Dean’s Q&A: Charles Whiteman Of Penn State’s Smeal College Of Business

With that selectivity, of course, you might think that I’d have troubles sleeping at night, being the dean of a business school at a land grant university. But, the fact that we do educate so many first generation students and that our student population is large, helps me do that sleeping at night. There are a lot of students who go through here and they recognize that a Smeal degree is valued in the workplace, that employers are looking for Penn Staters because they’re that ‘roll up your sleeves, do the work, come to work without an attitude, and do things in the right way’ type of employees. The number one reason that recruiters give us for ranking us so highly is that they have recruited Penn Staters in the past, and those folks have been successful in the companies and the companies want to come back and get more people like them. We’re very happy recruiters love us so much. It’s certainly an efficient recruiting destination because we have well-trained students, there are a lot of them, and they have great attitudes.

How is the demand and competition to get into Smeal?

Well, it’s very competitive. We have the highest evaluation index of any college at Penn State. What that means is that the admissions office has a form that will predict a grade point and they tell us that ours is the highest. In our entering class for this fall semester, we’re predicting an average high school GPA of 3.96, which is pretty amazing.

So we have had, as you might expect, a little bit of a blip in applications that occurred in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. But, those days are well behind us and each of the last two years we’ve had record numbers of applications. And in Smeal, the number this year of applications was just way up. It was up by almost 900 applications over the year before, which is more than a 10% increase. So the demand for what we do is really quite high.

When you say ‘blip,’ what does that mean?

The drop in applications was noticeable. It’s kind of difficult to sort through with the timing because the event happened in the middle of the application process for students. So the drop in applications you can see the year following that, which is the first full year after the scandal. But then the year after that, once again we’re in record territory and not by a small margin and then the applications for this year were just out of sight.

What advice do you have for prospective students and their parents who are trying to find a good undergraduate business program?

Well, you know, I’ve just been through this with my two children and I recognize the importance of fit. My advice is if you can visit, do so to get a feel for the place. If you can’t, websites across many institutions are very informative about what students can expect. I would suggest that the students and parents investigate the degree to which the institution has invested in career preparation. We talk about career preparation in the vision for the college and I think it’s very important to do that. We don’t talk about the first job, necessarily, we’re talking about a whole career’s worth of preparation. And we think it’s important that we have our eyes squarely on that ball. So we track that and we are thinking about it all the time. And so I think the students and parents should certainly investigate how the school is ensuring the students are well-prepared. And it goes beyond the classroom. It’s not just a set of courses. It’s what other things are being done.

We have a career and corporate connections office that works to help students primarily for internships. And we know that many students come back from internships with full-time job offers. We know that the students who have jobs at graduation, this year, 94% of them had internships, which is a correlation but is a pretty high one. And so it makes you sit up and listen. The career and corporate connections unit has well-developed resume coaching, we do mock interviews, we do lots of things that go together with a successful classroom performance to help ensure students are ready to have a great conversation the first time they are talking to a recruiter about an internship.

So I would look at that and the quality of the other students that they’re going to school with and the nature of the local environment and whether or not it’s conducive to ensuring the students are successful in the classroom. I think we have a great environment here in State College for exactly that. There’s a great number of ways that students can become involved with other students. Here in Smeal we have between 35 and 40 student organizations and there are over 1,000 at Penn State—lots of ways for students to get involved.

One of the primary ways our business fraternities get involved, for example, is participating in Dance Marathon. We call it ‘Thon’ here at Penn State. It’s the largest student-run philanthropic event in the country—probably the world. The last couple of years, they’ve raised $13 million each year. It’s just an extraordinary event that takes place in the spring. There are literally thousands of students who work on it in one way or another. Just over 700 students dance for the entire weekend. And their ticket to the dance floor is that their student organization had been successful in raising substantial amounts of money in the previous year’s Dance Marathon.

So most of our business fraternities have raised enough money that they’ve adopted one or more Thon families, who have children who are battling pediatric cancer and there are activities throughout the year that have to do with raising the money for the family and the children’s hospital at Hershey and to help families of children who are battling cancer.

If you could make any change in undergraduate business education, what would it be?

I can tell you I have spoken on several occasions about the communication skills of our students. I’d like to find a magic bullet that we could use to improve communication skills. We actually, within the last year, addressed an issue that we saw in technical skills having to do with Excel capabilities and we’ve implemented that in one of our management information systems courses that’s a required course for all undergraduate majors.

On paper, we have a nice way of addressing communication skills for students. There’s an English course that is designed for business majors that all of our Smeal majors take. There is a communications course that all Penn State students take. And all of our majors have one of their major courses designated as a writing course and the assessments are done through extensive writing. In my experience, this is a pretty good set of approaches, on paper anyway, to address the communication skills.

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