On June 30, Dean Harker stepped down from his post as Wharton’s 12th Dean to become president of the University of Delaware. After seven years at the helm, he left the School more agile, more global, and fiscally and academically stronger — an institution that defined its own place in the world at a time when business schools and leaders faced tough challenges and questions.

Taking on a Growing Controversy

His counterpart at Harvard Business School, Kim Clark, met several times a year with Harker, a colleague he describes as outgoing, gregarious, and universally upbeat. “It was always a pleasure to be around him,” Clark — who is now the president of Brigham Young University-Idaho — told Wharton Alumni Magazine.

But Clark saw a whole new side to Harker when it came to discussions about the MBA rankings that publications like U.S. News, the Financial Times and BusinessWeek publish each year. “Exasperation and frustration,” he said, describing Harker’s ire with what he saw as a methodologically flawed process that lacked verifiable data and distracted schools from their educational mission.

And so in 2004, Harker and Clark led a revolt against the dozen or so MBA rankings by deciding to withhold contact information used in polling graduates or alumni — a vital ingredient in compiling the rankings.

“We were the early adopters of a trend that we are now starting to see heat up in higher education,” said Harker, referring specifically to a recent dispute between Sarah Lawrence College and U.S. News about its rankings process. “The point is not that the rankings are going to go away.

They are going to stay. The point isn’t either that the media doesn’t have a role to play in providing meaningful information to people to make decisions. That’s clearly important. The issue is trying to boil all that down to a single number that tells somebody ‘This is where you should go.’”

In his final interview with the Wharton Alumni Magazine before assuming his new post as president of the University of Delaware, Harker was characteristically forceful in discussing the rankings — and the fallacy of schools allowing themselves to be defined by them.

“If you want to be number one in U.S. News, you follow the numbers, leadership be damned,” he said. Educational institutions, he believes, should make admissions and administrative decisions based on educational criteria and goals, not influencing data points to game a rankings system.

“It all gets to a deeper issue,” he continued. “There is a whole winner-take-all philosophy that we have in our society that says, ‘If I don’t go to the top place my life is over.’ And that’s just not true. People go to all sorts of schools and flourish. But we tend to say that if you don’t buy the right handbag, if you don’t buy the right school, your life is over. It’s all part of an overall societal trend that I think is dangerous and damaging to our students.”

Substance Over Image

The rankings controversy is perhaps the most visible of the issues Harker took on during his seven years as dean. But his focus on substance over image came to define his tenure on every level, from record-breaking fundraising and the opening of Jon M. Huntsman Hall to international expansion and launching Wharton West.

Harker’s accomplishments include attracting and retaining top faculty in an ever-competitive market — the largest faculty of any business school. His vision of Wharton’s international mission led him to redouble the School’s efforts to connect with alumni around the world and share Wharton’s ideas with business leaders from Hong Kong to Costa Rica.

“He was one of the few deans of top U.S. business schools who recognized that business in general, and business education more specifically, needed to look beyond what was happening in the U.S., needed to consider more global issues,” said Della Bradshaw, Business Education Editor at the Financial Times.

Harker led the creation of Wharton West, the School’s San Francisco-based campus, and forged an alliance with INSEAD, the leading non-U.S. based business school. “He is the man who took Wharton out of Philadelphia and into the world,” said former INSEAD dean Gabriel Hawawini in a BusinessWeek article. “Dean Harker understood how globalization and the new economic environment are pushing business schools to adapt and better serve our students and corporate partners.”

That push also included oversight of two innovative and successful initiatives: expanding Knowledge@Wharton to nearly 1 million subscribers in 189 countries and Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Indian versions, and launching Wharton School Publishing.

Interesting Times, Tough Stands

Like many observers, Wharton Deputy Dean David Schmittlein cites Harker’s ability to take a strong, principled position as a foundation to his term as Dean. “These were interesting times to be a business school dean,” Schmittlein said during Harker’s farewell dinner in April. Schmittlein recalled a time during the dot-com boom when an e-learning company came to Harker and said to him, “We want your brand, we want your curriculum, we want direct access to your faculty, or we will bury you.”

Harker’s response was a polite but firm no-thank-you, and he instead set about building Wharton’s own e-learning platforms. The ongoing result was the Alfred West Jr. Learning Lab, which has developed 23 technology-enhanced learning programs — simulations, web-based exercises, and interactive materials.

Another challenge came after the dot-com crash, when the School was in the midst of its $450 million Campaign for Sustained Leadership — the most successful business school campaign in history — and construction of the 320,000square-foot Jon M. Huntsman Hall. “He refused to let that campaign fail, he refused to let the school fail,” Schmittlein said. “For me personally, his bringing that campaign to closure during that time period was the greatest thing I have ever seen a business dean do.”

Much of those funds will continue what Harker cites as was his most important work as Dean: attracting and keeping faculty stars in a hyper-competitive environment. At Delaware, this push for the best and brightest will continue, Harker said. “The faculty are the lifeblood of the university,” he said.

And the rankings, despite continued controversy, continue to be published each year and Wharton continues to be present, though the School’s position on not providing access to alumni has not changed. What has changed, officials say, is that the School no longer embraces the rankings or promotes itself through them, even when it’s consistently at or near the top of the list.

A Pennsylvania Man Goes to Delaware

Harker’s seven years as Dean were eventful ones, but his Penn roots run deeper. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Penn in 1981, then received a master’s degree in economics and a PhD in civil engineering, also from Penn, in 1983. He joined the Wharton faculty in 1984, and in 1991 was named UPS Transportation Professor for the Private Sector in 1991 — the youngest professor named to an endowed chair at Wharton — and served as chairperson of the Operations and Information Management Department from 1997 to 1999. A renowned scholar and respected teacher, his research has probed the social and economic issues facing the service sector.

Heading to the University of Delaware, he acknowledged, is a big change.

“Twenty-three years as a faculty member, nine years as a student — so almost three decades, yes, it does feel strange when I realize I won’t be driving to Penn anymore. But at the same time, it’s exciting. Delaware is a great place with a tremendous future. To be a part of strategizing about implementing that future is going to be great.”