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World After COVID-19: Erika James, The Wharton School of Business

Erika James is Dean of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In conversation with Soumitra Dutta and Dan LeClair of GBSN, she discusses the importance of engagement and outreach when dealing with global crises, as well as the positive developments she has seen during the pandemic. The interview took place 12 weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. At the time, James was the John H. Harland Dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. This is an edited transcript of their exchange. 

More interviews from The World After COVID-19 Series

Highlights from this interview:

  • Business schools will continue to explore how technology can enhance the learning experience.
  • The pandemic has exposed societal inequalities, but it has also brought forth an increased effort to support vulnerable populations.
  • Current global problems cannot be solved without a broad perspective.
  • The pandemic has given people the opportunity to step up in ways that their typical jobs might not allow.

Dan LeClair: Do you think what is happening right now is a turning point for the world, and if so, how?

Erika James: It is definitely a turning point for the world. This is a moment in time that will define a generation of young people, but also those in other age cohorts who have seen their life experiences turned upside down in a matter of weeks. Because this pandemic has led to such economic devastation for so many around the world, the effects will be with us for decades. It is hard to see how this could be anything other than a far-reaching, long-lasting turning point in what we have known as a normal way of being.

Soumitra Dutta: There are some who make the case that the COVID crisis is going to accelerate those forces that are already in play in the world, while others argue that there will be a dramatic shift away from our past tendencies. Which of these two camps do you think you are more in?

James: One force that has accelerated is the global shift toward nationalism. This pandemic has shown us what could happen if we continue toward the severe forms of nationalism that have been underway in many countries, and how impossible it will be to function as a global society without some pushback. We need to pivot in the other direction to say, yes, there are great points of pride that we need to take in our own countries, but at the same time, we are so far down the road on being an interconnected global society that we have to continue with that work.

Dutta: How do you think business leaders will change in the way they guide their companies, relate to government, or influence societal values and directions?

James: I think we have started to see a movement with some business leaders to recognize that they have a platform, and how they choose to use that platform—what they choose to communicate or convey—is growing increasingly important. I see many business leaders taking on a leadership role beyond simply their organizations. For example, I have been in touch with an organization called Conscious Capitalism. They are several CEOs of small, medium, and large businesses who are proactively—and fairly aggressively—trying to create a new narrative about the role of business and business leaders. This is a moment in time when we have the potential to see that movement and narrative get much more attention.

LeClair: How do you see the model for business schools changing? Do you think that the movement to online delivery could remain after COVID-19—and how do you think that could change the way people think about the price-value ratio for business education?

James: The business model is definitely going to change. We have seen business schools, colleges, and universities fundamentally transform how they deliver their primary product, which is what takes place in the classroom. Even those faculty who were most resistant to online education have had positive outcomes and learned from this experience. If nothing else, it has taught us how rapidly change can happen and how flexible and adaptable our systems can be. Do I think we will all stay in this mode of online learning indefinitely? Probably not.

There is real value to the face-to-face delivery model. But we are going to see much more focus on understanding ways that technology, digital platforms, and AI can enhance the learning experience. I think we will find more and more faculty who will be open to experimenting in ways that they might not have in the past.”

From the student perspective, this is a significant change. They have questioned whether or not online learning is as valuable as what they had experienced in a residential format. Truth be told, the fixed costs of delivering education have not changed. Our faculty are still our worldwide academic leaders, and that knowledge base still costs what it cost two months ago. Delivering that education, even if it is an online format, is not necessarily any less expensive than it was in the past. The value of the degree will still be worth as much thirty years from now as it is today. So, we have to recognize that regardless of the format, there is real value that comes in what schools are going to deliver. It may look different. It may feel different, but different does not mean that it has to be bad or worse. What we need is time to work through the kinks and understand what the new form of education will look like.

We are going to see much more technology utilized. Not every school and university is going to go completely online, but there will be hybrid approaches and new technologies as a result of what we are learning now. So, it is going to look different. It will be just as valuable—and has the potential to be more valuable, in fact—because we can now open ourselves up to more diverse populations around the world in ways that were more difficult to do in a strictly residential format.

LeClair: What about diversity right here at home? One of the things we are learning about COVID-19 is that it affects socio-economic groups differently, and that some populations which are already marginalized are suffering more than others.

James: COVID-19 has illuminated vulnerabilities and populations that many were less aware of and likely less sensitive to. I have been heartened by seeing communities reach out, support, help, advise, and provide resources in ways that they previously did not—or at least at a magnitude or scale that is different from what they had done in the past. I think it is all a matter of how we choose to experience and live this moment.

I have not seen many people retreat into themselves and avoid divergent opinions or ideas, which is typically the reaction to a crisis. I see people attempting to reach out more, engage more, and find solutions and sources of support in ways that were less likely in the past.”

Dutta: Some people argue that social distancing is actually just physical distancing while we are becoming closer socially to our families and others around us. How will social distancing affect us and society at large?

James: It depends on how long this goes on. I have seen positive outcomes as a result of social distancing with the people with whom I am relationally closest. As you pointed out, family members are finding ways to come together more than they have in the past. At the same time, if social distancing continues for many months or a year from now, I think it will start to affect how we integrate because it will become more normalized. Once it becomes normalized, then it requires a different kind of shift to get us back to how we engaged with people in a work setting and in social interactions outside of our immediate family. So, I think that there will be a tipping point. I do not know when that is, but there will be a tipping point that has the potential to adversely affect social dynamics longer term.

Dutta: If I asked you to look ahead, what would be your best-case and worst-case scenarios for the future?

James: If we can use this experience to learn that not everything can, nor should be, resolved in a political and partisan manner, which is what we have seen for so long, then we might achieve better, more integrated, and more far-reaching solutions. That would be a best-case scenario. I think the worst-case scenario would be if we become more entrenched in siloed thinking and in perspectives that do not allow us to consider new and different ideas.

We cannot solve today’s problems without a broad perspective of ideas and solutions, and that requires engagement and outreach to people, organizations, companies, and communities that we would not necessarily reach out to because we assume they do not understand or have knowledge of how to address today’s problems.”

The absence of reaching out is going to create more problems for us.

LeClair: You have had an already highly successful career as a dean at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, and you are moving now into arguably one of the most visible and powerful business schools in the world, Wharton. In light of what is happening right now and in light of your transition, how do you think you will change as a leader?

James: To your point, I am moving into an organization that is so visible, has a global reach through its alumni, and is seen as one of the world’s most influential academic institutions regardless of discipline. I cannot not be changed by that. I will be exposed to so many new ideas, people, perspectives, and scholarship that I will personally grow enormously from that experience.

The schools are very different, and the contexts within which they operate are also very different. At Emory—in the city of Atlanta, a highly visible and business-centric city—we have almost twenty Fortune 500 company headquarters. So, that influenced the choices that I made there. Going to Wharton—which sits in Philadelphia, a city that is very strong in healthcare and education—means that there are opportunities for me to grow and learn new industries in that context. And Wharton is so global that my own perspective will be enhanced pretty tremendously because of the access to Wharton alumni and leaders from all over the world.

My academic scholarship for the past twenty years has been in the area of crisis leadership. This is one of the first times as an academic leader where I am really being called upon to leverage that expertise, both practically and in so many other ways. It has been fascinating to be on this journey at this particular time.

Dutta: On that note, what advice would you have for other fellow deans as they try to navigate this crisis that will probably continue for some time?

James: What I have tried to recognize, and convey, is that I do not have all the answers. This challenge is so big that I have to rely on people’s experiences and expertise in ways that I never have before. I would encourage other deans to recognize that you will learn more about your faculty and staff in this moment in time than you have probably in the entire time that you’ve worked with them.

You will see people step up in ways that you could not have expected because they thrive under pressure and have an opportunity to demonstrate the creativity and innovation that their typical jobs might not allow.”

You will also see leaders in defined roles—people who are supposed to be the leaders—potentially not step up in ways that their position or title might convey, because these are moments when they would not necessarily thrive. We have to be mindful and learn new things about people in this way. Then, we can leverage skills and put people in the roles that they are suited for when we are experiencing this kind of crisis. Another thing I would say is to recognize that even though we have high expectations of people to perform in this moment, they are human and are also dealing with the challenges we hear about on the news. We have to be sensitive to those things they are managing that we might not see on a day-to-day basis.

This interview was conducted by Soumitra Dutta, Chair and Dan LeClair, CEO of GBSN. This edited summary was prepared by Mira Anderson, GBSN Programs Intern.