The value proposition of business schools like Wharton has always been that we empower our students to realize their full potential and aspirations—for themselves and for their organizations, their communities, and the world. But in the aftermath of the financial crisis and with the recent rise of populism, the heart of our education is sometimes framed negatively. The perception is that we train and produce self-centered, myopic graduates who are more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.
This criticism has always been unfair. Many Wharton alumni are changing the world for the better through their careers in government, not-for-profits, and the social sector. Their contributions to society are clear. However, our alumni are also leading positive societal change in the private sector; they are often very well compensated, but that doesn’t make their societal contributions any less. “Do well by doing good” (a phrase attributed to Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin) is a reflection of benevolent behavior, not net worth—and to that end, all careers should be judged on equal footing.
The two biggest challenges facing the Western world today are increasing economic growth and making that growth more inclusive. For emerging markets, building better infrastructure—particularly in already clogged cities—is essential to realizing their full demographic and developmental potential.
The role of business in meeting these massive societal challenges cannot be overstated. For the world to thrive in the 21st century, business must excel at its job. That job is to innovate, to increase productivity and efficiency, to expand the pie, and to provide opportunities for all people to succeed. Nothing is more important, and alumni from all sectors must participate.
It is a great time for business schools. Championing the positive role of business should motivate all we do, whether it’s using skills to generate higher rates of return for everyone’s savings, or creating new and better ways to do things through our spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. Data and analytics learned at Wharton can improve decision-making and judgment, and developing leadership skills will generate great outcomes from good ideas.
Business schools are critical social institutions not only because they help students realize their full potential as individuals, but also because they empower students to use their passions and talents to maximize their impact on society. Wharton is in the global vanguard of doing both, and I am privileged to support and lead our community in the limitless possibilities for our achievements.
Geoffrey Garrett is Dean and Reliance Professor of Management and Private Enterprise at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.