01 Sep 2011
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The Innovation Imperative

History shows that great institutions embrace change
by Roger Thompson

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If you want to understand what’s driving Dean Nitin Nohria’s emphasis on innovation for the School, look no further than HBS professor Bill Kirby’s writings on the rise and decline of great universities. While Nohria spent his first several months in office talking to scores of alumni, faculty, and staff about priority setting for the School, Kirby’s work framed the larger conversation and served as a bracing reminder that greatness cannot be taken for granted.

Addressing spring reunion attendees in Burden Hall, Nohria said that Kirby, the Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration, “reminded me that in 1900, if you looked at a list of the top 10 universities in the world, eight of them were German, and two of them were from the UK. There was not a single American university in the top 10 at the time.

“Now, if you were to make a list of the top 10 universities in the world, no German universities would appear. The highest-ranked German university is 53rd. And the UK universities, Cambridge and Oxford, are barely hanging on to their past glory. At the top today are American universities.”

Kirby, former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is nearing completion of a major research project that addresses whether rapidly growing Chinese universities will set the world standard for excellence in the 21st century.

When I talked with Nohria recently about the year ahead for HBS, I asked him to assess Kirby’s observations in the context of his five priorities for HBS: curriculum innovation, internationalization, intellectual ambition, inclusion (diversity), and integration with Harvard.

“The capacity to innovate was vital to the success of American universities in the 20th century,” Nohria explained. “I’m very mindful of that in terms of why we should be relentless about innovating at Harvard Business School. That’s what Bill Kirby’s history teaches us.”

Nohria was quick to point out that innovation does not come at the expense of what made HBS a world leader in business education. “We must continue to strengthen the traditions and core values that made the School great even as we have the courage to change,” he noted. (He elaborates on this commitment to tradition in the Q&A.)

In short, Nohria sees two main objectives on the path ahead: innovate to thrive and prosper while preserving and strengthening what made HBS great. Said Nohria: “That’s what we must do to assure a second great century for Harvard Business School.”

With this issue, we are introducing a new feature, Investing in HBS, that highlights news and information about alumni gift giving and its impact on realizing the School’s priorities. We’ll present updates on major projects, acknowledge key donors and volunteers, answer frequent questions, and report on fund-raising results.

— Roger Thompson

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