41 Years at Harvard Business School

Question: How has your post as dean of Harvard Business School evolved over the years?

Jay Light: There are many ways in which this school is totally different than it was 41 years ago when I started and there is some ways in which it is very much the same.  For example, probably the most obvious difference is the diversity of the students, of the faculty, of the subject matter we teach, of the ideas, of the research we do, of what goes on in the classroom.  It’s just a very, very different set of individuals who relate to each other in a much more complex way. 

Back when I started in around 1969 most of the students and most of the faculty were white males often from the interior of this great country of ours.  Today, in fact, it is an incredibly diverse student body in terms of national origin, in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of the kinds of ideas they like to work on, so the world has just become a more complex and global place and we have become a more diverse group of people in a way that reflects the evolution of the world and obviously as the world has become more complex, more technological, more global... the complexity of the ideas that we have to talk about in class, the complexity of the cases that we teach about has become greater and greater.

So if you go back and look at the ideas we talked about 41 years ago you’d find that they were fairly simple ideas.  They were set in fairly simple settings, functionally organized firms in western Massachusetts manufacturing a rather simple kind of component.  Today we teach about global firms integrated across national boundaries developing technological either equipment or ideas worked through not in a functional organization, but in a networked organization across cultural divides.  

Also the technological basis of how we do it has gone up.  When I started we used slide rules in class.  Our students now don’t even know what a slide rule is of course.  We’ve passed through slide rules and then hand calculators and then large PCs and small PCs and now they all do it on their handheld PDA a million times as fast as the slide rule was able to do it way back when.  The whole audio-visual nature of the classroom has changed and the way we go about much of our teaching.  On the other hand, if you went to a class today there are some things that are very much like what we did then.  For example, you’d find the classroom to be equally engaged.  What goes on in the classroom is all about students engaging with each other, learning from each other with the help and guidance and facilitation of a faculty member who is there to try to keep forcing the conversation towards more interesting and more controversial frankly, ideas and problems to solve.

And that has pretty much stayed the same.  It’s the challenge of that engaged classroom, the intellectual challenge of one student to another, of a student to a faculty member and vice versa that marks what goes on in our classroom and in that sense it’s very much the same and also in the sense that what we’re really trying to do is develop leaders who make a difference in the world.  That was the mission we started out with 100 years ago.  That was the mission 41 years ago when I joined the faculty.  That is still the mission.  How do you take really bright, really engaging young men and women and develop them into people who are going to become the leaders of the world down the road, leaders both in the business sector and leaders in sectors beyond business frankly?

Recorded May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

Surprisingly, business education is very much the same as it was 100 years ago, say the outgoing dean.

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