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Monday, September 26, 2005

Article about Wharton

Wharton's culture conundrum
September 26, 2005

I first heard about Wharton on a chairlift in Chamonix, France, from two inebriated Turkish men (the quiet one we only knew as "Jack Daniels").

Two years later I walked into Huntsman Hall as an eager freshman with no idea what I'd gotten myself into. Resumes, investment banking, suits or Wall Street -- I had contemplated none of these things prior to my rented minivan's arrival at the Quadrangle.

With last month's release of Nicole Ridgway's The Running of the Bulls: Inside the Cutthroat Race from Wharton to Wall Street, a chronicle of seven students' experiences during the 2004 fall recruiting season, it is unlikely that future matriculants will enter Huntsman Hall quite as naive.

The book, written in a surprisingly objective fashion, reads somewhat like a pathetic reality-TV show in print, which is pretty much what one would expect from a book about on-campus recruiting. There's the former Texas cheerleader who thrives on working 120-hour weeks despite the occasional emotional breakdown, the Indian boy who upsets his relatives by choosing a consulting firm over the family business, and five others with their own unique, yet similarly disappointing, stories. There was a glimmer of excitement when one senior realized he might want to do something different, something with real impact, but don't get your hopes up too much -- he chose public finance at a large bank.

Such an iconoclast.

Ridgway refers to the fall recruiting process as "the final sprint of a four-year long marathon," and through a focus on recruiting, The Running of the Bulls aims to broadly address the nature of Wharton's undergraduate program. However, as articulated by The Wall Street Journal, Ridgway's work "raises more questions than it answers."

As this book will undoubtedly fall into the hands of many potential students (including some of you ambitous College freshmen), it is particularly important that the Wharton Undergraduate Division address the most salient question head-on:

What is the purpose of an undergraduate business education?

"Purpose" is exactly what seems to be missing in Ridgway's depiction of the undergraduate program. There is an inspiring drive for excellence and achievement at Wharton, but too often it is not intertwined with a sense of passion or broader purpose.

Freshmen learn the first day of Management 100 that a well-defined "mission, vision and values" is crucial to an organization's success. Yet the undergraduate program itself lacks those guiding principles. The official Web site is full of meaningless missives with words like "unparalleled," "innovation," "integration," and "leadership," but it soon becomes apparent when you ask most Wharton students to explain the purpose of undergraduate business education, or even the definition of business, that the school does a dismal job of communicating these basics.

For many, it seems as if the purpose of their time in Huntsman Hall is simple: "This is Wharton. The goal is to get a job," commented one of Ridgway's seniors. At a recent "reorientation" program for sophomores, the presentation by Career Services was twice as full as the presentation on undergraduate research or the so-called Wharton curve, even though its room was twice as large.

Wharton sent 63 percent of the Class of 2004 to work in financial services and an additional 19 percent to consulting. At some level, the school seems to recognize that it has a problem -- that it is too homogeneous and students are placing undue pressure upon themselves to win "elite" jobs, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to develop their individual interests. The school's "culture" is consistently blamed for such problems, but the Undergraduate Division should also consider the structural deficiencies that affect this "culture."

For instance, the core curriculum as it currently stands is a disjointed, highly competitive, vocational experience. Many students try to complete their core requirements as quickly as possible, which means they aren't encouraged to think independently about their academic interests until three or four semesters at Penn, and they have less context in which to understand the value of the material.

Rather than tackling such difficult issues, the Undergraduate Division hangs up banners telling students that one-third of graduating seniors wish they had taken more liberal arts courses or the majority of Wharton graduates aren't in finance-related fields 15 years out of school. Or they make meaningless proclamations about the integration between liberal arts and a business education. "Business and more" is the new slogan to recruit the best and brightest.

As a dual-degree Wharton student, I of course believe this message is important -- there is great opportunity to take classes outside of Wharton that complement your education -- but a much more fundamental message must first be conveyed and put into practice:

"Business is more." Shannon Jensen is a senior real estate, business and public policy and urban studies major from Annapolis, Md. Her e-mail is Above Board appears on Mondays.


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