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

The sun had just begun to set on the verdant acres of the Iroquois Springs Camp in Rock Hill, New York, and the air had filled with the smoky aroma of barbecue dinner for 500 of the top business minds in the universe, when the staff started acting funny. A gray-haired woman was running to and fro in a panic, crying out sporadically in anguish. Walkie-talkies static-beep, static-beeped with alarming frequency. Finally a camp supervisor charged through on a golf cart at what seemed an unusually high speed. Then, sirens.

The prospect of danger seemed nearly impossible after the jubilation of the day’s events, which had commenced with an “assembly” of sorts at which members of the 2006 Wharton MBA class were called by their ­second-year “Leadership Fellows” to rise, amidst deafening applause, if they spoke more than two languages, had worked outside the country, had completed a marathon, etc. (almost two dozen marathoners rose), and continued on to include a complex water-balloon fight, a kayak obstacle course, the composition of special cohort songs, and a marshmallow roast.

“There’s a fire,” a khaki-clad Leadership Fellow finally announced, underwhelmed. Most of the participants in the 2004 Learning Team retreat seemed as oblivious as if the sirens had been blaring back in West Philadelphia. “We need everyone back in the auditorium.”

Dutifully, the future MBAs, dressed in their green, red, yellow, and pink team t-shirts, returned to the auditorium’s folding chairs. The goal of this whole thing, they had been told eight hours ago by a Leadership Fellow standing on this very stage, was to pluck them out of their “comfort zones.” This was not what he meant.

True to form, though, the future MBAs were good-natured; they even seemed comfortable. The fire — which had ravaged a laundry room a few hundred yards down the campsite and would, later that night, seize some bathrooms — ceased, for the moment, to smell. After a quick head count — no one really disappears at Wharton — the class of 2006 of the world’s oldest and most esteemed school of business quickly resumed its yammering.