Wharton leadership shakeup amid applications tumble

October 3, 2013: 11:37 AM ET

The abrupt resignation of Wharton's dean of admissions amid declining MBA applications points to larger challenges for the storied business school.

By John A. Byrne

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(Poets&Quants) -- Five days after a critical story on Wharton was published in The Wall Street Journal, director of MBA admissions and financial aid Ankur Kumar has resigned her job.

Kumar, who had been in the position for just two years, apparently told staff last week that she was resigning. In a note to colleagues on Wednesday -- two days before the publication of the Journal article -- Kumar said she had been "pursuing several different opportunities in New York City in the past few months."

In a blog post today to Wharton's prospective applicants, Kumar announced that her last day would be Oct. 4. "As they say, all good things must come to an end, and after nearly five years -- and one of the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences -- it's time for new adventures," wrote Kumar.

The timing of her announcement is both unusual and awkward, coming only one day after Wharton's round one deadline. "It's like Santa Claus quitting on Dec. 24th after spending the summer touring shopping malls around the world asking toddlers what they wanted for Christmas," said Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com and an MBA admissions consultant.

"This is not a decision I made impetuously; I did not want to start an application cycle that I could not commit to finishing. Nothing would be less fair to you, to my team, the school, and our alumni and other important stakeholders. It has been an absolute privilege to serve my alma mater in this role and a true honor to bring five incredible classes to the MBA program."

Kumar's abrupt resignation means that the school will end up having five different admission directors in just eight years, a highly unusual amount of turnover at such a prominent business school. Her predecessor, J.J. Cutler, also left in 2011 after serving for two years, only to return to Aramark where he had previously worked as a marketing executive. Thomas Caleel took over the job in 2005 with the departure of Rose Martinelli, who left for the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. But Caleel left within three years, in 2008.

In an Oct. 2 memo to students and faculty, Wharton School Dean Tom Robertson said that the admissions team will continue to operate under Maryellen Lamb, the school's former careers director, who was named deputy vice dean in September for MBA admissions, financial aid, and career management.

To her credit, Kumar helped lead Wharton to record female enrollment, even when applications were declining. For years, the percentage of women enrolled in top-ranked business schools stubbornly remained in the 33% to 36% range. Kumar helped Wharton assume a lead over all top schools three years ago by putting together an incoming class that was 40% female. The following year, she did even better, pushing the number of first-year women to 45% of the class. "It's a pretty significant accomplishment, especially during a downward trend in application volume," added Stacey Oyler, an admissions consultant with Clear Admit.

And though applications continued to decline this past year, the MBA class that entered this fall boasts record GMAT scores -- an average of 725, up seven points from the previous year.

Still, for Kumar, who joined Wharton's admissions staff as senior associate director in 2009, it has been a turbulent ride. In the past five years, applications to Wharton's MBA program have fallen by 17.2%. Kumar had earlier attributed the decline to new competition from B-schools in Europe and Asia. But while many rival schools also suffered declines, the falloffs have not been nearly as steep, and in the past year, applications to many peer schools have turned around. Not at Wharton, where the school had a 5.8% drop in applications. Rival Chicago Booth reported a 10% increase. Finance rival and powerhouse Columbia Business School had a 7% rise, and Harvard was also up, by a more modest 4%.

More importantly, perhaps, there have been a series of miscues by the school's admissions office in recent years. In 2010, Wharton's confidential instructions to its alumni interviewers -- along with the behavioral interview questions -- had been leaked and were being sold to applicants by some admissions consultants. The leaked slideshow included all six questions, suggestions for follow-ups, as well as detailed guidelines for how to grade the applicants' answers. The upshot: applicants who were willing to pay for help were getting inside information that made it far more likely they would do well in the crucial interview session, the final hurdle to an acceptance.

It was under Kumar that Wharton decided to no longer use second-year students as first readers on MBA applications, a move that some students felt disenfranchised them from the admissions process. It was telling, too, that a major change in admissions policy last year was announced not by Kumar but Karl T. Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean for innovation. That change, the introduction of a novel team-based discussion component to the admissions process, may have led to at least part of the fall in this past year's applications to Wharton, turning off applicants who speak English as a second language.

Some applicants also privately groused that the new test required that they return to Wharton on set dates and times that were often inconvenient for them when traveling from afar. And this year, essay questions for applicants drew ridicule from some MBA admission consultants. Sandy Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com called them "dullsville made worse by confusion."

"Even after you explain to clients that the first question wants you to talk about what Wharton can do for you, both professionally and personally, and the second one wants you to talk about what you can contribute to Wharton, they still gag and say 'what is the difference?'" he said. "They are right, of course, in the grand scheme of all possible questions, this is hairsplitting, unimaginative, Wharton-centric (in a bad way) and not likely to capture any new or interesting information about applicants."

Some consultants believe that Kumar's departure signals deeper issues for the school and its place among the world's elite MBA programs. Fewer students are taking jobs in fields that were once Wharton's mainstay -- investment banking and investment management. And Kumar isn't the only top official to leave in recent years. In June of last year, Yale University's School of Management hired away a highly admired long-time leader at Wharton, Anjani Jain. For Wharton, it was a major loss: Jain had a career at Wharton for over 26 years, spending 10 years as vice dean of the MBA program and his final two years there as the vice dean of the MBA program for executives.

"The bottom line is that Ankur is taking the fall for a lot of macro issues that she can do nothing about," said Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, a leading admissions consulting firm. "Wharton is being affected by so many factors, some significant and others subtle. For example, on the significant side, Columbia and Chicago's brand strengths have improved tremendously in the last decade. The opportunities available upon graduation are now basically the same as those at Wharton -- so some applicants are just choosing the city they like more and New York and Chicago are winning that battle.

"On the subtler side," added Shinewald, "Of course, there is the 'fall of Wall Street story' and the fact that HBS and Stanford are creating more headline-grabbing start-ups. All of that said, the Journal article really upset alumni and set off alarms with the administration.... Now, the hard work begins."

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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