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Dean sees Wharton as a force for change

The new dean of the Wharton School, Thomas Robertson, aims to boost the business school's endowment to $1.2 billion. The new dean of the Wharton School, Thomas Robertson, aims to boost the business school's endowment to $1.2 billion. (H. Rumph Jr./Associated Press)
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Associated Press / November 12, 2007

PHILADELPHIA - Wharton School's new dean, Thomas Robertson, is the antithesis of one of the business school's most famous graduates, Donald Trump.

Soft-spoken and genteel, Robertson is nevertheless as quietly ambitious as The Donald is loud: He is in charge of the effort to nearly double Wharton's endowment to $1.2 billion over five years while making the highly regarded University of Pennsylvania business school a "force for good in the world."

"The greatest challenge facing the world, one might argue, is the inequality of income around the world," said the 64-year-old dean, who took the helm in August. "I think the future viability of the world is tied to solving some of these economic problems."

"Sounds really grandiose," he added wryly, as if such pronouncements were uncharacteristic.

If he talks more like a social activist at times than the head of a business school, it's deliberate. Robertson's biography states his mission clearly: to champion Wharton as a force for good worldwide and create global economic and social value.

To state a social goal so directly is unusual for a business school dean, said Lisa Maw, executive director of Net Impact, a San Francisco group committed to using business for global improvement.

Other business schools, such as Harvard's and Yale's, are ahead of Wharton on the social welfare agenda, Maw said. But Wharton is catching up.

"Wharton is such a top, outstanding program," she said. "If they are willing to dedicate their resources in becoming a leader in this area they can do it."

Raising more money will help. Ramping up the endowment by $550 million on top of the $690 million in the coffers might not be hard for Robertson. At Emory University in Atlanta, he nearly doubled the Goizueta Business School's endowment when he was dean, and increased faculty ranks by 73 percent. Raising money for Wharton, one of the nation's top-ranked business schools, could be easier.

But it's not all about money. Robertson believes, as business schools increasingly do, that business skills can be deployed for social good, especially in the developing world. It's in everyone's interest to do so because these countries become stronger trading partners and consumers. They also can become better managers of the money given to them by the United States and others.

"The key to their economy is sound management and new ideas and very often that's missing," Robertson said.

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