Bertrand Fox

A.M.. ‘33. Ph.D. ‘34

Jacob H. Schiff Professor

of Investment Bunking. Emeritus

Distinguished Service Award, 1984

In 1949, when Bert Fox decided to resign from the Williams College faculty, it took only two days for word to reach Donald K. David, dean of the Harvard Business School. Dean David promptly telephoned Fox and repeated an offer he had explored several times previously—to join the Business School faculty as a professor and later as director of the School’s Division of Research. This time, Fox accepted without any hesitation.  

“I knew a lot of people on the faculty at the School and had a lot of respect for them,” Fox recalled recently. “I also had great respect for Dean David and for what he was trying to do at the Business School. He was stressing the kinds of things, including a rigorous research program, that were very attractive to me.

A lot of people on the faculty also knew Bert Fox and had great respect for him. He had spent four years in Washington during World War II in charge of the economic, statistical, planning. and programming staff work of the War Production Board. In this position he had come in contact with several members of the HBS faculty, including Stanley Teele (who would later succeed David as dean), Georges Doriot, Charles Gragg. and Ed Learned. Fox had become known for his research, aimed at producing the kind of information needed by decision makers for making policy and taking action. Indeed, the mobilization of American production—in large part a result of the W.P.B.’s efforts—was one of the most important factors contributing to the eventual Allied victory.

After the war, Harvard’s Dean David became aware of Fox’s efforts at Williams to collaborate in establishing an academic program in political economy. This was an ambitious attempt to recombine the related fields of politics and economics, which had become disassociated in university curricula. Fox felt strongly that these fields were the key to the emerging American approach to public policy.

David, at that time, was a trustee of the Merrill Foundation for the Advancement of Financial Knowledge. Impressed with Fox’s accomplishments, he helped arrange for Fox to become the foundation’s part-time administrator. As a result, the two men had increasingly frequent contacts; David, on several occasions, explored with Fox the idea of joining the Business School faculty.

In 1948, Fox took a year’s leave of absence from Williams, to serve as economic advisor to defense lawyers in an antitrust case against seventeen investment banking firms in New York. After a year and a half on the case—during which he performed an exhaustive study of the securities industry—Fox could see that it would continue even longer. For this and other reasons, he decided to resign from the Williams faculty. Although he was quick to accept Dean David’s offer two days later, he was not free to break away from the antitrust case at that time. In the fall of 1950, when the preparation of the case was further along, Fox joined the Business School faculty.

By the time he arrived, war had broken out in Korea, and the nation was once again mobilizing armed forces for both Korea and the newly assumed NATO commitments in Europe. Dean David, in order to assist in the war effort and to avoid again losing individual faculty members to posts in Washington, established a temporary Mobilization Analysis Center to carry out needed research projects in Washington, and Fox was asked to lend his war production experience in man­aging one of the center’s two major subdivisions.

It was not until several years later, therefore, that Fox assumed the role of Director of the Division of Research. the post for which Dean David had recruited him. It was in this position, which he was to occupy for the next f if-teen years, that Bert Fox made his most distinctive and significant contributions to the School, and to the field of business administration. During his tenure there, more than 150 volumes were published, most of which had prefaces written by Fox himself.

In commenting on Fox’s contributions as head of the Division of Research, many of his colleagues say today that he was the perfect man for the job. But like many important figures in the School’s history. Fox did not begin his career with the aim of coming to the Harvard Business School.

The first chance episode that set the stage for Fox’s HBS career occurred in 1929, when he was a senior at Northwestern majoring in mathematics and astronomy. He had enjoyed great success academically, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa: he had also done very well outside the classroom, being on the varsity track team and a quarterback of Northwestern’s football team.

Since outstanding grades and a strong athletic record are the stuff of which Rhodes Scholars are made. Fox applied for a scholarship: ultimately, he was named an alternate, rather than a recipient. As a result, he was ready to listen when a friend of his father, Homer S. Vanderblue—then a faculty member at the Business School—sug­gested an alternative: going to work as a statistician for the Harvard Economic Society, a non-profit, Cambridge-based research firm of which he was a key member.

Fox joined the firm in the fall of 1929. While the Society did not survive the Great Depression, Fox’s affiliation with it led to graduate study in economics at Harvard. It also led to his first contacts with the Business School, since several of the firm’s principals were Business School faculty members, and a number of the younger staff lived at the School.

In 1935, after receiving his PhD in economics and teaching a few years at Harvard, Fox began his fourteen-year tenure on the Williams faculty. While rising to the rank of full professor. Fox earned his stripes as a teacher and as a researcher, publishing several well-received articles on various aspects of monetary economics before coming to Harvard.

In some ways, Fox’s position as director of the Division of Research was an ideal spot from which to launch the major changes in the School’s research program that both he and Dean David thought necessary. As director, he had the power both to fund, and to publish, all the research being done at the School.

On the other hand, because the position was so visible it was also a logical target for those faculty members who might oppose a substantive change. Moreover, Fox brought to the job two potential liabilities. First, he was an “outsider,” and not a product of the MBA program. Second, he was an economist—a matter of no small concern at a time when the School was still struggling to avoid being mistaken for a school of applied economics.

“I knew there was likely to be resistance,” recalls Fox. “I was advised of it in no uncertain terms by many people at the School. But there were also a great many faculty members who felt as I did—that the School needed to take a much more rigorous approach to research.”

Moreover, says Fox, he never proposed to ignore all that had gone on before. “I was trying to introduce a series of approaches that would build up the quality of the research. At the same time, I wanted to take advantage of the things the School had already developed, especially the emphasis on field research and its superb rapport with business. Combining that access to data with a more rigorous methodology was a terrific challenge.”

Fox says he never conceived of his role as trying to shape the nature of the research program at the School. He did. though, make choices among projects. To this extent, he was in a position to influence both the kind of research that was done and the careers of numerous faculty members.

If Fox’s position allowed him to lend support to promising individual faculty members, it also gave him a broader capacity: helping to promote new areas of research. One area that drew his early attention was quantitative analysis.

“Bob Schlaifer was already on the faculty when I got here,” recalls Fox, “and Bob also believed strongly that we needed greater quantitative capabilities. Then we got Howard Raiffa to come here from Columbia, and he and Bob teamed up, created the field of Managerial Economics, and recruited others to help develop it.”

Yet while Fox was able to help nurture such developments through his power to say “yes,” there were also times he was obliged to say “no.” It was the part of the research director’s job that he liked least. Nevertheless, says his colleague, Professor Keith Butters, Fox was very successful at saving “no” without stirring deep antagonisms.

“I think absolutely everybody regarded Bert as thoroughly fair and totally aboveboard.” says Butters. “He had no hidden agenda, no tricks up his sleeve.”

Fox was also a very successful course developer and teacher. When the faculty voted in the early fifties to increase the first-year social, economic, and political dimensions of the Public Relationships and Responsibilities course, Dean David asked Fox to head that effort in collaboration with Bob Austin and John Lintner. The resulting course constituted a systematic introduction into the first-year MBA program of economic, politico-economic, social, and ethical analysis of many business problems. All three men taught the course for several years and participated in its evolving development.

Much later, using the background acquired in the investment banking antitrust case and in response to the endowment of the Jacob H. Schiff Professorship of Investment Banking. Fox developed and taught a new second-year MBA course in that field. It represented a reintroduction of teaching in a field of finance which had lapsed at the School after the 1920s and early 1930s.

For Fox, affairs of the Business School were the primary focus during his twenty-three years at the institution, but they were not the only one. For roughly the first half of his association with the School, he continued as administrator of the Merrill Foundation for the Advancement of Financial Knowledge, which sponsored nearly fifty separate research projects in a broad range of topics in finance. He was also continuously active as a consultant in a broad variety of antitrust actions. And in 1958, he took on what was very nearly a second full-time job, serving as chief of staff and research director for the prestigious National Commission on Money and Credit. That undertaking meant commuting to New York for four days a week, and keeping up with his HBS responsibilities by working long hours when he was back in Boston.

When Fox was nearing retirement in 1974, Professor Emeritus Edmund P. Learned wrote a letter that listed, in highly abbreviated form, some of his major contributions to the School. Among them:

  “Your wise counsel in committee after committee;”

  “Your gracious guidance and assistance to doctoral candidates and those who published with the Division of Research;”

  “Your capacity to perceive the need for the introduction of new methods and new people with different points of view or skills

  “And most of all, your capacity to maintain an evenhanded balance and empathy with all elements of the faculty.”

“In sum,” Learned concluded, “you have been one of the great change agents of the Harvard Business School.”

Front row: Keith and Helena Butters, Pat and Bert Fox
Second row: Ann and Marty Gulbransen, Sarah Fowler, Joan Fox, Peter Fox, Phil Fox
Third row: Ken and Jane Fox, Tom and Elizabeth Fox