Editor's note: Building and landscape design can do much more for an organization than provide an inspirational headquarters or appealing work spaces. At Harvard Business School, the leafy, orderly, community setting helps reinforce a set of beliefs and values that underlie the training of tomorrow's corporate and organizational leaders, according to Associate Professor Michel Anteby.
In this book excerpt from Anteby's Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education, he takes readers on a guided tour behind the School's century-old design.
A Small, Quiet Town
From Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education
The campus's plantings and buildings contrast sharply with the banks of the nearby river. A pedestrian entering the campus suddenly encounters perfectly trimmed lawns and impeccably maintained buildings. Regardless of the season, the grounds are pristine. Landscaping crews are constantly at work trimming trees, mowing grass, patching holes in the pavement, and shoveling snow. In winter, before the first snowfall, the corners of the main lawns are marked with colored wooden sticks so snow-removal teams will know where to halt their golf cart-size plows. In the fall, leaves are meticulously assembled in piles at a distance from the main paths and then trucked out of sight. All the paths linking the periphery of the campus to its main buildings, such as the library and faculty offices, are invariably cleared to facilitate circulation.
The quiet that reigns on campus is surprising given its size and density. With more than thirty-four acres of land devoted exclusively to the educational endeavor and a daytime "permanent" population of close to thirty- two hundred-faculty, staff, and MBA and doctoral students—the campus feels like a small town. (This number excludes the more than nine thousand yearly executive-education enrollees, who typically spend only a few weeks on campus, as well as residents of student housing who are unaffiliated with the School.) The prevailing impression of quietude is partly due to the fact that all shipping and receiving takes place at a centralized location on the periphery of campus. From that location, all incoming and outgoing goods (including food and trash) are dispatched underground without disrupting life on the surface.
The campus is closed to most motor vehicles, a rule that encourages face-to-face encounters along the walking paths. Taxis, and often black limousines, patiently wait for their clients on the campus' margins. As the campus master plan explains, the restriction on vehicles "was designed to optimize the sense of being in a landscaped pedestrian precinct." Most traffic disappeared from campus in the 1980s, and "scores of trees and thousands of flowers where cars and trucks had once dominated" now dominate the landscape. When a car does enter the campus, bystanders see it only briefly. Campus roads are strategically curved so that no extended stretch of asphalt is visible from any point on campus. Such visual shielding of the bystander's perspective helps provide "as much domestic feeling as [is] reasonable" to the grounds.
These scaling strategies have been integral to the campus's design, both at its inception and today. When students first moved to the School's current location, the idea of a small residential community already prevailed. Much effort was deployed to achieve a small-town feeling despite the fairly large student cohort (521 students in 1926). For instance, each student residence used to have its own dining room. Though the annual entering cohort has almost doubled since the 1920s, a communal atmosphere has been preserved.
To place this in the context of other community studies, the campus's daytime population is approximately one-quarter that of the early number of residents in Herbert Gans's study of a US suburban community that he called Levittown (3,221 versus 11,861), yet the campus occupies less than 1 percent of that suburb's total area (34 acres versus 4,928 acres), making for a much denser, more intense living environment. To offer another reference point, the campus houses approximately as many daytime occupants as the housing complex in Boston's South End studied by Mario Luis Small (with 3,000 people) but occupies almost twice its 20 acres. Put otherwise, the campus is comparable in population to a small town or a neighborhood in a large city, and to the latter in area.
Unlike most towns and neighborhoods, the campus has, however, almost no signage to guide visitors. Benefactors' names (like Bloomberg and Morgan) adorn buildings, but apparently more to recognize the donors' generosity than to provide orientation. Temporary signposts are selectively erected to guide new arrivals at the start of a new school year or a new program, but they are removed within days, once their purpose is achieved. In a residential community, it is assumed that community members know where they are going. On average, some 70 percent of students reside on campus. Second-year students are slightly more inclined to live off-campus than first-year students, but many remain on-site. In executive-education programs as well, most participants board on campus.
The School's residential feel explains why its grounds represent for students not just their weekday environment but also their nighttime and weekend environment. For students, the School is sometimes characterized as "a twenty four-hour, non-stop educational experience." Moreover, until the late 1950s, many faculty members resided on campus, especially unmarried instructors. Today, only the School's dean maintains a dedicated on-campus residence. Still, the notion of a residential campus, envisioned shortly after the School's creation, persists.
Small towns provide many opportunities to interact, and I invariably bump into individuals I know (including students) on my way to work. Even on the far side of the river, before reaching campus, such encounters are frequent. Students typically wear an outer jacket emblazoned with the School's crest, their graduation year, and their section affiliation, and so are easily spotted. (Each entering MBA cohort is divided into ten sections of approximately ninety students each, designated with a letter and their graduation year, for example, Section B 2010). I quickly learned to greet most, if not all, people close to campus. Elementary politeness and the slim chance of failing to recognize a current or former student dictate the behavior. The number of people one "knows" quickly grows. A faculty member who teaches two sections a year will have taught approximately 360 students by the end of the second year.
Once on campus, encounters follow more predictable patterns. At specific hours, notably before the start of class periods, orderly flows of people move smoothly from one location to another. Despite some modifications, the campus paths originally designed "to convey pedestrians directly and unambiguously from origin to destination" still do so quite effectively. To ease circulation and shorten waits at the dining halls, class periods for different student groups are staggered. Second-year students' earliest classes begin at 8:30 a.m., for instance, whereas first-year students typically start at 8:40 a.m. (The two-year MBA curriculum consists of a series of first-year required courses and second-year electives.) One might expect to hear the library's tower bell at the start and end of each period, but a tolling bell would invariably disrupt classes in progress; thus the tower rules silently over campus.
Despite its silence, the library tower embodies the School's history, and in particular its shifting relationship to Harvard University. During the period between the School's founding and its move to the current campus (1908-1926), the School's collections were held at Harvard's main library. Yet "some members of the University who never had become reconciled with the establishment of what they termed a mercenary enterprise" resented such commingling. (More virulent critics suggested that the university disown its Graduate School of Business and let it become the "Boston School of Business.") A dedicated library on the School's campus diminished these criticisms. The library's current bell is a replica of an earlier bell, part of a set of eighteen bells made in Russia for Harvard College, that was sent to the School when it became apparent that two of the bells were too similar in tone to be sounded together. That some deemed the School's books unwelcome at the university library and that the School was considered an appropriate home for an unwanted bell suggest an initially tenuous position within the university. Almost seventy years later, a School alumnus helped secure newly consecrated bells both for the School and for Harvard College. (The acquisition and consecration of the new bells occurred upon the return of the original bells to Russia.) This time around, the School was instrumental in helping the college secure its new bell, one indication of its improved standing vis-à-vis the university. A commemorative plaque in front of the School's library informs passersby of this history.
Passing the library in the morning, I often spot new plantings. Flowering annuals are replaced after their blooming seasons with later-blooming annuals. Plants without leaves are rapidly and mysteriously unearthed. Even the sudden appearance of full-grown trees—blocking the view from the campus of a new building on the School's periphery that clashes stylistically with the rest of the campus—comes to seem almost normal: shaping nature is an activity that most people at the School gradually come to expect. School members' ability to spot such changes underlines the care with which grounds are maintained but also suggests an acquired taste for expecting neatness.
That most flowers on campus are white is not a mere gardener's whim. White, according to the Olmsted brothers' initial landscaping plan, contrasts pleasingly with the buildings' red brick and echoes their white painted trim. White-flowered shrubs and trees such as Japanese barberry, white fringe trees, and yellowwood allow the buildings to stand out, and the sheer variety of plants provides "a measure of informality and diversity…"