Wharton’s Erika James: A leader for this moment and beyond

Erika James
Wharton School dean Erika James. (Image: Kelly Marshall/Wharton Magazine)

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.

“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,” says James. “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.

Between the time James was hired and her arrival, the pandemic had an enormous impact on the school and her role as dean. “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.”

James sees the current environment—the pandemic, and backlash against globalization—as a way to connect Wharton with the world using technology in new and unique ways. “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.”

This story is by Richard Rys. Read more at Wharton Stories.