f Joseph Wharton were alive today, he would probably be smiling.

Wharton, who amassed a fortune in his American Nickel Co. and the Bethlehem Steel Corp., contributed $100,000 in 1881 to endow the Wharton School of Finance and Economy at the University of Pennsylvania, the world's first collegiate school of management.

At the founding, an associate commented to Wharton that, "It the founding of the Wharton School is the beginning of a movement, which in another generation, or at most another century, will be recognized as a necessity, as railroads and blast furnaces."

The century has passed, and Wharton's school has remained at the forefront of management education. At the graduate level, some 50,000 MBAs will graduate nationwide this year to enter the professional management ranks, more than 600 of them from Wharton.

Wharton, generally considered to be among the top three business schools in America, along with Stanford and Harvard, has a new dean, a sparkling new $17 million home, and a new objective: to be No. 1, not in the United States, but in the world. Its thrust in the 1980s will be internationalization.

"I believe Wharton should be No. 1 in the world," said Russell E. Palmer, chief executive officer of Touche Ross International, one of the Big Eight accounting firms, who agreed on March 16 to become Wharton's 10th dean. He is only the second dean in the school's 102-year history to come from outside the school.

In the international arena, the school has established ties to about 20 universities around the world and will soon announce the formation of a new institute for international management studies. The new institute, a joint effort with the university's College of Arts and Sciences, will offer a three-year joint degree program to students who will receive training in business as well as the language and culture of selected regions of the world.

In addition to the international arena, Palmer identified three other areas of emphasis for Wharton in the 1980s. First, there is the behavioral sciences and human relations, which includes greater emphasis on oral and written communication skills, something business schools have been criticized for not teaching. Palmer said the two other areas for emphasis were increased study of the interaction between business and government, and the impact of modern technology on business.

According to Wharton marketing professor Jerry Wind, who headed a university search committee for the new dean, "The job of dean is exciting for someone who wants to take the school considered to be one of the top three and make it No. 1." However, as both Wind and departing Wharton Dean Donald C. Carroll noted, senior faculty at Wharton are paid about $10,000 less than their counterparts at Harvard and Stanford, who earn about $56,000 a year. For Wharton to be the best, both agreed, this situation must change.

Palmer, who will take over as dean when Carroll leaves in June to become chairman of a British-based multinational computer firm, promised to spend a lot of time listening to faculty and students before he maps out specific plans for the school. But, on the day of his confirmation as dean, he made one promise: "If we're going to be the best in the world, our faculty salaries have to be competitive with our principal competitors."

Wharton's greatest strength is diversity. Among its principal competitors, it is the only business school to have both graduate and undergraduate programs. The school offers more courses and majors than any other. More companies--600 in 1982--visit Wharton to recruit students each year than visit any other business school.

In the graduate division, more than 1,200 students, with an average of three years' work experience, take part in academics and in the myriad of clubs and activities sponsored by the school's active student association.

The average starting salary for Wharton's MBA graduates in May will be around $35,500, according to Art Letcher, director of the Wharton corporate placement office. While large corporations used to hire almost 60 percent of the Wharton graduates each year, that number will decline to somewhere between 30 and 40 percent this year, Letcher estimates. Corporate America is cutting back on hiring in response to depressed quarterly earnings, just as many smaller growth-oriented companies in fields like real estate, arts management and sports management are recognizing the long-term benefits of hiring MBAs with strong technical backgrounds, he said.

"Companies used to make three offers to get one person and last year we found they cut back to one for one and were a lot more careful," Letcher said. "Although the overall market for MBAs is down, salaries are still going up because companies are hiring people whose skills match their needs more specifically. . . .

"Our advantage at Wharton is diversification beyond the traditional management disciplines into fields like health care, public policy, the arts and transportation."

While some of its competitors concentrate on the case method of instruction, the method of teaching at Wharton is a blend of textbook and case, depending as much on the preference of the individual professor as on the subject matter.

In research, instructors have been encouraged to be entrepreneurial under the 11-year tenure of Dean Carroll, who is popular for increasing the school's sponsored research budget from $1 million to $12 million annually without putting restrictions on faculty. Most faculty members use their free day each week to supplement their incomes through private consulting engagements.

"Wharton and Harvard are dissimilar in almost every respect," said Wharton marketing professor Stewart F. DeBruicker, who taught for five years at Harvard's business school before joining Wharton. "The Wharton curriculum offers flexibility and freedom of choice for students because there are a relatively small number of required courses, which is best for the self-motivated student.

"On the other hand, Harvard's required first year is a program which I taught in and admire. The coordinated team teaching at Harvard is remarkably effective in the first of the two years," he said. But he added that in the second year it continues with the case method when it is better to let students go out and structure their own problems rather than being handed a case.

University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney observed in a recent interview that Wharton had undergone tremendous growth and upgrading of faculty and student quality under Dean Carroll. It will be up to the new dean, Hackney said, to manage that growth through consolidation of programs and the building of internal linkages.

The quality of students in the Wharton undergraduate division (SAT scores average 1,350, compared with a national average of 893) has risen so dramatically in the last few years that one favorite method for gaining entrance is to apply to the university's College of Arts and Sciences, gain acceptance, and then transfer into Wharton as sophomores. This does not concern Wharton Vice Dean Matthew Stephens, head of the undergraduate division, who sees the diversity of opporunities available as the program's essential strength. Wharton undergraduates take approximately half their courses in arts and sciences.

One of the only glaring failures under Carroll's tenure as dean, many here feel, was the demise of the Wharton magazine, which Carroll started in 1975. Carroll said that although circulation of the popular magazine reached the goal of 40,000, the publication was losing $250,000 a year.