Educating Business Administrators

“The future of business at its best lies in the further development of a professional point of view. In the ministry, the law, and medicine, experience has proved that the shortest and most effective way to absorb the fundamental facts, principles, and standards . . . and to prepare for its practice is in a good school.”
History of Harvard Business School, 1924
Harvard President Charles W. Eliot with grandson.

Harvard President Charles W. Eliot with grandson.

In 1869, the year he became president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot penned an article in which he voiced a pressing concern. “I want to give [my boy] a practical education; one that will prepare him, better than I was prepared, to follow my business or any other active calling,” he wrote. “The classical schools and the colleges do not offer what I want. . . . Here is a real need and a very serious problem.”1 By the turn of the twentieth century, a rising managerial class was overseeing the growing manufacturing enterprises that had transformed America from an agrarian society to an industrial power. Managers, who now numbered in the millions, got their training either on the job, or in technically oriented, for-profit business schools. The new discipline of management, however, was striving for an identity that would connect it more strongly with the societal goals of the Progressive Era.2

Tool Making Department, ca. 1933.

Tool Making Department, ca. 1933. National Cash Register Company.

President Eliot noted that by the turn of the century nearly half of Harvard’s graduates pursued careers in business. In 1908, under pressure from the durable President Eliot, the Harvard Corporation agreed to establish the first U.S. graduate program in business administration. Initial funds for the School came from a General Education Board gift and support from both Harvard alumni and businessmen. The University placed the two-year degree program within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and gave it a five-year trial period. Eliot envisioned the new school as going far beyond mere vocational training. “We seek at Harvard to put all various sciences and arts into practice so that public advantage may result,” the president wrote. “We seek to train doers, achievers—men whose successful personal careers are made subservient to the public good.”3 The University, then, offered an opportunity to further legitimize the profession of business administration within its broader mission of serving society as a whole.

Charles Eliot, The Atlantic Monthly (February 1869), quoted in Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, A Delicate Experiment: The Harvard Business School, 1908-1945. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1987, p. 17.
Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 43.
Charles Eliot, see note 1, p. 18.