Erika James refers to herself as the “Accidental Academic.” As she was completing her doctorate in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan, she received offers to work as a consultant in New York, but a trusted advisor suggested that she try academia for a year. Until then, she’d never really considered becoming a professor, much less a dean someday. A position at Tulane University would lead to Emory University, along with a turn to the administrative side of higher education and eventually her appointment as dean of Emory’s Goizueta Business School. “I always felt energized by the next step in the academic life cycle,” James says. “Somewhere along the way, people noticed that I had a knack for leading and for managing change.”
While James may see her career as something of a lucky accident, her appointment as dean of the Wharton School is the very definition of preparation meeting opportunity. James made national headlines in February as Wharton’s first female dean as well as the first person of color to lead the School in its 139-year history. Then her inaugural year unfolded in a way that was both unpredictable and perfectly suited to an expert in both crisis management and workplace diversity.
In late July, only a few weeks into her new role and with plans for the fall semester still in flux, James sat down for a (socially distanced) interview with Wharton Magazine just off campus, with a view of Penn Park and, further west, Huntsman Hall, which she had yet to step foot inside. Over the course of a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from her priorities for the School to higher education in the COVID era to the current racial justice movement, James was a natural conversationalist, insightful and reflective while still quick with a smile or personal anecdote. In short, she’s precisely the kind of leader Wharton needs today and for the future.
Wharton Magazine: We’re having this conversation less than a month after your arrival at Wharton. How is your transition going so far?
Dean Erika James: It’s going well, but it’s certainly been unusual. I’m coming in at a time when we’re having to reconfigure how we deliver education. So the normal time that a new dean would take to do the listening tour, meet people, and get socialized into the community — I didn’t really have that option. We needed to move right away into planning for the fall and making decisions about whether we were going to be remote.
But I’ve learned a lot about Wharton, more quickly than perhaps if had I done the more traditional route. I needed to engage with so many constituents, and in that process, I learned how willing people are to reposition what they normally do in order to help the School advance in a critical time. There has been a generosity of spirit with the faculty and the staff to sacrifice what they would ordinarily do to meet the needs of the situation that we’re in with the fall.
Between the time you were hired and your arrival, the pandemic had an enormous impact on the School and on your role as dean. Can you forecast what your priorities for the year will be, particularly given your expertise in crisis management?
I’ve thought a lot about this, because it’s one thing to study crises as an academic expert. There’s a lot that I took away from my scholarship. When I was dean at Emory, I felt that we were prepared if something happened. But here, something did happen, and it happened at a time when I don’t yet know the students, the faculty, the staff. And yet we’re going to have to hunker down and manage this thing for which there is no playbook.
It’s important to focus people’s energy. In a moment in time when everything is happening, it’s easy to run off in different directions and not really channel energy in a way that’s going to move the School forward in the midst of the crisis. That central area of focus is the fall semester. How are we going to deliver to these students? Everything was geared toward executing that mission.
I also felt it was important to make sure that the right people were in the room making these decisions — that’s a key tenet of crisis management. Bringing together a diverse group of people who sit at different levels within the organization has advanced our thinking and allowed us to move faster on what’s going to work for the fall.
The third thing is communicating. People are clamoring to know what’s happening. It’s taken a minute for us to get our messaging together, but that has been crucial. The more we communicate to all of the stakeholders who are waiting for questions to be answered, even when to us it might seem mundane — that kind of constant communication is critical in a time of crisis.
You’ve said that continuing to bring Wharton to the world is essential for you. How do you accomplish that in this current environment of both the pandemic and the backlash against globalization?
Technology and the span of our alumni network allow us to bring Wharton to the world. We can do things faster — instead of organizing a trip for me to visit our alumni in China, I can be face-to-face with an alum in China on Zoom. The other thing, which is relatively unique to Wharton in the context of business schools, is our size. The fact that we have nearly 100,000 alumni around the world means that Wharton isn’t just what happens here in Philadelphia or in San Francisco. Wharton happens wherever we have alumni all over the world. If we need access to content, information, experts, jobs, you name it — it’s literally a phone call away. So how do we leverage their expertise to help incoming students? Or to help alumni in other regions? Or to provide access to research and data for our faculty?
How has COVID-19 changed your perspective on what higher education could be and should be?
The simple answer to that would be that it’s caused us to use technology in new and interesting ways. But to me, what has been more profound is that it has allowed higher education to recognize that it can move faster and be more flexible than anyone has ever given us credit for. The stereotype is that higher education is slow, and it takes forever to turn the ship, even for simple decisions or changes. I think we have a tendency to reinforce that in ourselves, as if it’s a badge of honor to take so long and to be so methodical. COVID has forced us to recognize that we can, in fact, be expedient and move quickly. That’s a new narrative we can tell ourselves: We have the wherewithal and the skill to take advantage of new opportunities that are presented.
You’ve talked about how you’ve managed to have a successful marriage in which you and your husband haven’t lived together full-time, I think, for …
Almost ever. [laughs]
So I was wondering if there are any lessons you’ve learned that you could apply to what we’re experiencing now at Wharton — trying to build relationships with people who can’t be together.
That’s a very intriguing question. My husband and I met at an airport, and we were living in different states at the time. So our relationship grew over the telephone, and you’re not going to sit on the phone and not talk, like you might if you’re at a movie or dinner with friends and you’re not really interacting with each other. So we were forced to build a relationship based on communicating.
In the context of Wharton and this pandemic, we can’t physically be in a room with students and colleagues in the way that we had been in the past. So the communication has to be real and meaningful and authentic. It can’t be surrounded by a lot of fluff. It has to be targeted, because it’s so limited in some respects. I believe that if communication is at the foundation of any relationship, it’s hard to fall off the tracks, because you have something very fundamental to rely on.
Pandemic aside, what excites you most about this moment in business education?
I want to help create the understanding that business is central to every facet of society — whether one is in health care or in education or the not-for-profit sector or the arts or in a traditional corporate setting. It’s inappropriate, I think, to segment society in such a way as to say it’s business or health care, or business or education. It’s business and all of those things. Because at the core, business allows societies to prosper, and if we do it right, they will prosper in a sustainable way. I always try to find ways to integrate the work of the business school with other facets of the university. I look for interdisciplinary opportunities to engage. And I think we’re going to start to see that happening more and more — linking the sciences and liberal arts to business. That’s my mission, to integrate.
You’ve touched on the scope of Wharton, and I’m curious about your philosophy on how to lead an organization with so many different stakeholders — students, faculty, alumni, staff — especially moving from a smaller student body at Goizueta to a much larger one.
You have to create communities within the larger organization and then make sure that those smaller communities are connected. So you’re creating nodes of nodes, if you will, to use network terminology. For me, what is central is the recognition that I can’t do this job alone. I need to be surrounded with people who share a vision for the School, who are creative thinkers, and who are willing to work hard on behalf of the School.
It reminds me of when I was writing my dissertation. If I thought about it as this voluminous book of 300 pages, it felt daunting and overwhelming. But when I focused on what this one chapter was about, I could see that in a way that allowed me to move forward and make progress. It’s the same thing at Wharton. I have to look at little pieces of the School, see where I can make progress, and then understand who I can leverage and lean on for help to advance all aspects of the School.
Faculty diversity was a priority for you at Goizueta — 46 percent of the faculty hired during your tenure there were women. Is that something you plan to carry over here at Wharton?
Yes, it is. I have to understand the Wharton culture before I can do a blanket assessment of the opportunities to enhance diversity. But what is clear in higher education is that the students are clamoring to have more representation at the front of the classroom. In business, that means women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the differently abled. So I assume that that is the case here. Wharton has been a leader among business schools when it comes to diversifying the student body — 41 percent of the MBA class of 2022 is female, and underrepresented minorities make up more than 40 percent of the class as well. I think there’s an opportunity to do something similar among the faculty, but I have to pursue it in a manner that is consistent with the Wharton culture. I aspire for Wharton to reflect the world that our students come from and will be going into.
Can you explain what you mean when you say you consider yourself a virtue capitalist?
I believe in the value of capitalism and how it has advanced society. But I also believe there’s a responsibility that businesses have to use their resources — not only their financial resources, but the talent that exists within organizations and industries. It’s time that they advance not just the organization, but the communities within which any business resides and society in general. Some people refer to it as conscious capitalism. For me, it’s not just about doing good — it’s about integrating the good into the core of whatever the business is so it’s not tangential. It’s not a side project. It is fundamental to how we extract oil from the ground or do any number of things.
This seems to be a question that every Wharton dean has grappled with in recent years: How do you maintain Wharton’s position as “The Finance School” while continuing its growth in all areas of global business?
We need to dance with the person who brought us to the dance, right? Our reputation has been built on our finance prowess, and I want to see us continue to reinforce that strength. World economies are changing rapidly, so the need for progressive scholarship in finance is more important than ever. But we also have to recognize that the world is big and diverse and requires so many other disciplines in order to advance. Data analytics is one of those things right now. We have to be a player in those areas that are capturing attention and are serving to advance growth. We have to be broad enough to cover a lot of terrain and deep enough in the areas where our passion and strengths lie as a school.
This is where our size is a clear advantage. That we touch people and provide access to business education — from pre-college with our Wharton Global Youth programs, to degree programs at the undergraduate and MBA levels, to non-degree programming for executives — means that we are incredibly well positioned to learn about and impact emerging needs and trends.
The growth of Venture Lab aligns nicely with your emphasis on entrepreneurship at Goizueta. What do you see as the future for entrepreneurship education?
I’m interested in how we help develop people to become entrepreneurially minded. That means to think innovatively, to harness creativity, to understand what problems need to be solved. That’s what the best entrepreneurs do: They see an identifiable problem, and they put their effort and resources to solving that problem. Regardless of whether you’re working in a bureaucratic organization or whether you’re an entrepreneur, there is something to be gained by being able to think entrepreneurially. So that’s the focus I would hope we invest in. If we create new business ventures through Venture Lab, wonderful. And if we don’t, we’ve created something else, which is a mind-set that will be advantageous to our graduates.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement and this current moment of civil rights that we’re experiencing — both personally and in terms of how Wharton can continue to make strides.
Personally, it has been a world of dichotomies for me. My appointment as dean came at the end of February, which was maybe two months before the recent protests that were sparked because of George Floyd’s death. I watch and I listen, and I participate in conversations where there are clear inequities that exist. There are people who are really hurting in this country, and many of those people are folks of color. As a woman of color, I have been privileged to be put in the position where I’m leading one of the best business schools in the world, which is a far cry from the conversations and the protests. Trying to sit with two realities has been — it has been a struggle. It’s just a tension that I have felt within me. And as I assumed the role, knowing that there was so much attention around the country, and also within Wharton, about what was happening around race, I needed to understand the Wharton culture and understand where Wharton is in its own evolution with respect to diversity.
So I spent some time meeting with Black student leaders, the Black faculty and staff, so that I could have some perspective and understand what they experience in this community that I am now responsible for leading. I learned that there’s such an appreciation for Wharton and such pride in being affiliated with the Wharton School. That’s a really good foundation.
But I also experienced or heard that there’s some work to do. And for me, it’s actually at this point less about making Wharton more diverse and more about taking the diversity that we already have and creating an environment that allows people to feel included, to feel as if this is a place where they can thrive. That’s where the work needs to come. Once we achieve success on the equity and inclusion aspects of DEI, then we will likely have more success on increasing the representation of people who are diverse.
We also have the opportunity to think about how to enhance the diversity that’s here. Like most other schools, we’re in a hiring freeze, so that may take some time. But I don’t want to just sit and do nothing. Real action is possible. The question is, how do we build on the current environment in a way that allows everyone to feel like they can contribute at their highest level?
What is your advice for how alumni can engage with the School during these challenging times?
It’s been a real privilege for me to spend time on these Zoom calls with a number of alumni and donors — to learn what keeps them so passionate about the School, what excites them, and to hear what they think the opportunities are for Wharton going forward. I have always found that alumni really enjoy opportunities to give back by being in the classroom. That actually becomes easier to do now, because they can hop into a class and share their wisdom and expertise on their lunch break. This goes back to your question about bringing Wharton to the world. Part of what we can do is to get our alumni who are in the regions where those students are to form their own little learning communities together. [For details on the new Wharton Alumni Welcome program, which connects alumni and current students around the world, see “Come Together Right Now (Over Zoom).”]
You’ve said that one of your joys these days is just going outside to get some fresh air. Can you share a little bit about what you do when you’re not eating, sleeping, and breathing the Wharton School?
I ran track throughout high school and college — the 400 and 800 meters and the mile relay. So being active was always important to me. Over the years, running took its toll on my knee, so I had to find other forms of activity. I’ve done kickboxing for a while, and I’ve been doing Pilates for a number of years. The flip side of that is, I also love deep relaxation. I’m a big massage devotee.
I still love travel. Haven’t been able to do that as much lately. That’s one of the good things about being dean — so much of the job is being on the road, meeting with alumni, and I enjoy that aspect of the role.
And then I am the mother of two teenagers, so that keeps me busy. We talked about my commuter marriage, and on Friday, I’ll celebrate my 21-year wedding anniversary.
Out of those 21 years, and if you add the five years we dated before that, I think we spent maybe a total of two years living full-time together as husband and wife. My husband had a global job, so he was traveling constantly and had to live in different places. So we’re very accustomed to that. But this will be the first time that I am not the parent who’s at home. My husband Jimmie, son Jordan, and daughter Alexandra are still in Atlanta so my daughter can finish high school. So I’m parenting via Zoom right now, which is kind of a surreal experience. But I think it will be good for my kids and husband. Someone asked me, “How does Jimmie feel about staying home to parent Alexandra?” I said to them, “I think the better question is, how does Jimmie feel about staying home being parented by Alexandra?” Which seems to be what’s happening. [laughs]
Published as “A Leader for This Moment and Beyond” in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.