BackForwardHomeWharton Now

From a "Struggling Provincial Experiment"
to a Leader in Business Education

It was a radical idea when Joseph Wharton asked the University of Pennsylvania to found the world's first collegiate business school in 1881. There were no textbooks, no curricula, and no professors of business. It was only the tenacious vision and financial support of Joseph Wharton and early leaders of the School that transformed this "struggling provincial experiment" into the foundation of an industry. At the same time, they transformed the study of business from a trade into a rigorous profession.

The notion of a collegiate business school was such a little-known concept that by the turn of the century — almost two decades later— just two more business programs had followed Wharton's lead. Then, driven by the rise of new industrial organizations and the increasing need for executives and managers, the world rushed to embrace the forward-thinking concepts of Joseph Wharton. In the two decades after the turn of the century, more than 120 schools were founded, and thousands of students poured into business programs. True to Joseph Wharton's vision 20 years earlier, business was now recognized as a profession. By the close of this century, more than 300,000 students are graduating every year from more than 1,000 graduate and undergraduate business programs around the world. Today, Joseph Wharton has many heirs.

From its start, the Wharton School defined the model for the business school, from its structure and curriculum to its classroom materials and outreach activities. In its earliest days, there was much work to be done at Wharton. The School created the first business textbooks and named Albert S. Bolles as the first business professor. Edmund James, an early Wharton faculty member and the school's first director, was founder of the American Economic Association and went on to champion business education as president of both Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. Wharton faculty created the earliest outreach to executives. While at Wharton, James organized the Philadelphia (later American) Society for the Extension of University Teaching, which between 1890 and 1898 offered more than 1,700 courses at 343 different off-campus locations.

In the 1920s, Wharton Dean Emory Johnson created what he called a new "administrative organization" to conduct "personnel" work on students' behalf and develop "individualized education" for Wharton undergraduates. Wharton became the first academic institution to develop what today is taken for granted: administrative services in career management and academic advising.

After creating an educational powerhouse, Wharton turned its attention to building its intellectual strength in diverse business disciplines. Wharton established the first business school research center, the Industrial Research Unit, in 1921. Founded by Professor Joseph Willits and Ann Bezanson, a young Harvard PhD in economic history, the IRU marked Wharton's shift toward academic business research. Willits and Bezanson designed an ambitious research program to explore and help civilize industrial working conditions, with the goal of ameliorating social change. Responding to a growing corporate need for management insights and tools, Wharton created new departments and centers to address major business challenges. The School helped to define and establish fields such as accounting, entrepreneurship, health care management, finance, business law, management, marketing, operations and information management, and real estate.

Throughout the century, Wharton steadily built its capabilities in diverse business disciplines. The hallmark of its work was to apply rigorous scientific methods, modeling, and analysis to business studies. Faculty pioneered work in consumer research, econometrics, and financial modeling. Wharton became a leading advocate of specialized business studies, offering the most diverse array of business courses and professional training programs in the world.

In the 1980s, as it became clear that business schools needed to reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of global, cross-functional, collaborative, and high-tech organizations, Wharton again led the way.

In 1988, the School conducted a study of 300 CEOs to help identify the future needs of management and management education. This process led to the founding of a "think tank" on the future of management — Wharton's SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management — and provided the stimulus for the examination of Wharton's MBA program.

With intense effort by faculty, students, and business leaders, the School created a dramatically new model for business education that helped redefine the business school curriculum. The creation of this new curriculum, the most dramatic shift in business education in more than two decades, led Business Week to proclaim that "Wharton is on the crest of a wave of reinvention and change in management education." Thus Wharton ends the century in the very position of pioneering leadership in which it started.

Even so, the School is not standing still. Wharton is committed to a process of continuous curricular innovation. The School has launched new global initiatives, including helping to found business schools in India, China, Singapore, and Israel. In the 1990s, Wharton created new technology platforms for executive education and an online publication for research dissemination. In 1999, Wharton announced plans to build Jon M. Huntsman Hall, designed to support the latest technologies and curricular innovations, which will establish a new standard for business education facilities.

It was the pioneering vision of Joseph Wharton (above) that created business education. In his founding letter to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania in 1881, Joseph Wharton outlined the principles of a school that would raise business education to the level of professional schools for lawyers and doctors. His vision was that the school would produce graduates who would become "pillars of the State, whether in private or in public life." Albert S. Bolles (below), the first business professor, was hired shortly after the founding of the School.

"One of Wharton's greatest strengths is its profound commitment to business as an intellectual discipline. By focusing on the deep, foundational questions surrounding business rather than the fads that sweep through management thinking, our faculty has shaped how students all over the globe are educated and how business leaders and scholars think about their world. This intellectual rigor is our greatest strength going forward. Our faculty, students, and alumni are prepared to face whatever is next on the ever-changing landscape of business because they understand the essence of what drives an organization and an economy toward success."
Patrick T. Harker, Dean, The Wharton School

Wharton Dean Russell E. Palmer developed his "Plan for Preeminence" in the early 1980s.

Undergraduate Vice Dean Richard Herring and Interim Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Relations Janice Bellace (far left in photo) sign an agreement with Singapore officials for Wharton to help create a new business school in Singapore. Bellace was named the first president of the new Singapore Management University.

Wharton is at the forefront of using advanced technology in the delivery of education. Professor Jack Hershey (left in photo) and Professor David Croson (right in photo) teach in Wharton Direct. The executive education initiative delivers courses to dozens of U.S. sites through a combination of satellite, online, and videoconferencing capabilities.

Back to TopHomeWharton Now
Copyright The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania