History of Social Impact at Berkeley

Earl Cheit: A Pioneer in Business Environment Studies

Although social impact and corporate social responsibility are established fields of work in higher education today, that wasn't always the case, even at Berkeley, an institution with a rich history and tradition of social and political activism.

In fact, it wasn't until Dean Emeritus, former Haas School of Business faculty member in business and public policy, and former Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor, Earl F. Cheit, along with the late Professor Dow Votaw, launched the first courses at Berkeley in the field of corporate social responsibility and business environment that the field began to grow in response to interest from students, corporations, and nonprofits alike.

The Beginning

In 1959, Berkeley business school dean Ewald Grether asked Cheit and Votaw to introduce a new field at the business school called Social and Political Environment of Business. "Dean Grether was very eager to have business school coursework that addressed the larger context in which business operated," recalls Cheit. "He used to refer to it as a 'capstone course' although we never called it that officially."

Cheit and Votaw initiated a survey course on the political, social, and ethical environment of business, a seminal moment in management education in the United States. "The course became a model for other leading business schools and was instrumental in the emergence of the business and public policy field at Berkeley and nationally," says Cheit.

The course was designed to give students insight into the increasingly complex and controversial social and public policy issues that surrounded the business environment, and eventually became a requirement for undergraduate business students.

"The field developed out of legal studies," explains Professor David Vogel, Solomon P. Lee Chair in Business Ethics and Professor in the Berkeley Haas Business and Public Policy Group. "Most of the faculty had legal backgrounds. Business law was a fairly prominent part of this course as well as the broader business school curriculum, which isn't the case anymore."

At that time, Cheit had just finished a three-year stint as a visitor at Berkeley's business school and the Institute of Industrial Relations, where he did the research for a book on occupational disability in California. Called Injury and Recovery in the Course of Employment (John Wiley & Sons, 1961), it is still a leading work in that field.

Grether asked Cheit if he was willing to join the faculty to introduce and develop this new field of coursework. Cheit says: "He came to me because I was quite familiar with writing about business in larger contexts. I had done a lot of reading and writing about this as a business book reviewer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch."

At the time, Votaw was teaching business law, "but really examining the larger legal environment of business," says Cheit. "He was very helpful to me. He was older, and had thought about this subject matter in a more systematic way than I had."

Thus the way Cheit brought these ideas into the curriculum was by offering an experimental elective course to interested undergraduates. "They had to work hard because they had to read seven or eight books in a ten-week quarter," laughs Cheit. "I started with how the Protestant ethic originated in American culture, and then examined what happened to it."

The course had more than 15 students and, measured by student engagement, was very successful. "Students loved working on the issues," Cheit says. He was offered a permanent job as a business school faculty member and began offering this as a regular course to business graduate school students as well.

A "Catalytic Event": Summit in Berkeley

In order to develop the field further, Cheit applied for and received a grant from the Ford Foundation to hold a symposium at Berkeley in January 1964. It became known as the Summit in Berkeley. He invited "some of the best people" in the United States and abroad to write essays on subjects that would inform the work in the area of social and political environment of business.

Berkeley at the time was at the forefront of the field, but it was not alone. Cheit invited 30 faculty members at various universities who had just started to introduce the subject matter in different ways. They came to the symposium to study and discuss original work produced by eight scholars, including the late Robert Heilbroner, a New School for Social Research economist and historian of economic thought; the late Paul Samuelson, an MIT economist and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences; and the late Richard Hofstadter, one of America's leading historians who taught at Columbia.

Cheit compiled the essays into a book called The Business Establishment (John Wiley & Sons, 1964). "The symposium was successful," says Cheit. "From the discussions and papers, we generated ideas that were very useful going forward in developing coursework in the field."

Vogel was greatly influenced by this early work: "When The Business Establishment came out, it had a big impact on me. When I was just a graduate student, that book really put the field of corporate social responsibility and business and society relations on the map. It was very pivotal, prestigious, and influential. It made a major intellectual contribution to the development of the business and society field."

Edwin Epstein, professor emeritus in the Graduate School of International and Area Studies and the Haas Business and Public Policy Group, says he was "probably the first person to have been recruited [in 1964] specifically to work in a field that didn't exist." He adds, "On a national level, the Summit was a catalytic event."

At the time, there was only a "smattering of work" being done in the new field, according to Vogel. Howard Bowen's Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, published in 1953 was the first comprehensive discussion of business ethics and social responsibility. "But there was not a lot of material at the time," says Vogel.

People had just begun to offer courses in business in society. Epstein says, "In the 1950s, usually one person at an institution, often a senior person, offered these courses because it was a low risk strategy for them--they could afford to do it."

As Epstein alludes, the field wasn't necessarily embraced back in the 1950s and 1960s. Cheit agrees: "The faculty at the time was friendly, but not terribly enthusiastic about the idea. I didn't have any faculty opposition, but they had to be convinced. Common questions asked were, 'Does this field have intellectual rigor?' and 'Would it pass the kind of test that we expect of Berkeley subject matter?'"

Despite the newness of the field, Cheit and others around the country had tapped into something important and significant and students continued to respond with enormous interest. "Over the years, students have been highly motivated about this field," says Cheit. "They have helped to take the ideas forward far beyond where I was at the time."

And scholars like Vogel were so inspired by Cheit's work that it was one of the reasons that attracted him to Berkeley. "He [Cheit] was an inspiration to me because of his work in the field."

[Back to top]

The Growth Period: "The Golden Age"

Later, Cheit moved into administrative duties as opportunities came up–he was dean of Berkeley's business school from 1976 to 1982, Acting Dean from 1990 to 1991, and Executive Vice Chancellor of Berkeley from 1965 to 1969.

Throughout his Berkeley career, Cheit did many things to strengthen the business school's identity as a professional school. He played a leading role in building Haas' new facilities. The school's excellence in teaching award is named in his honor due to his promotion of outstanding teaching and undergraduate education.

He also successfully opened the school's first career planning and placement center, and started the Annual Giving Campaign which is now a regular part of the school, as well as the campaign for endowed chairs.

The field of social impact and corporate social responsibility continued to grow and develop under the leadership of others such as Votaw. "Dow Votaw became more influential in the course area and the field at Berkeley as Budd [as he is known by colleagues and friends] took on more administrative matters," notes Epstein.

He adds: "Budd continued to contribute to the field through his writing and articles in the California Management Review, and would occasionally teach a course. He became more involved on the campus level until he returned in the late 1970s as the dean of Haas. He also chaired some of the dissertation committees of our PhDs. We were one of the few places that offered a PhD in the Social and Political Environment in Business."

Later on, Epstein himself became a key player in terms of "institution-building in the school and also in the Social Issues of Management division (SIM) of the Academy of Management, which became a key factor in the national dissemination of the field," says Epstein. In fact, he served as chair of SIM and Haas' PhDs played key leadership roles in the division. He also became the chair of the Program in Business and Social Policy (now called Business and Public Policy Group) at Haas from 1982 to 1984.

During this time, Haas developed a cadre of leaders in the field like Prakash Sethi (now at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business) and David Vogel, and had a "golden age" in the field from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, according to Epstein. The California Management Review under the leadership of its editor David Vogel became a place where some of the important research in the field was published.

The Future of Social Impact at Haas

As Cheit looks back at his career and his contributions in the field of business environment studies, he is proud of his work, his colleagues -- he points especially to Vogel and Epstein -- and those who grew the field after him. "People have done such great work over the years," he says. "And I'm delighted when others think of Berkeley and Haas as a place of social impact and social change."

During her tenure as dean (1998-2001), Professor Laura Tyson revitalized the school's efforts in the area of social responsibility. In 1999, a group of Berkeley Haas MBA students launched the Haas Social Venture Competition and Tyson was one of its first champions, along with the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, working to raise funds and being key to the establishment of partnerships with Columbia and London Business Schools to grow it into a global competition. It is now the longest-running and most global social venture competition in the world, with 14 partner schools and programs involved, including Haas.

Tyson also formed the Forum on Corporate Philanthropy, inaugurated by an event in 2000 with actor/philanthropist Paul Newman and secured funding from Newman and Haas alumnus Michael Homer, BS 81, to expand the Forum into the Socially Responsible Business Leadership Initiative (SRBLI).

Searching for new leadership for these efforts, Tyson recruited Kellie McElhaney, now adjunct assistant professor, from the Michigan University's Ross School of Business. McElhaney joined Haas in 2002 and expanded the corporate responsibility efforts by launching the Center for Responsible Business, of which she is the faculty director. The center has won accolades such as the Financial Times naming Berkeley Haas as #1 in the world in the field of corporate responsibility. "Kellie has brought energy and new ideas that have inspired many students," notes Cheit.

Cheit adds: "The relationships the Center for Responsible Business has developed with various businesses, along with the projects our students do with different companies, have really been significant. These have made students and companies more sophisticated and more knowledgeable about business in its larger context. Has it reduced venality? I certainly think so. Haas alums often make news but not for the wrong reasons. These studies in social responsibility certainly have made our students more informed as they go out into the world as managers, executives, and leaders."

And certainly, Cheit is excited about the future of social change initiatives at Berkeley and at Haas such as the new Institute for Business & Social Impact led by Laura Tyson.

"The idea of the institute sounds great," says Cheit. "I think very highly of Laura Tyson and she will give good leadership to the institute." Vogel adds on the institute: "Relatively few schools have a critical mass of people interested in this area. Haas definitely has quite a few people who view at least some of their research as part of this field."

As Cheit looks back, he is very impressed with how the field has flourished, particularly in newer areas such as the environment and sustainability. He says: "Given the rapid growth and expansion of work in this field, I think the Institute for Business & Social Impact will bring broader scope and coherence to our own work at Haas and to the field at large."

[Back to top]

Actor/business founder Paul Newman speaks at the Haas School with then-Dean Laura Tyson about the social impact of firms.   (Sept. 7, 2000)


Newman was an early financial backer of corporate social responsibility initiatives at Berkeley Haas. Read more > >

Former deans E.T. Grether, Richard Holton, and Earl F. Cheit

Former deans E.T. Grether, Richard Holton, and Earl F. Cheit