01 Dec 2007
The Wise Men
Four Legendary HBS Professors on the School’s Past and Futureby Garry Emmons;Julia HannaTopics:
In April 2008, the School will mark its Centennial birthday — 100 years of history and achievement. To be sure, that’s an impressive figure, but consider also the combined years at HBS — nearly 160 — of emeriti professors Charlie Williams, George Lodge, Ray Goldberg, and Walt Salmon. Over their long careers, these legendary faculty members not only helped shape the School and personify it to generations of students and alumni, they were also eyewitnesses to its evolution.
When they began their careers, after World War II and at about the midpoint of the 20th century, the production and managerial demands of the war had prompted new courses in, and research emphasis on, human relations and control. Commensurately, the School began to boost its faculty (it had 98 members in 1946). By 1950, HBS was a commanding presence in its field: The School awarded some 600 of the approximately 4,300 MBA degrees handed out nationally.
But more importantly, HBS was cementing its identity, centered on the powerful pedagogy of the case method and on the entire MBA experience as a unique and transformational event. Indeed, the School had become confident enough to aspire to greatness: As HBS professor Sumner Slichter (the School’s first University Professor) wrote in 1945, “Something should happen to men who come to the Business School which could not happen to them anywhere else in the world, and which will leave its mark on them for the rest of their lives.”
Through the lives and careers of Professors Williams, Lodge, Goldberg, and Salmon, we gain a behind-the-scenes look at the School during its crucial middle decades and further benefit from their accumulated wisdom as to future directions for the institution they helped build and nurture.
A native of West Virginia, Charlie Williams (MBA ’39) graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington and Lee University and was accepted at HBS at age 19. During World War II, Williams survived the sinking of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea and in 1945, as ship’s announcer on the USS Topeka, he read President Truman’s announcement of the dropping of the atom bomb. Retired since 1986, Williams taught for nearly forty years in the HBS classroom and in business programs in some 23 countries abroad. Over the years, he has seen 27 former students join the HBS faculty. The author or coauthor of hundreds of cases, Williams also wrote the seminal textbook Basic Business Finance (with HBS professors Pearson Hunt and Gordon Donaldson), which has been used by more than 300 universities.
The faculty was relatively compact and small when I joined HBS; the curriculum and the way courses were organized and taught was quite personalized, too. There wasn’t a huge body of knowledge about management, and so many of the ideas that came to be taught were developed by the faculty. The cases were shorter and simpler but still raised important issues. Most of the students enjoyed the few lectures that the faculty offered because it was comforting to be told what you needed to know instead of having to think through it yourself. When I taught in a management program in Turin in 1953, an Italian assistant of mine commented that lecture courses had the impact of water over marble: very smooth, leaving little trace.
The B-School was looked down upon by many across the river when I was a student at HBS. It was seen, with a slight sneer, as a school for tradesman. But after the war, some of the same people who had been sneering were slinking over and applying. As a new faculty member in 1947, I experienced the full surge of students attending on the GI Bill. In one class I had a vigorous case discussion going, and a fellow who had been a bomber pilot made some disparaging remarks about the comments of another student, a former tank commander. They jumped out of their seats, and I thought I’d have to referee before people calmed them down. They were an extremely motivated, hard-driving bunch.
I believe the School will stay relevant through its emphasis on interactive learning, and by maintaining its willingness to look ahead and dive into areas for which there are no agreed-upon answers. I am concerned about the tendency to overemphasize the use of computer analysis in fields like finance, when more attention should be paid to getting out in the field to find out what’s really going on and why. If teaching becomes largely quantitative and the computer is the dominant resource, case writing and field research become relatively less important, and the School’s competitive advantage shrinks as a result. Fortunately, I don’t think that will happen. There’s been an increased emphasis on individual research projects built into the MBA curriculum, and that offers a healthy antidote to just reading printouts.
“Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.” Professor emeritus George Lodge is quoting a favorite line from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, one that neatly sums up how Lodge has made his way in the world. Growing up in privilege on Boston’s North Shore (where he developed a passion for sailing and exploration unabated to this day), Lodge enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17. After graduating from Harvard College in 1950 and working as a reporter for the Boston Herald, he signed on at the U.S. Department of Labor (he has been a card-carrying member of three different unions) for several years before making an unsuccessful run against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate. Joining the HBS faculty full-time in 1963 for a career that would span four decades, Lodge broadened the School’s international, cross-cultural outlook through his many books and articles; through his key role in starting INCAE, the Central American business school; and by helping found Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE) and teaching other courses centered on business-government relations and comparative ideology. He is currently working to start an antipoverty alliance of multinationals, governments, and NGOs that is the subject of his latest book, A Corporate Solution to Global Poverty.
When I first came to HBS, I knew it was already considered the world’s greatest business school. What I didn’t know was what an MBA degree was, or even what the initials stood for. More surprises: I soon found that the School was in a shaky financial condition, reduced to borrowing money from banks to pay the faculty. Dean Baker told me, “We can hire you for one year, but you’ll need to raise half your salary.” The idea was to get INCAE up and running, with support from the Kennedy administration and USAID. I would be half-time in administration, spreading the light of Harvard in the developing world, and half-time teaching. I was such an odd duck: Dean Baker wasn’t too clear about what I would teach and neither was I! Thus began a long association with INCAE for HBS and for me personally. It’s been a fruitful relationship with ups and downs, of course, and some bizarre moments, too. Not long after their revolution seized power in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista leaders — still dressed in their jungle greens — marched into the HBS Faculty Club. Over breakfast, we discussed INCAE’s future.
In 1972, without a Ph.D. or even a master’s degree, I became a tenured HBS faculty member. Only HBS could be flexible enough for such a thing to happen! Maybe it was possible because we thought of ourselves more as pragmatic experimenters than as academics.
Our strength at HBS is that we look at the world as it comes at us, and the world does not come at us according to this or that discipline. It comes in a mess, and we try to figure out how to understand it, and how to deal with it. What the world most needs going forward is integrative, holistic, and systemic thinking. The challenge for the School is how to keep its great strength — its practitioner-oriented, case-oriented way of thinking — in harmony with what the disciplines have to teach.
Ray Goldberg (MBA ’50) came to HBS from a small family business in Fargo, North Dakota, from a culture in which “my high-school principal thought anything east of the Mississippi was communistic,” Goldberg recalls. But as it happened, the sister of a neighboring farmer was Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe. So young Ray followed his older sister, a Radcliffe student, to Cambridge, where he enrolled at Harvard College.
After attending HBS and earning a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Minnesota, Goldberg joined the HBS faculty in 1955. In 1957, he and HBS colleague John Davis coined the word “agribusiness” to describe the complex chain of events, individuals, transactions, and products that feed the world. Until his retirement in 1997, Goldberg had taught many thousands of MBA and Executive Education students and was the author, coauthor, or editor of more than 20 books, over 100 articles, and more than 1,000 cases on agribusiness, the term with which he has become synonymous. He currently teaches a food policy and agribusiness course at the Kennedy School, the Agribusiness Seminar at HBS, and a University-wide seminar on public issues facing the food system.
I was always more interested in attending HBS than Harvard College because I planned to return home to run the family business, a small chain of seed and feed operations in the Red River Valley, in North Dakota and Minnesota. But John Black, who taught agricultural economics at Harvard, convinced me that I should get a doctorate. Although HBS may seem unlikely soil for agribusiness, the School actually had an ag industry course before I arrived. And Dean David, who himself came from an agribusiness background, wanted to improve the relationships in the value-added food system.
Over the years, I’ve seen change occur in different ways at HBS. One was through the work of faculty committees, such as those headed by Ken Andrews and Bob Anthony, that were charged with thinking about what kind of place the School should be. Change has also come in the organization around functions, such as Marketing or Finance, and an increased emphasis on research. And, of course, there’s been a change in the student body. Way back when, we had only a few international students, and HBS was the last Harvard grad school to accept women into the same program as men. One senior faculty member once got up and said, “Over my dead body will we ever have women in this School,” and over his dead body we did.
HBS has had an enormous impact on the world, through the case method and the fact that students must develop their own conceptual frameworks, not regurgitate that of the professor. Alums go out into world and conduct themselves and business in this same manner, creating a multiplier effect. For the future, I believe HBS should train managers for all parts of society, not just for business. Companies know that success means having managers with an open mind and a mindset of how to get a job done and respond to society’s needs. I’m optimistic about the School. It retains the ability to keep asking itself, “How do we renew ourselves and make ourselves respond to society’s needs more effectively?”
An expert in the fields of consumer marketing and retail distribution, Walter Salmon (MBA ’54) graduated from the City College of New York and was admitted directly to HBS. “I never felt that economic barriers or not having attended private school prevented me from participating in the culture of HBS,” he recalls. “Coming to the School was a wonderful rite of passage.”
Over the years, Salmon has served on the boards of organizations as diverse as Harrah’s Entertainment, Luby’s Cafeterias, Inc., and the Neiman Marcus Group (he remains on the boards of Cumberland Farms and the Marine Biological Laboratory). Retired from the classroom since 1997, he continues to guide student field study projects. “Contact with students and executives is a way to keep abreast of what’s going on and to hone your analytic tools — or at least sustain them,” he comments.
When I started teaching at HBS in 1959, I was 29 years old, not much older than some of the students. Back then, I think we worried more about the quality of the cases than their distribution across industries. Somehow, when I was the coursehead of Marketing, four cases having to do with deodorant slipped into the curriculum. I remember distinctly a British student standing up when I was teaching the fourth case and saying, “Professor Salmon, perhaps you should change the title of this course from Marketing to ‘How to Change Armpits into Charmpits.’ ” I collapsed, the class collapsed, and I don’t know that we managed to get back to the discussion after that comment.
I think the biggest change I’ve seen at the School has been the increased diversity of the student body, which introduced a wider point of view in the classroom discussion. For most of us, myself included, the recognition of different lifestyles and cultures was useful, particularly when thinking about marketing. In the curriculum, we now have far more and shorter courses than when I was an MBA, I suppose in response to the growing number of disciplines you need to understand to become a contemporary businessperson. Yet we can’t disregard the traditional subject matter. And if you try to hold the program to two years, it’s inevitable that you can’t go into as much depth. I’m not dinosaur-like enough to suggest we should go back to the old ways, but I wonder if we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction and lost something in our inability to give students more interim feedback and written tests.
With that said, I think the School has contributed substantially to business as a discipline that succumbs to theory and (primarily) to inductive, pragmatic analysis. We’ve taught generations of students to be neither victims of analysis paralysis nor prone to promiscuous decision-making. Finally, although there are always unfortunate exceptions, I think on the whole we’ve graduated a community of individuals who are more ethically sensitive when they leave than when they arrive — and who act accordingly.