Is Wharton Ruining American Business?

In the wake of Enron and ­other corporate ­scandals, America’s best-known business school, the place that produced Michael Milken and Frank Quattrone, is under siege. Our writer spent a year there figuring out what’s going on

“I don’t think shareholder opinion should matter at all, for any reason,” he said, in the sort of idiotic tone with which you would have expected him to say something like, “Women should go barefoot and pregnant.”

God bless him, I thought. If any single factor has corrupted American business, it’s the warped concept of shareholder “value,” which has justified everything from accounting shams to the awarding of hundred-­million-dollar bonuses to merging AOL and Time Warner. Most of these actions are not, of course, in the interest of shareholders who hold their shares for more than a few months, but they, of course, are not the shareholders on whose behalf Wall Street analysts are usually lobbying. That “shareholder value” is not a phrase uttered with the sarcasm afforded to, say, the phrase “vertically challenged” is a depressing statement on the reflective capacity found in corporate America.

No one, though, took the guy’s bait. A noisy debate on the concept of shareholder value would have been interesting, entertaining, and maybe even memorable enough to stick with students into their careers, but no such debate ensued. Merck treated the disease; students exited the room. “Pharmaceutical companies aren’t really relevant to what a lot of us end up doing,” one student explained to me.

It was little wonder, I thought, that corporations needed dudes like Ackerman to get them to act like “humans.” The MBA above all teaches people to act like corporations, to follow the path of highest ROI. Humans don’t know how to act like humans anymore. Instead they are drones, vassals to their massive debt loads for whom reflection and critical thinking are not useful offsetting assets.

If Wharton MBAs think of their lives a little too much like CFOs, undergrads are a bit more like the custodians of a start-up firm that just landed a big investment from “angel investors” — their parents. Thus capitalized, they are freer to pursue their goals and “find themselves.” However, because their GPAs are available to prospective employers, they mostly find themselves in Huntsman Hall study rooms, running spreadsheets. And they love it. “It’s a constant back-and-forth, whether it’s good that these kids are so driven or bad that they’re sacrificing their 20s,” opines Nicole Ridgway, who covered the job searches of seven Wharton undergrads (average job offers awarded to a Wharton undergrad: 2.6) for an upcoming book, The Running of the Bulls. “But some of them are just really enamored with finance … I’ve had quite a few spirited intellectual debates with them.” This confuses the MBAs to no end. “I just don’t know what it is that drives a 17-year-old to go to an undergraduate institution like Wharton,” an MBA columnist mused in the Wharton Journal in October. But there was something attractive in the undergrads’ determination, an honesty of purpose that was lacking in the MBAs. I watched the eyes of a Wharton sophomore named Allison Strouse visibly light up, for instance, when she talked about her first finance class.

“I just really liked it, like the concept of net present value. Every dollar I get, I think about it differently now.”

Slim and tan, with silky dark hair and status jeans, Allison looked like she might have stepped off the set of The O.C. (A tip-off, I learned later from one of her sorority sisters, should have been the one-and-a-half-inch mules she wore: “Allison never wears flat shoes anywhere but the gym. It’s, like, her policy.”)

Allison bought her first stock (Coke) at 11. It’s a precociousness that has been shared by many Wharton undergrads over the ages, from Warren Buffett, who dropped out after a year in the ’40s after concluding he knew more than the professors, to the now-imprisoned Mark Yagalla, to most of the Wharton undergrads I met as an undergrad at Penn. If Milken had been born in 1980, I thought, he’d have gone to Wharton undergrad, and not bothered with an MBA. The undergrads are for the most part nimbler, harder-working, less relatable, and — and I don’t mean this in an entirely bad way — greedier. One undergrad I knew invited me to participate in an insider trading scheme with the memorable line, “It’s called insider trading, and you can make a lot of money.” Undergrads seem riper for spectacular humiliation, or at least SEC inquiries.