Linneman Incident Uncovers Institutional Failure in School Administration

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Outraged by the grossly insensitive and discriminatory comments made by Peter Linneman a few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the Townhall to hear what Dean Garrett and Dean Howie had to say about the issue. I was glad to see many excellent questions raised to the leadership specifically on this issue and broadly on the school’s stand on diversity. Although I had little expectation of the effectiveness of a dialogue like this in driving any kind of concrete actions, I did see its value in building awareness and improving understanding.

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Here is what I understand now: The school administration decided that it is not in our best interest to issue or co-sign a public letter to condemn Linneman’s action. While agreeing on the inappropriate and horrible nature of this Emeritus professor’s comments, Dean Howie explained the complexity of institutional issues like this and the media’s tendency to make stories out of controversies. Based on their discussion with alumni and assessment of the situation, the leadership deemed the Linneman issue to have engendered limited negative media coverage or brand damage to Wharton. When a student named Hao Wu pointed out the increasing number of Chinese articles reporting the incident, the deans invited him to provide the school with more information.

Being my usual self of being more critical than not, I could not help but get the message that the issue is not serious enough to warrant a school letter and it has to be up to us to prove the school’s decision wrong. The school’s inaction could have been the quiet approval that allowed Linneman to take comfort in removing his Facebook post of apology recently. Without a firm stance against Linneman’s remarks, the school is letting the public draw their own connections and conclusions, and leaving the anger and disappointment among the Chinese students unanswered.

Despite the fact that 80% of surveyed students indicated that Wharton is not inclusive, the leadership seemed confident that students’ own diversity experience on campus is an overall positive one that deserves to be communicated to prospective students. My own experience had largely been a positive one, until I recently discovered otherwise. It only takes one event like this to undermine years of work in building diversity.

And let me be absolutely clear, managing diversity does not equate valuing diversity. The school has done an excellent job delivering numerous diversity programs, events, seminars and admission statistics. But when you say you value something, you stand by it during critical times. The time will never be critical if the school makes calculated compromises on diversity for other institutional considerations (e.g. protecting a large financial donor). One cannot blame Priyanka Agrawal for questioning the deans exactly how the Wharton values are playing out in practice.

So what has made the administration feel so good about its progress towards diversity? What exactly made the leadership believe that inaction is the best cause of action regarding Linneman? As the discussion heated at the Townhall, I sensed a much bigger problem at play. Responding to issues on financial aid, decline in MBA rankings, overcrowding in Huntsman, and support for entrepreneurship, the deans repeatedly referred to the work done and progress made here and there. So the school seems to be doing everything it can and all we have to do is wait and see.

But where are my targets, measures and timelines? Setting SMART objectives is business 101! Performance of corporate executives is measured by stock prices, and that of students curved against one another. How about the performance of our school administration? Without measurability, even Linneman was able to attribute fabricated Chinese birth rates to nonsensical causes. Without accountability, every decision made by the school has to be right and external rankings merely too arbitrary to be taken seriously.

If the school’s decision of inaction towards Linneman was a fully consulted, analyzed and calculated one, I would expect measurable positive results that overall benefit key stakeholders. Why don’t we communicate Linneman’s remarks internally with students, faculty and alumni and survey their opinions on the merit of the school’s inaction? In fact, what metrics at all are in place to assess diversity progress among students and faculty members? Why is the proportion of Chinese male students this year smaller compared to previous years? Do our faculty members agree that diversity is truly felt in practice?

Financial aid is the deans’ top priority. Yet I have seen no targets or timelines for a fundraising campaign. Anything could be said about the success/progress of this prioritized item five years down the line. Or has this priority been in place for years without making any visible progress? If the school has done so much to foster the sense of belonging and help its students succeed, why are our alumni more reluctant to donate and contribute to our school than those of other peer schools? At the Townhall, one Chinese student, Chiheng Zhang, openly raised concern of his future relationship with the school in protest of the Linneman issue.

A lack of measurability and accountability, I believe, has long been eroding the administration’s ability to serve the school’s stakeholders effectively. It has bred complacency, overconfidence and delusion of success. As an international student, I know at least one thing that our competitor school, Chicago Booth, is doing right: a loan program to international students with no US cosigners, and thus one at a much lower interest rate. Can we take more of such pragmatic steps to plant seeds for long-term student-school relationships?

Without measurable targets and results, things that the school has done well also go under-communicated and even unnoticed. One could imagine the kind of demotivation that a lack of measurable recognition and incentives could cause to our leadership team. I do not intend to minimize the solid efforts made by them, but we are far from perfect and it is no time to celebrate.

Beyond the tick-off-the-box initiatives and lifeless statistics that may one day be shown in our currently non-existent Annual Reports, can our leadership do more to increase transparency in measurability and accountability? Besides expressing my deep disappointment in the school’s inaction towards Linneman, my real question to the deans is: Do you have the courage to put yourselves out there, set targets and metrics, talk less of progress but more of results, take responsibility for failures, and ultimately, live up to the true Wharton values?

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