Ross School of Business celebrating 100 years of firsts

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The Stephen M. Ross School of Business has changed a lot since 1924 — and so has business.

In the 1920s, the United States was in the midst of a brief era of prosperity known as “the Roaring Twenties.” The global economy was recovering from World War I, the total wealth of the United States more than doubled between 1920-29, and the nation’s gross national product expanded by 40%, according to History.com.

Consumerism as we know it today was taking hold. Advertising was more prevalent than ever, and the average American could afford to spend on things they wanted.

Business was changing in the 1920s to accommodate a new world that was more connected and had more buying power than ever before, and the School of Business Administration — the precursor to today’s Ross School — was established in 1924 to help future business leaders navigate it.

From then on, the school would experience many firsts that would further change business and business education as we know it.

The first degree

The first graduate degree offered at the new school was the Master of Business Administration. The program took five years to complete, counting undergraduate studies, and consisted of three years of general studies followed by two years of business education.

U-M had offered business courses before, but phased out its prior business certification program after 1925.

The MBA program was created by the highly respected economics professor Edmund Ezra Day, who also became the school’s first dean. He had lofty goals to change the way business as a field was perceived at the time. Once considered more of a trade than an academic field of study, Day wanted business to be seen and studied as the complex topic that it is.

“Give us but five years, and we will turn out a product which we will certify as satisfactory, sound, and capable. We do not plan to make expert technicians. Ours is the task of making business scientists,” Day told The Detroit News in 1923.

Photo of Margaret Elliott Tracy delivering a lecture in the early days of U-m's School of Business Administration.
Margaret Elliott Tracy delivers a lecture in the early days of U-M’s School of Business Administration. (Photo courtesy of U-M Library Digital Collections)

The first faculty

During its first year of operation in 1924, the business school employed one associate professor, four assistant professors, two lecturers and four instructors. These scholars came from U-M, Harvard University and Carnegie Tech.

A few instructors came to U-M with Day from Harvard, including professors Olin Blackett, Margaret Elliott Tracy, Robert Masson, John Mitchell and Carl Schmalz. Professors hailing originally from U-M included William A. Paton, Clare E. Griffin and Robert Gordon Rodkey.

Tracy was the first and, for a time, only female faculty member at Ross and went on to become the first woman to become a full professor at the business school.

Also notably, Paton went on to make a lasting impact on the field of accounting and won many awards for his teaching, including the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ Outstanding Educator of the Century award in 1987.

The first commencement

Members of the first class received their MBA degrees in 1926, after completing two years of business education. The class consisted of men from many backgrounds, including international students from China and Japan, as well as Sih Eu-Yang Chen, the first woman to earn her MBA at what would become the Ross School.

The Class of 1926’s two top students, Maynard Phelps and Merwin H. Waterman, remained at the university and joined the faculty roster.

“When we entered the new School of Business Administration in the fall of 1924, there were 22 hopeful students and 14 faculty members. When we graduated in 1926, we were two of 12 who received the MBA degree. … Undoubtedly, we were the ‘guinea pigs’ for much experimentation, but we survived and even enjoyed the experience,” Phelps and Waterman wrote in the fall 1971 issue of Dividend, the school’s magazine.

The first MAP

In the 1980s, Dean Gilbert R. Whitaker appointed a committee and challenged faculty to come up with a way to improve and transform the school’s curriculum. Although student enrollment had doubled at the school in the past decade, the dean and other university leaders were well aware that graduates in business now faced new problems in the evolving world that the curriculum needed to address.

The idea that the group settled upon would come to be called Multidisciplinary Action Projects, or MAP, the first program of its kind at any business school. It proposed that MBA students would, as a degree requirement, gain experience at real companies and organizations before graduation.

This revolutionary program made U-M’s business school the place to go for students seeking an education that incorporated real-world learning, and the method would later be replicated by other schools across the country.

Today, after 33 years of MAP, there have been projects based in 98 countries at more than 1,500 businesses, with more than 17,000 students participating since 1990.

The first centers and institutes

As the school and its network continued to grow and evolve, so did the education it offered to students.

In the 1990s, the curriculum expanded, allowing students to be credited for hours of graduate study in other areas of the university, like the Law School, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, College of Engineering and more.

This rise of interdisciplinary study led to the creation of centers and institutes of learning, like the William Davidson Institute, which was established in 1992. Davidson, a 1947 alumnus and successful business owner, contributed $30 million to establish the institute, which would focus on helping businesses in transitional societies adapt to a free-market economy.

In 1991, inspired by global changes to manufacturing and technology, the school partnered with the CoE and a 31-member Industrial Advisory Board to create the Michigan Joint Manufacturing Initiative.

In 1995, alumnus Joel D. Tauber contributed $5 million to this initiative to create what later became known as the Tauber Institute for Global Operations. Tauber evolved over time to become one of the country’s top interdisciplinary engineering and business institutes.

Stephen M. Ross’ donation of $100 million in 2004 paved the way for a new building on campus, and led to the school being named the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. (Photo courtesy of the Ross School)

The new building

In 2004, Stephen M. Ross, a 1962 alumnus and New York real estate developer, contributed $100 million — at the time the largest donation ever made to U-M — and the business school was renamed in his honor.

His donation funded a new 179,000-square-foot building complete with numerous classrooms, study spaces, a library, a fitness center and much more.

It housed the school’s students, faculty, staff and numerous centers and institutes. With dedicated space for classwork and the highly collaborative group work that the Ross School had become known for, it entered an era of exciting growth in the 2010s.

Innovation today

Today, Ross continues to innovate each year to adapt to new challenges in business, including the rise of artificial intelligence, climate change and more.

The school has expanded its degree offerings to develop leaders for in-demand career paths like business analytics and also to accommodate working students who choose to remain fully employed while earning their degrees online. New technology like the Convatec Digital Learning Studio has made collaboration and engagement with students and faculty unable to meet in person more seamless than ever before.

The school has also continued to refine its curriculum, with its programs, from Full-Time MBA to Executive MBA, regularly ranking among the top 10 in the country.

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