Monday, December 22, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

UC Davis has a festive air this year as we celebrate 100 years of transforming the world, serving as an engine for innovation and for ideas that have improved the quality of life for people everywhere. Looking at early pictures of the campus, one is struck by the formal dress and simple technologies used by students and faculty. But 1908 was actually a period of great technological and social ferment, of innovation and exploration, the impact of which we can still feel.

The Wright brothers patented their plane in 1908, the first long-distance radio broadcast was emitted from the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Robert Peary sailed off for the Arctic in successful search of the North Pole. The first Model T was built by Henry Ford, and Albert Fisher’s new carriage company produced bodies for both horse-drawn buggies and the new automobiles. General Motors also was formed in 1908.

It was also an era of new ideas. Under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt the conservation movement gained political traction and several national parks and monuments were dedicated, including Natural Bridges, Muir Woods and the Grand Canyon Museum. The women’s suffrage movement was growing in fits and starts around the world, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the men of California voted to allow women—but not Asians—the right to vote. Women’s participation in sports was on the rise, and they were admitted to the Olympic Games in 1912.

Commerce was exploding with new industrial machines and processes, and more reliable transportation distributed goods far beyond the areas of their manufacture. Increasing the geographic size of markets increased awareness of and the demand for goods. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management launched an era of time-and-motion studies and spurred on management as an area of study in universities. Harvard Business School, founded in 1908, was only the seventh U.S. college of commerce, but 40 more would open by World War I.

Today mass manufacturing and mass consumption have made life materially comfortable for many of us. We enjoy a much longer life-span than the 47 years a U.S. adult could expect a century ago. Modern medicine and a less physically strenuous work life make it common for people to live into their 70s and 80s now. But we can also see the toll that conveniences have taken on our lives, our bodies and our world. We consume massive amounts of cheap, empty calories and many of us are obese and suffer from diabetes. We use a huge amount of energy, too, in our homes and vehicles, much of it from fossil fuels that pollute our air and water. However, many do not have access to the products, food and services we take for granted. Distrust of the West is, in part, a product of this disparity.

As I write this in late 2008, I feel the tempest of new technologies, certainly, but perhaps, more importantly, of new ideas. MBA students today are truly global citizens with wide-ranging skills and understandings. Many at UC Davis are using their knowledge to “fix” the problems of pollution, end unsustainable manufacturing practices and address the issues of underdeveloped communities. They are marrying the scientific and medical knowledge of campus colleagues with an understanding of the market to bring promising technologies to society more quickly.

What will business and society look like in 100 years? Despite the formidable social and environmental problems we face today, I am an optimist. I expect that the university—and the knowledge and alumni we produce—will be part of the process that brings us back into a sustainable balance. I know that business will be an important mechanism for delivering the goods.

I announced in September that this academic year will be my last as dean. I look forward to a sabbatical leave next year to continue my study of technology and the global economy. Then I will be back in the classroom with the terrific students we have at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

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