Entering Our Fifth Decade

On September 13, 1976, a new graduate school—a new kind of graduate school—opened its doors at Yale University.

The Yale School of Organization and Management, as it was first known, was Yale’s answer to the business schools that had existed for several decades at peer institutions, but it was markedly, and intentionally, different in outlook and approach from those schools. Yale SOM sought to have a disproportionate impact on the world by training leaders with the knowledge and understanding to effectively manage both public and private organizations—a drive that is reflected in the school’s continuing mission to educate leaders for business and society.

“Our fundamental education objective is the conscious and sustained examination of common characteristics between public and private institutions,” wrote Dean William Donaldson in the school’s first admissions brochure, “not only in their structuring and interrelationships, but in their management.”

Such a goal required the school to break down long-standing disciplinary boundaries. “We are impatient with traditional labels and practices,” Donaldson wrote, “such as defining the study of ‘marketing’ as only a private sector subject, relegating the study of political bureaucracies to students of public policy and administration, and leaving analyses of our legal system strictly to the law schools.”

The day of its opening, the New York Times reported on the new school and its unorthodox approach, noting that the “student body [is] as diverse as the curriculum its members will be asked to absorb.” The Charter Class of 1978 had 50 students, ranging in age from 21 to 38; 21 of them had worked the public sector and 22 in business. The Times reported: “The class roster includes a partner in a commodities firm who already has a doctorate from Oxford, an assistant professor in Japanese history, a theater manager with a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University, a network television administrator, and a West Point graduate fresh from armored training at Fort Knox.”

On Monday, September 13, 1976, the school was officially inaugurated with a convocation in Sprague Hall, and classes began in a campus still under construction. 

“We are very pleased indeed to be born,” Donaldson told the Sprague Hall audience, which included Yale president Kingman Brewster and members of the school’s advisory board, among them World Bank president Robert McNamara, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League, and Ford chairman Henry Ford II. 

“Those who would aspire to management roles within the institutions of this society should have access to professional training that recognizes the interrelatedness of management problems in all sectors,” Donaldson added, according to a report in the Yale Daily News

Donaldson took special note of the students who had chosen to take part in what was then an experiment. The Charter Class, he said, was “an intrepid, highly qualified group of entrepreneurs.”

Forty years later, members of the Charter Class still feel that sense of common cause. “We all were very, very close,” says Pam Farr ’78. “It was a ‘we’re in this together’ kind of group.” 

Farr, a former president of the Yale SOM Alumni Association, says that the ambitious, groundbreaking spirit of those early days continues to infuse the school and its student body as it enters its fifth decade. She sees among students values inherited from the Charter Class, including the desire for a positive impact and a willingness to try new things. And as the cross-sectoral approach of its founding has been widely adopted by other management schools, Yale SOM has innovated further, creating a unique integrated curriculum, founding the Global Network for Advanced Management, and moving into a state-of-the-art new campus. 

“I’ve spent time with students and they’re just like we were. Their aspirations, their dreams, and their focus and values are like ours,” Farr says. “The school has accomplished the growth and change necessary to thrive in today’s world, but it’s maintained its mission and values.”