When Erika James (Ph.D., 1995) began as a Ph.D. student, she was one of only two incoming students in the Organizational Psychology area. By the end of that first year, the other new student had left, leaving James as a cohort of one throughout the rest of her time at Michigan. While that could easily have become a lonely and isolating experience, James emphasizes that the interdisciplinary and familial atmosphere of the program prevented that from happening. In fact, while the research she performed at Michigan laid the groundwork for her future scholarship, she believes the lasting relationships she formed have been the most important legacies of her time here.
One of the most meaningful of those relationships began on her first day of classes. “I joined the Psych department in the summer of 1991 and started taking stats classes for graduate students in the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR),” James recalls. “It was actually on the first day of my first stats class that I met Lynn Wooten (current President of Simmons University), who was a Ph.D. student in the business school, and she and I have stayed the best of friends ever since. We have also collaborated throughout the entirety of our careers, including co-authoring at least a dozen papers and a book together, which has continued to reinforce our friendship. Now she’s the president of a university, and I’m the Dean of Wharton. So, yes, Michigan did tremendous things for me in terms of professional development, but it has had an important impact on my personal life as well.”
James explains that the open-ended and interdisciplinary culture of the Org Psych program encouraged her to make many of those kinds of connections, which she did with faculty and students both inside and outside of the department. “I describe my time at U-M as being very entrepreneurial,” she says. “You really had a chance to find your own way in terms of the scholarship you wanted to pursue. For some people, that meant aligning with social psychology. For others, it meant aligning with public health. For me, it meant aligning with faculty from the business school, and many of my most important faculty relationships came from there. But I had this nice balance of psychology faculty and business school faculty, which I think was very helpful in formulating my research and scholarship.”
In part because James was the only student in her cohort, she also connected closely with students in older cohorts, and those relationships helped buoy spirits in the face of challenges. Some of those challenges were minor: “One thing that stands out was that the building we were in felt very old, and we were on the top floor. It had these narrow hallways and rooms,” James laughs. “But even though the aesthetic of the environment was not desirable, the family feel of being part of the Org Psych program was incredible, and the doctoral students were very connected. We were small but mighty!”
Other challenges, though, were unfortunately more tragic. During James’s second year, the administrative assistant supporting her program died in a car crash. James recalls: “I think about that a lot to this day because I think it really bonded those of us in the program. I remember so much about her and the ways she brought us all together. In many ways, she was like the glue of the department. She was a young woman and a relatively new mother. I remember that when she was pregnant, we tried to do a surprise baby shower. We called a meeting, and she came in and had to walk up four flights of stairs in her ninth month of pregnancy. She got there and was really mad at us at first [laughs], but then we did this big surprise party for her. It was just one of those moments that showed that despite how hard the program was and how difficult it is to do a Ph.D., the Org Psych program was so special and unique because we were such a close-knit group.”
While friendships and professional connections are James’s most valued Michigan legacies, the research she performed here also helped determine her later scholarship. “In my first year, I was curious to answer a question based on observations I made of my mother, who was navigating a career as a Black woman,” she explains. “I noticed that she either chose to or was required to move to a lot of different organizations in order to advance or have new experiences. I wanted to know if that was unique to her or it had something to do with the demographics she represented. So I was interested in the question of whether women or African Americans have different experiences with respect to opportunities within an organizational structure. That became the focus of my 619 project, with Rick Price as my advisor. I spent a lot of time in his office talking about how you would gather information like that, what kind of data you would collect, how to define the question, and those kinds of things. It was an important introduction to what scholarship really looks like, and it parlayed ultimately into my dissertation topic, which focused on the promotional experiences of Blacks and Whites in corporate America and the role that networks played versus other sorts of human capital variables.”
Before beginning her dissertation, however, James felt it was important for her to do an internship in a corporate setting, both to gather real-world data for her research and to help her make a better-informed decision about whether or not to remain in academia after finishing graduate school. She left the program and moved to New York for six months, a decision that caused considerable concern and controversy amongst U-M faculty. “I think the faculty felt that if I did that, I would never come back and finish my dissertation. But I kind of took that as a challenge: they think I won’t come back and finish? Well, I’ll do the internship and come back and finish! Ultimately, I think working in a corporate setting only reinforced that I really wanted to be back in academia. But I can also understand their concern because I think I made more money during that six-month period than I did on my stipend during four years at Michigan!” she laughs.
After finishing her Ph.D., James accepted a faculty position at Tulane University, where she continued her research into the experiences of woman and minorities in the corporate sector. During her time there, a lawsuit at an oil company caught her attention and eventually inspired the next phases of her career. “Tulane is in New Orleans, and there are a lot of oil companies there,” she explains. “One of them had a major class-action discrimination lawsuit, and that was all that my students really wanted to talk about. They started bringing me newsletters and other communications from this company to their employees about what was happening with the lawsuit. I realized that this is a treasure trove of data, and that got me interested in looking into how firms respond to discrimination lawsuits. That actually became the first piece of scholarship I did with Lynn Wooten, my friend from Michigan. I recognized that these kinds of discrimination lawsuits were really a crisis for companies, which led me into the field of crisis leadership. That has been the trajectory of my scholarship so far.”
Currently, James is Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the first female and first person of color to occupy that role in the school’s 140-year history. Although that does not leave her much time to conduct her own research, she is still co-authoring another book with Lynn Wooten about crisis leadership and racial justice issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, she finds the role fulfilling for other reasons as well: “One of the great things about being at Wharton is that it is an incredibly empirically based business school,” she says. “Research and scholarship are foundational to everything at the core here. I have realized that the role I can play in research is to help ensure that everyone else has what they need to do their research, and I get a lot of pleasure out of that.”
James’s background in psychology and expertise in crisis leadership have been particularly important amidst the many administrative challenges and equity issues created and exacerbated by the pandemic. Indeed, she argues that understanding psychology is more important than ever and will only become more critical in the future. “I believe psychology is a very powerful lens to understand and create change,” she says. “As someone who operates both in academia and in the business world, I think that at the core of what makes any society or business function is the need to understand human behavior. I have found a degree in psychology to be an incredibly powerful tool for helping me know how to be a better leader, manager, supporter of people in my organizations. I have always felt that psychology was important, but now it is just so tangibly relevant to some of the big things we are grappling with—such as climate change or the pandemic—and how to motivate people to do things differently. So I say that now is our moment for psychologists!”