Agility and community — two of the core tenets of Diana Robertson’s vision for students when she began her first year as Undergraduate Vice Dean last July. Of course, she had no idea how essential those themes would become as Penn closed its campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and now as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the nation and the world. The Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor first taught at Wharton in 1993, returned to campus in 2007, and has experienced every facet of the undergraduate student experience (her contributions in the classroom recognized most recently by the 2020 University of Pennsylvania Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching). But nothing could prepare her for the whirlwind of recent events. Robertson checked in from her home office to reflect on the 2019-’20 academic year, ways that alumni can help students in these challenging times, what lies ahead with an uncertain fall semester, and the inspiring leadership of incoming Wharton dean (and her former Goizueta Business School colleague) Erika James.
Wharton Magazine: How have the past few months been for you and the Undergraduate Division?
Diana Robertson: The campus shutdown was a shock for all of us. My husband and I were in London visiting our son and his family for spring break. We decided to come back early on March 10, which was a day ahead of the travel ban and the day before Penn announced that classes would be on-line for the rest of the semester. So we were lucky to get home and back to campus.
In the beginning, there were so many urgent situations. At that point, we were confronted by the challenge of getting our students home or someplace safe. Then it was helping provide equipment to do their work. We heard a lot of stories about having a laptop but not a camera, or I’m on a farm in Australia without connectivity, or I’m in Philadelphia, but my family in Indonesia is advising me not to come home. And that was the first week.
I’d ask students where they were when they heard the University was closing. The most dramatic story I heard was one student who was on a train to Machu Picchu with other Wharton students. They went on to Machu Picchu, but then had questions about whether they could get out of Peru. Thank goodness they got out ahead of the airport closing for weeks.
As we transitioned from the emergencies, we began delivering online events. For example, we held a panel on whether to take classes pass/fail and a young alumni panel about working in San Francisco. And our students, who are always enterprising, were organizing events themselves, like Zoom yoga. Then we had virtual graduation, and now we have on-line summer classes and planning for the fall. I’ve been very involved in the planning process with Provost Wendell Pritchett, Vice Provost of Education Beth Winkelstein, and many others.
In the midst of the planning for uncertainty, we all witnessed the senseless murder of George Floyd and the ensuing justifiable protests.
That’s where we are. It’s a long answer to your question.
WM: Speaking of the protests, you recently sent a message to all Wharton undergraduates about institutional racism and supporting Black students.
DR: We held a community forum on Black Lives Matter as an opportunity to come together to listen to and amplify the voices of our Black students. It was powerful to hear what they are feeling following George Floyd’s killing, as well as what they experience as Black students at Wharton. I did send a message to all our students, but we need to go beyond messages and act. The Undergraduate Division is working closely with two student groups — the Wharton Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Group [WEDIG] and the Black Wharton Undergraduate Association — and the students have sent us suggestions for changes they would like to see at Wharton. We’re encouraging all students to share their ideas for how we can achieve our diversity and inclusion goals. All our students are future leaders, and I want to work with them to bring about a better, more just world for everyone, starting with Wharton.
WM: Aside from the arrival of a global pandemic, what was the biggest surprise for you during your first year as vice dean?
DR: There have been many, but one of the most pleasant surprises is the Undergraduate Executive Board. I wasn’t expecting such an active, engaged Board. They have been inspiring. The chair, Bonnie Jonas W91, is a dynamic partner in engaging alumni with our undergraduates. When campus closed, I was on the phone with Bonnie and other Board members who just wanted to know how they could help. Then, the answer was to give to the emergency fund, because we had to get so many students fed or housed. Now, it’s “Would you like to mentor a student? Does your firm have an internship, or do you have a job opening?”
The other equally pleasant surprise is how much I have learned from my staff. As a faculty member, I did not fully appreciate the extent and complexity of the work they do in terms of advising and student life. This talented, dedicated staff is critical to the mission of enhancing the Wharton experience of our students. They’re all here for the same purpose — to take care of our 2500 undergraduates. That is my purpose, too. To serve each student in the best way we can.
WM: What are some other ways alumni can help?
DR: Alumni love nothing more than interacting with students. If we’re at least partially online in the fall, there will be lots of opportunities for speaking engagements — and you don’t have to come to Philadelphia. We also have a program for alumni mentoring of all interested sophomores. Before the pandemic, the Undergraduate Board was in the process of forming a mentorship committee, particularly for our Successful Transition and Empowerment Program students. STEP is for historically underrepresented students and was started by my predecessor, Lori Rosenkopf, and we take great pride in the program. The mentoring doesn’t have to be professional advice — it can be life advice. In addition to our STEP students, we also have FGLI — first-generation, low-income students — who are forming a community. These are great students for our alumni to connect with. [For more information on mentorship opportunities or other ways to help undergraduate students, contact Lee Kramer, Director of Student Life]
WM: This is also such a unique time for the School with the arrival of the new dean in July.
DR: I have to start by saying that Erika James and I were colleagues at Goizueta Business School — we were in the same department and her office was three doors down from mine. I am one of her biggest fans. She will be terrific. We had our first virtual meeting, and she really understands the importance of undergraduate education and that Wharton is the number one undergraduate business school in the world. We talked about my PACT vision for students. She is incredibly supportive, and I so look forward to working with her.
WM: Can you explain what PACT stands for?
DR: Purpose, agility, community, and technology. I’m an ethics professor, so it won’t surprise you that purpose is first. It’s about values, understanding who you are, giving back, taking time for reflection. Agility is being willing to explore and change direction, not being too set in where you think you’re headed. It feels even more relevant in the COVID era than before. Community — there’s a view that some students don’t feel the sense of community that we want for them. We want all students to feel included, and that feels even more relevant given the Black Lives Matter movement. And of course, technology — these students are going into a digital economy, they’re going to need these skills and need to use them for social good. That’s the ethics professor in me.
WM: What are your priorities for the start of the school year in September?
DR: Certainly working with Erika James and having her meet students and understand the Wharton culture and all the groups who are so important to our undergraduate experience — including alumni, of course. I am sure that she will set an agenda as well, and she’s very supportive of diversity and inclusion, as is our division.
Another priority is student wellness. If there was ever a time to focus on student wellness, it’s now. We have a Counseling and Psychological Services [CAPS] professional embedded at Wharton, and we need to ensure that we have the capacity to more fully meet the needs of all our students.
I think of the events we had this year and we did a “PACT Week” in February. For “purpose,” we did a story slam with students about how they found their purpose, and it was very genuine, emotional and real. We need events like that, even online, so we can get to know one another. The Undergraduate Division will also continue to support student clubs, which are another big source of community.
WM: Is there anything you want to address that we haven’t covered?
DR: One of the things that I said in my virtual graduation speech is for our seniors — I feel so much sympathy for them. These past few months have not defined us. When I think about this first year as vice dean, I’m going to think of this pandemic period, but so much good came before it. It is a privilege to be vice dean. I loved teaching, but now I can work on behalf of all our amazing undergraduates.
WM: What would you say to the students who are continuing — or just beginning — their Wharton experience under these unusual and uncertain times this fall?
DR: It’s still a great time to be at Wharton, however it unfolds in the fall. Of all the things our students can be doing now, to be at Wharton — with their classmates, the faculty, the staff — it’s still a fantastic place to be. Even online, the students are still getting a world-class education. Our teaching ratings were higher in the spring than they’d been in the previous fall. We know that there will be more pressure in the upcoming fall. We must do it even better. We are committed. Our faculty and staff are agile and ready to go!