In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In academics and in business, many subscribe to a similar philosophy — that historical events and experiences can help us understand, and sometimes even forecast, the future. But we are living in a moment that compels us to reevaluate and reconsider how we live, work, and interact with the world and each other.

While historical understanding is important, I have learned as a scholar of crisis leadership that individuals and organizations can improve performance by preparing for the unexpected. At Wharton, we are responding to dynamic and turbulent times by developing educational and research programs that will help the global business community respond to novel situations. While this mission is multi-layered, it has begun in earnest with the launch of the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Initiative, which is discussed in the cover story for this issue.

Wharton is using the power of knowledge, evidence, and data to stay one step ahead. For our students, this means preparing for a workplace in which business leaders will need incredible agility to steer through technological, social, environmental, and political change. Wharton will offer new paths of study, including innovative courses, completely new concentrations and majors, and interdisciplinary learning and research opportunities. Because business requires mastery of both the quantitative and qualitative — and command of both “hard” and “soft” skills — Wharton is equipping its students to make decisions that are data-informed and balanced with empathy, emotional intelligence, and broad societal perspective.

For our alumni, it means providing the resources and the network to help them make decisions that resonate in multiple dimensions, including among colleagues with whom they work, the communities in which they operate, and the world at large. Alumni can access Wharton’s targeted learning opportunities to keep up-to-date with all cutting-edge research and ideas that are being cultivated through programs such as Wharton’s Lifelong Learning and Executive Education platforms.

For our faculty, it means bringing together correlated research and building a colloquium of parallel research streams, further establishing Wharton as a destination for thought leadership. With this spotlight, Wharton can ensure that the groundbreaking findings the School’s faculty produce are center-stage and are reaching the spaces where these insights are most impactful.

Wharton’s many centers and programs continue to conduct programming, research, experiential learning, and experimentation in fields that have been investigating and redefining the future of business for years. Initiatives like Wharton Interactive (see “Level Up Your Learning”) and AI for Business, for example, harness the power of machine learning to push the boundaries of technology, allowing students and researchers to master new ways to work with data. Through the ESG Initiative, the School will coordinate centers and programs that are poised to help Wharton further realize its mission and strengthen its already formidable foundation.

With these activities underway, I hope the Wharton community can join me in anticipating a future in which our leaders are prepared to navigate, and shape, the unknown.


Erika H. James is dean, Reliance Professor of Management and Private Enterprise, and professor of management at the Wharton School.

Published as “Leadership and Scholarship for a New World” in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Wharton Magazine.