or in dot-com parlance, a portal, where we bring the best of knowledge to the university and take the university’s knowledge out to the world.
How would those who know you well describe you?
Harker: In my blood, I am a teacher. It sometimes drives my kids crazy because I’m always instructing them. I’ve thought about a lot of things I could do with my life, but this is what I was genetically wired to do. But you can’t be a good teacher without doing research. People come here for perspective. And if a faculty member isn’t thinking new things and challenging the orthodoxy of a field or discipline, then the teaching is vacuous.
What special strengths do you bring to this post?
Harker: I have a lot of energy and I have a pragmatic vision. I have very clear view of where this place needs to go and I know that there’s a set of practical steps we have to take to get there. And we will be very aggressive in taking those steps. Our goal is to break out of time and space and create a community of learning any time and any place and really rethinking the very notion of education.
Whom do you most admire?
Harker: Two people: the first is my mother. My father died when we were young, and so my mother raised us on her own, and with real grace. She took care of her mother as well so there was a real sense of service. The other person is my father-in-law, Thomas Saaty, who was a Wharton faculty member years ago. He doesn’t settle for the status quo. He always pounded into my mind the sense that you have to keep striving for excellence.