Evolution of a Business School

    How a century's worth of progress has produced one of Canada's most forward-looking business schools

    By Max Fawcett on October 10, 2016

    The idea of someone’s parents discouraging them from pursuing commerce, and shepherding them instead in the direction of a general arts degree, probably sounds like a cross between a joke and a lie. But that’s exactly what Glen Patterson, the oldest living graduate of the Alberta School of Business, faced when he told his parents that he wanted to study business. “My family wanted me to go into arts and be a teacher,” the 95-year-old says, “but I didn’t like that idea at all. I wanted to be a trade commissioner—I had that idea of wanderlust.”

    In fairness to the Pattersons, the fledgling commerce program didn’t have the reputation that it enjoys today. Commerce was within the arts faculty, and not as well regarded by the rest of the university. Business school, to many, was a place to learn how to take dictation and write a business letter. “Fortunately for the department of commerce at the time, they had a fantastic leader,” says Patterson. “His name was Francis Winspear.”

    Most people know of Winspear, if they know of him at all, from his numerous philanthropic contributions to Edmonton. But as one of Winspear’s students, Patterson knew him much better than that. He vividly recalls how the combination of a lisp, a thick British accent and the blizzard of accounting jargon constantly streaming from the professor’s mouth made those classes challenging. But it was the example that Winspear set as a leader in the business community that stood out—and still does. “He was so inspiring about everything,” Patterson says. “And it’s remained with me to this day.”

    Patterson graduated with a BCom in 1942, but his career plans were interrupted by the Second World War. Serving in the Royal Air Force in England, the disruption only solidified his decision to study business. “The military, and I don’t mind saying it out loud, was the biggest bureaucracy in the world. Hopeless leadership—I don’t know how we won the war.” After 1945, he worked in forestry—first in the bush, where he’d set chokers around logs on steep B.C. cliffs. Before long, he was tasked with the management of a 3,200-square-kilometre forest area in Grande Prairie, and eventually was promoted to a head-office job in Vancouver, where he still lives today.

    Evolution of a business school

    Illustration by Louise Reimer

    Patterson wasn’t the only student whose academic trajectory was directly influenced by Francis Winspear. He was a formative influence on the School in its middle years, when the former School of Commerce was effectively an accounting program operating under the umbrella—and thumb—of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and he helped push for the recruitment of new instructors and the acquisition of financial and administrative resources. As Dr. William Preshing points out in A Chronicle of Commerce, by the early 1940s Winspear had a decidedly prescient view that the School ought to be moving away from its strict focus on accounting and towards a broader understanding of the business world. His vision would set in motion a series of changes that would lay the foundation for a business school that’s consistently ranked among the top five in the country and top 100 in the world today.

    Today, the world’s business schools are expected to deliver an educational experience that prepares students for a wide range of opportunities. But in the mid-1900s, what a business school stood for was still debatable. In Edmonton, the tension between professional organizations and the School’s purpose would define its trajectory in the post-war years. Did it exist to facilitate the needs of professional organizations and industry groups, or was it there to equip students with a more expansive education? As Preshing writes, “There were clearly some who felt that the major, if not the only, role for the School of Commerce was to provide an ongoing supply of students to become Chartered Accountants, a goal that was to create other issues and problems in the future.”

    There were clearly some who felt that the major, if not the only, role for the School of Commerce was to provide an ongoing supply of students to become Chartered Accountants.

    The school’s origins lay in the Department of Accountancy, which the Faculty of Arts and Sciences created in 1916 as part of the newly minted University of Alberta. It didn’t actually graduate any students until 1923, when three students were recognized with bachelor of commerce degrees. Seven more followed the next year, and they would find work (mostly as accountants and trade commissioners) everywhere from Cape Town to Honolulu. The Department of Accountancy was understaffed and lacking resources, and the arrival of the Great Depression and Second World War in such close succession impaired its growth. But it continued to press forward with an increasingly sophisticated and expansive curriculum.

    That direction, of course, created friction between the department and accounting professionals, some of whom had been involved in establishing course content and most of whom saw its proper role as being confined to the training and development of future members of the field. Winspear himself stepped back in 1947, after his appointment to the board of examiners of the Dominion Association of Chartered Accountants created what he felt was a conflict of interest, but he returned seven years later to address that tension. By then, the unprecedented rise of student enrolment following the return of young Canadian soldiers had forced the program to evolve from a three-year program to an optional four-year honours degree with courses in marketing, business finance and personnel management.

    Francis Windspear

    Francis Windspear becomes the first recipient of the Canadian Business Leader Award (1982). Image from the Alberta School of Business Archives.

    After reviewing the curricula of business schools in B.C., Ontario and Quebec universities, Winspear recommended a retreat from the intensive focus on accounting that had defined the department’s activities to date. Likewise, he advised that the School start using the “case method,” an approach to instruction that puts a student in the role of decision maker in real-life situations, and asks him or her to react accordingly. It represented a departure from the traditional lecture-oriented style, and Winspear knew it would be controversial. Ben Lindberg, a Harvard recruit, took on the task of selling those changes when he became the School’s Director, joined by Boris Gardave, a case method expert and one of the School’s first full-time instructors of business administration. But the backlash from university heads was immediate. Lindberg struggled to make these changes and Gardave soon quit after facing what Preshing calls “the brunt of the anti-case backlash.”

    Emmett Wallace, a pro-Lindberg professor who had been appointed the chair of the curriculum committee, wrote to president Andrew Stewart expressing frustration with both the pace of change and opposition to it. “Unless accounting assumes its proper place in the Commerce program…the University of Alberta will not have a balanced curriculum program.”

    Things came to a head at the 95th meeting of the commerce council on Dec. 4, 1957. Wallace tabled an interim report making the case for a broader course of study for commerce students (a structure that mirrors the one that exists today) and the elimination of accounting’s academic primacy. “Each area is co-equal in business and should be co-equal in education for business,” concluded the so-called “Wallace Report.” The battle lines had thus been drawn, and the stakes were clear. In the discussion of its recommendations, Wallace argued that “today the council would be deciding the very future of the School of Commerce.”

    They did. And the motion to adopt and implement the report was defeated 6–4, with three members, including vice-president Walter Johns, abstaining. By day’s end, Lindberg had offered his letter of resignation, and so would Wallace in due course. The old guard had won.

    Management Informations System program is introduced (1987). Photo from the Alberta School of Business archives.

    Or had it? The fallout within the wider business community was immediate, and the local Chamber of Commerce was particularly outspoken about the inadequacy of the existing curriculum and their disappointment with the decision to maintain the status quo. “The tidal wave of reaction from the outside community ultimately created a climate in which major changes did occur,” Preshing writes. The revised curriculum that Wallace and Lindberg had fought so hard for was quietly (and quickly) adopted, while the School of Commerce, now under the leadership of Hu Harries, started pushing hard for status as an independent faculty.

    On March 15, 1960, Walter Johns—now president of the university—wrote to the board of governors to inform them that he would request official faculty status at their next meeting. In the end, it turned out to be a glorious defeat.

    The school continued to evolve throughout the 1960s, adding an MBA program and changing its name to the Faculty of Business Administration and Commerce to reflect that reality. At the same time, it was pressing for a permanent building to put an end to the patchwork of campus locations that it had been shunted in and out of over the years. The faculty plainly needed more space, too: “By 1970–71,” Preshing writes, “staffing had increased to 53 full-time academic appointments and thirteen sessional lecturers, and the Faculty had a space deficit of 26,000 square feet.”

    The province was rapidly evolving and growing. Alberta was no longer a have-not province, and the business of extracting oil and gas resources occupied an increasingly large share of the economy. The first true oil boom was right around the corner, and the governing Social Credit party was about to be tossed out on its ear by Peter Lougheed, who would go on to create a political dynasty of his own. Business education, meanwhile, was in the midst of an intellectual golden age.

    “During the 1970s and early 1980s, the best business schools were arguably the most intellectually exciting places in academia,” wrote American business professors Warren Bennis and James O’Toole in a May 2005 piece for the Harvard Business Review. “In many universities, ‘B schools’ were the primary loci of multidisciplinary research. That intellectual ferment and cross-pollination helped make business schools the hugely popular institutions they are today.”

    Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta

    After being split between a variety of buildings since 1960, the current Business building opened in 1984. Image from the Alberta School of Business Archives.

    That popularity didn’t translate into a new building for the University of Alberta’s business school until 1984, though. By then, the faculty had grown from a small accounting-oriented department into a globally recognized B-school. It created outreach and exchange programs in Kenya and China, expanded its interactions with faculties at the U of A and other academic institutions, and carved up the faculty into five distinct departments: finance and quantitative methods, behavioural science, business economics and marketing, industrial relations, and accounting. It embraced computers and the technological revolution it forecasted, while experimenting with fundraising campaigns and naming rights for the School. In 1979, it endowed its first chair: the Francis Winspear Chair of Professional Accounting.

    The 1980s also saw its first PhD program. “It contributed significantly to the development and strength of the global reputation of the school,” says Joseph Doucet, the current dean. “It’s enabled us to attract incredibly talented faculty members—people who excel both in research and in teaching.” Similarly, he says, the decision to expand the MBA program into other areas of inquiry and offer joint MBA-master degrees in medicine, engineering and law, expanded the School’s influence on campus.

    It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, and there was a growing consensus that some bigger-picture strategic thinking about the faculty’s future was in order. In fall 1993, a 27-page paper circulated by the new dean, Rodney Schneck, noted that the entire practice of business education was in flux after three decades of relative stability, and the University of Alberta, he argued, was obligated to respond to it. People were questioning the value proposition behind a business education, Preshing writes, “but [Schneck] rejected ‘the stance of pessimism’ about business schools, saying they had contributed much to North American intellectual and economic life.”

    Schneck faced some internal pushback from members of both the faculty and administration, but the final version of his paper was presented on Dec. 10, 1996. It outlined four key goals for faculty: the recruitment and education of top-level talent, the publication of research that put it among the top three business schools in Canada, better communication with the business community, alumni, government and the university, and the development of one globally recognized teaching program. Mike Percy, who succeeded Schneck as dean in 1997, would carry out that ambitious agenda.

    The U of A wasn’t the only campus where business education was in the midst of an existential crisis of sorts. Harvard’s Bennis and O’Toole argued that, in business schools across North America, there was a shift away from practical forms of education and towards a more scientific approach, and it wasn’t doing students or their future employers any favours. “When applied to business—essentially a human activity in which judgments are made with messy, incomplete, and incoherent data—statistical and methodological wizardry can blind rather than illuminate,” they wrote. “The problem is not that business schools have embraced scientific rigor but that they have forsaken other forms of knowledge. Business schools need a diverse faculty populated with professors who, collectively, hold a variety of skills and interests that cover territory as broad and as deep as business itself.”

    That said, a strength of the Faculty of Business—soon to become the School of Business in 2000, and the Alberta School of Business in 2005—was the balance it had struck between research and instruction, the theoretical and the pragmatic. “A good business school tends to have a culture,” says Percy, “and our culture at the Alberta School of Business has always been research-intensive but with a focus on applications.” Likewise, he argues, that culture was about remaining relevant—about teaching students to go where the puck was headed rather than where it had been, to borrow a local metaphor. “For me, good business schools are relevant. They push the boundaries. They’re looking around corners, not in the rear-view mirror.”

    The first cohort of the Master of Financial Management (China) program (2014). Image from the Alberta School of Business archives.

    As it happened, that mindset carried over to decisions made by the School’s leadership. While business schools across the continent were busy selling off their naming rights to eminent business people—at the University of Calgary, for example, it became the Haskayne School of Business in 2002—the Alberta School of Business doubled down on its existing brand.

    Part of the calculus behind that choice was risk mitigation, says Percy. “As much as you can do due diligence, you wouldn’t necessarily want to be the Bernie Ebbers School of Business.” (The Canadian telecommunications mogul was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 2005.) But it was also about the value that people saw in the School’s geographic roots. “When you spoke to alumni, they liked the name ‘Alberta.’ It gives them a sense of place, that this is the Alberta School of Business, and it represents the society of Alberta: entrepreneurial and risk-taking.” In fact, Preservation of the Name, a 2008 fundraising campaign designed to support the school’s academic ambitions, raised more than $20 million from donors, despite taking place in the midst of the Great Recession. “We couldn’t have picked a worse time,” Percy says, “but we couldn’t have been more successful.”

    The School continues to evolve: it recently introduced a Master of Finance program in China and is developing a Master of Accounting program that’s expected to launch next spring (see Page 27). There’s also the ongoing turnover of its faculty, which brings with it a natural opportunity for renewal and reinvigoration. “Of the 75 or so full-time professors who are here today, there are probably only 20 or so who were here before I arrived,” says Doucet, who first joined the school in 2000 and succeeded Percy in 2013. “That’s an exciting place to be, to have that level of renewal and energy coming in.”

    But the biggest agenda item is the new building, one that Doucet hopes to see underway within the next five to ten years, and which he believes will prepare the School for its next evolutionary step. While the building will better accommodate existing forms of technology and ways of learning, Doucet says its real purpose is to help the School to grow into the platforms that are still to come. “One of the reasons we believe we need a new building is in order to allow us to become more flexible and adaptable, and provide the learning environment that is going to be best suited for students in a future that is, in some ways, still uncertain for us,” he says.

    If anything, Alberta School of Business’s students will be graduating into an economic landscape that will be even more uncertain, given that it’s increasingly defined by the forces of creative disruption and destruction. “Business schools, more so than ever, are fundamental if you’re going to have growth that’s sustainable and enterprises that can adapt to technological disruption,” says Percy. And while this may not lead to, say, a major shift away from fossil fuels in the near term, it’s one of many scenarios the School is actively preparing its students for.

    “If, in our provincial economy, we’re going to try to grow areas of activity that make us a little more resilient to global shocks, we’re going to need leaders—people who think innovatively and entrepreneurially,” says Doucet. “And that’s exactly what we focus on.” Francis Winspear, it’s safe to assume, would be proud of that.


    Max Fawcett is a magazine writer, the former editor of Alberta Oil and, briefly, a former commerce student himself.