A journey from preposterous to indispensable

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So common and popular is the MBA degree today, it can be hard to grasp that most universities prior to 1910 scorned as undignified the whole idea of teaching business.

Woodrow Wilson, who became president of Princeton University in 1902, gasped in astonishment when someone suggested Princeton might expand the curriculum to include a master's in business.

"You wouldn't have the universities teach business, would you?" the incredulous future United States president responded.

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Carter Daniel, a professor of business at Rutgers University who has chronicled the rise of the MBA, laughs when he tells that story. But it was no laughing matter to the universities at the time. American business back then was regarded by the academy with the same suspicion 21st-century Americans reserve for used-car salesmen.

"People studied to go into the ministry, law, or military," says Dr. Daniel. "But if somebody went into commerce, that was considered a blight, a lower calling. And in many senses it was a sort of dirty business. It was considered indelicate."

American business, though, was emerging in the form of large, organized enterprises that needed trained workers to run them. And as universities' enrollments declined, they couldn't afford to be snooty.

Still, at the start, the curriculum was "a royal mess," Daniel says. Because universities had no experience teaching business, they initially cobbled together courses from other disciplines: "commercial Spanish," for instance - since Spanish was considered the global language of business.

Or, there was "consular science," which plumbed the depths of how to market US goods overseas through the goods offices of US embassies abroad. For those not sure of which course to choose, there were odd-ball combinations like "advanced accounting and business organization."

Gradually, however, the schools began to hit their stride. By 1922 there were 147 schools of business offering an MBA - a term that took hold around 1915. Before that, the degree was sometimes called "Master of Commercial Science."

There were 110 MBA graduates in 1919, rising to 4,335 by 1949. After World War II, the discipline took off. By 1965 there were more than 10,000 MBAs a year.

Along the way, the degree was accused - sometimes with justification - of being faddish. Adelphi University once offered an "MBA on wheels," taught on the commuter trains going to New York City in the morning, Daniel says. To some, this growth seemed unsustainable.

A Wall Street Journal article in January 1970 said "the halo over the MBA is fast becoming tarnished," predicting its demise was just around the corner, Daniel says. Yet the 1970s produced 387,000 MBAs - more than all previous decades.

Last year nearly 100,000 MBAs were minted. Still, the MBA curriculum has changed for the better, Daniel and others say. Today it involves less theorizing and more teamwork and real-life business problems.

"I think the MBA is the best existing example of a liberal education," Daniel says. "It fosters creativity, innovation, and personal development. It contributes to the welfare of society. There's always going to be a need for a program that helps teach people to think."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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