2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Diana Robertson, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)

Diana Robertson

Samuel A. Blank Professor in Legal Studies, Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School

Sometimes passions are found by happy accidents. That’s what happened for Wharton’s Diana Robertson. When she came to the school from Emory University in 2007, she was asked to teach an ethics course in addition to her organizational behavior courses. It turns out, Robertson loved business ethics and has never looked back. But unlike other professors that teach business ethics, Robertson approaches the topic from a sociological perspective, which makes sense considering her graduate-level education is in sociology.

Most recently, Robertson is teaming up with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative to study what happens to the brain when people encounter ethical issues. By scanning the brains of 57 Wharton MBA students, Robertson and her team found that brain structure looks different in students that are more advanced in their thinking about ethics compared to those that are less advanced. Outside of the classroom, Robertson spends her time reading contemporary fiction, playing tennis, and taking barre classes.

Education: BA Northwestern University, Comparative Literature; MA UCLA, Sociology; PhD UCLA, Sociology

At current institution since: 2007

List of courses you currently teach: Ethics and Social Responsibility

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Winning multiple university-wide teaching awards at Emory University and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a university-wide research award at Emory. I am most proud of being recognized for both research and teaching.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I had an epiphany that my sociological perspective could be valuable to business. I have always wanted to know what makes people behave the way they do in organizations. What better place to study human behavior than in business?

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Terrified.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My neuroscience colleagues and I scanned the brains of 57 Wharton MBA students to discover what happens in the brain as people encounter ethical issues. We found that the brain structures of those students who are more advanced in their thinking about ethics looked different from the brain structures of students who were less advanced.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? I was invited to present my research at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where I met heads of state, as well as business leaders. A highlight was sitting next to Melinda Gates and chatting with her about the times she recruited at Wharton for Microsoft.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? Our students today are more diverse in background and thought. I like to design my classes to take advantage of this diversity with collaborative, experiential, team-based learning.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” A novelist writing about academic life.

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: As much as I enjoy doing research, I did not know that teaching would also be so much fun!

Name of the professor you most admire and why: My husband, Tom Robertson, who is a Wharton marketing professor and my inspiration. My colleague, Tom Donaldson, who is a true ethics guru and makes the Greek philosophers come alive for students.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? Everything! It is a privilege, and I think about that every time I walk into the classroom. I start the semester with a room full of strangers and end with a community. Prominently displayed on my desk is a mug given to me by my TA that reads, “Tomorrow your students will lead the world.” My students will indeed be the business leaders of tomorrow.

What’s the biggest challenge? Grading—differentiating among students who are all motivated and incredibly smart.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? One former student won a Rhodes scholarship, but she is just one of many. I feel good about the recommendation letters I write for my students who are admitted to prestigious graduate programs. At the moment, for example, I have four former students in top medical schools.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Told me that I ruined his life by giving him a bad grade.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? People always ask me if students are less ethical than they used to be. My answer is No, but they do have shorter attention spans, and I might add, so do I.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Engage with the course material. It can’t feel good to tell your parents or future employer that you got a bad grade in Ethics, but it is like any other course. Getting a bad grade does not mean that you are not ethical. It means that you did not put in the work.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Empathetic.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? R.E.M. Stand. The lyrics may not suggest this to you, but to me they suggest that we all need to take a stand.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Grade-grubbing

“If my students can reflect on their values and purpose and how they will contribute to society in their careers, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: I have lived in London five different times.

What are your hobbies? Contemporary fiction, tennis, barre classes

How did you spend your summer? Travel (London, Madrid, Paris) and writing

Favorite place to vacation: Cape Cod

Favorite book: Anna Karenina

Favorite movie and/or television show: The Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Elton John

Bucket list item #1: To go on safari

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment?

Keeping pace with the careers our students will have. Every other undergraduate I talk to is developing an app, and, as educators, we need to place sufficient focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. At the same time, we need to teach critical thinking skills to these technologically sophisticated students and to remind them of the value of non-technical skills.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Liberal arts/humanities electives

“And much less of this…” Emphasis on grades

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: My three children will be responsible, fulfilled adults, and I will hear often from my former students about their many accomplishments.

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