Penn's Wharton School Finds a Tech-Loving Leader in Australia

U. of New South Wales

Geoffrey Garrett

April 07, 2014

Geoffrey Garrett, who has been named the next dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, grew up in Australia’s capital, where his father was a senior civil servant.

"I was a regular Canberra person, which meant that I always thought I’d end up being a bureaucrat," he says.

Growing up in a government town steeped him in politics. So, after earning an undergraduate degree in economics at Australian National University, he seized an opportunity to pursue graduate studies in government economic strategies at Duke University.

Mr. Garrett, 55, taught multinational management at Wharton from 1995 to 1997, but he had not envisioned returning there. An invitation to head Wharton, the nation’s oldest collegiate school of business, means he will leave the deanship of the business school at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, after only 17 months. He went to New South Wales from the University of Sydney, where he became business dean in 2012.

Part of Wharton’s appeal for Mr. Garrett is that it has joined the MOOC revolution, offering massive open online courses ahead of most other business schools. He is an advocate of such technology, having put many classes at New South Wales online.

"Instead of coming to sit in a large lecture theater to listen to a lecturer, why not consume that on a phone at 1 a.m. while you’re lying in bed?" he asks. "But you have to do that in advance, because the entry barrier to the high-quality, on-campus, interactive experience is that you’ve done the preparation."

Mr. Garrett says he did not apply for the Wharton position but was nominated anonymously and was then approached by the search committee. He felt encouraged by the involvement of Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann, who is an advocate of incorporating new technologies into instruction. He will succeed Thomas S. Robertson, Wharton’s dean since 2007, on July 1.

His particular expertise is in globalization and political economy. Before becoming business dean at Sydney, he was a professor of political science and a researcher there, and started the United States Studies Centre. He taught earlier at Stanford and Yale Universities, among other places, and has been active in academic publishing and in conveying, through opinion essays and on television news programs, his thoughts on such topics as the global diffusion of markets.

Some business writers have expressed surprise at Mr. Garrett’s appointment, noting that he is from outside the United States and has a political-science background.

"It’s not so unusual to have my interests in geoeconomics and geopolitics in a business school," he explains. Access to markets, as many business publications report, is inextricably political in an era of interlocked worldwide markets, trade agreements, and multinational-corporation expansion. Globalization is, in fact, the subject of the doctoral dissertation he completed at Duke in 1990.

As for the notion that Mr. Garrett is an outsider, his academic history says otherwise. "I’m quite a global person," he notes. Besides, Australian business education has been ahead of its American counterpart in such areas as recruiting students from overseas, particularly China, and in offering courses to business executives via online and similar media, rather than through after-work classes in rented downtown office space.

He also counters another possible objection to his appointment: that his emphasis on using digital technologies to deliver course material may be fine for business schools that rely heavily on part-time students, but less so for an institution like Wharton, whose claim to prestige comes from providing on-campus interaction with leading business educators and highly capable students from around the world.

Yes, he agrees, beware of undercutting the on-campus experience. But realistically, he argues, that is hardly likely to happen at his new post. Online courses will project the Wharton brand worldwide, but Wharton, he declares, "is not going to be swept away in a MOOC tsunami."