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Wharton Commitment Project Draws a Third of the Class in Debut Year

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Doctors have the prestigious White Coat Ceremony, in which medical students at the end of their final term trade their short physician assistant’s coats and don long white coats to symbolize their commitment to uphold the expectations and responsibilities of the medical profession. Nurses have a similar Pinning Ceremony, in which newly graduated nursing students are presented with a special nursing pin from their college’s faculty as they are welcomed into the nursing profession and recite the Nightingale Pledge. These traditions—covered as part of a core class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School called “Responsibility in Business”—helped propel recent MBA graduate Siamak Sarvari, MBA ’17, and some fellow Whartonites to devise a similar pledge and ceremony for business school graduates.

Called the Wharton Commitment Project (WCP), it is not without its own forebears in graduate management education. In 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, Harvard Business School (HBS) students asked their classmates to sign a voluntary pledge “to serve the greater good” and “create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.” Sixty percent of the graduating class signed this “MBA Oath,” which would go on to spread to dozens more business schools around the globe and win support from the Aspen Institute, the UN Global Compact, and the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, among others. But by the next year, participation among HBS students had dropped to just 41 percent. This year, according to the official MBA Oath website, just 21 HBS Class of 2017 graduates have signed, a mere 2 percent of the class.

Why the falloff? Well, with the financial crisis of 2008 a bit farther in the rearview mirror, the need to defend the MBA degree against critics who would liken it to a fast-track path toward greed and corruption has waned some. At the same time, many business schools have become as well known for their forays into social impact—be it impact investing or social entrepreneurship or nonprofit board leadership training—as for absolute pursuit of maximum shareholder value.

Wharton Student Still Sees Value in MBAs’ Commitment

MBA Commitment Project
Siamak Sarvari, WG ’17

Still, the idea that a voluntary pledge, made publicly, could help MBAs stay true to their ideals bubbled up again for Sarvari as he sat in Professor G. Richard Shell’s class in the first semester of his first year.

“In one of the lectures Professor Shell talked about the importance of personal commitment and how it can lead to more success and a more purposeful life,” says Sarvari. “He gave examples of the White Coat Ceremony in medical school and the Pin Ceremony in nursing school, and it reminded me of something I had heard about at the University of Toronto.” At the end of undergraduate engineering programs in Canada, there was an Iron Ring Ceremony in which graduates received a ring to wear on the small finger of their dominant hand. “In so doing, they take an oath of responsibility—to be thorough and diligent as engineers and to never build something that will hurt people,” he says.

Shell, who chairs the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at Wharton, throws out the question of how responsible business executives can help commit themselves to ethical principles in about week five of his course on responsibility. “It has been kicking around for a decade about whether business schools ought to have an oath, and I’ve been of the opinion that they shouldn’t,” Shell confesses. “Business is a profession, yes, but not in the same way as a doctor’s or a nurse’s. There are too many different roles and ways people do business, and that makes it very complicated and difficult to say there is one set of principles that ought to govern all people in business. And it only works if people want to do it, because requiring people to take an oath if they don’t want to is pretty silly.”

Toward Wharton’s Unique Take on an MBA Commitment
Sarvari approached Shell toward the end of that initial course, in October or November 2015, and said he wanted to wrestle some with how MBAs could make a voluntary commitment to uphold a pledge of some sort, and Shell encouraged him. But it wasn’t immediately clear what the ideal form should be, precisely because of some of the points Shell had raised. “The MBA is a little different,” echoes Sarvari. “People come to business school from very different backgrounds and end up in many different fields. At medical school people at least share a common future—so they could share in a single oath that is the same for all.”

For MBAs, it’s harder to think of a set of commitments that would be relevant across the board. This could also explain why efforts toward an MBA Oath, despite wide initial appeal, have waned at other schools. Sarvari was also wary of a top-down approach. “Something that I write with five other people and then ask every generation to abide to? I didn’t think that would work well with our generation.”

Sarvari also saw real value in a personal commitment—tailored to the individual. Could there be a way to offer students the ability to design their own commitment—based on individual goals and ideals—but then share it publicly, thereby gaining the accountability aspect shown through research to be influential in terms of follow through?

“All of these concerns later helped me and the other people involved with WCP shape the format of the commitment,” he says.

A Hiatus for Recruiting, Then Dean Howie Comes on Board
Sarvari got encouragement from Shell in late 2015 but was promptly swallowed up by the insane demands of summer internship recruiting. But he vowed to come back to it, and in May 2016 he approached Howard Kaufold, vice dean of the MBA program, with the idea in its still-nascent form.

“Dean Howie was very open, very supportive—he believed in the project even from that first description and said he would give me any support that would make this available to all of the students,” Sarvari says. Sarvari continued his work on it over the summer, including talking to the Wharton Graduate Association about the idea and reaching out to classmates who had expressed interest along the way.

He ultimately assembled a five-person WCP team comprised of himself, fellow second-year Carol Huang, and three first-years, Abdul-Hakeem Buhari, Anna Portillo, and Noah Thomas. “We knew it would be good to have first years involved because we are leaving now, and it will be up to them to push this forward.”

Drawing Inspiration from an Array of Sources
In addition to the medical, nursing, and engineering fields, the WCP team drew inspiration from Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin. In his class, Shell shared that Franklin came up with a list of personal commitments at around the age of 20, a list that is said to have given him focus and contributed to his success. “Additional inspiration came from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work on six principles of persuasion, in which he suggests that people tend to fulfill commitments that are voluntary, active (e.g. spoken out loud or written down), and expressed publicly,” says Sarvari.

“It’s pretty well established in social science research,” agrees Shell. “When you have a goal and you write it down, that adds a degree of commitment to the goal. When you tell others and share it publicly, that makes it even more likely that you will act consistently with the goal. Finally, the ceremonial aspect cements it to the culture of the organization where you are doing it.”