Values-based, data-driven—as imagined before Olin existed in language from 1914

  • September 4, 2019
  • By Kurt Greenbaum
  • 2 minute read

When we unveiled the new brand strategy for WashU Olin Business School a year ago today, Dean Mark Taylor made a point of saying we weren’t changing who we are as a school. The notion of a business education that is values-based and data-driven—a key pillar of Olin’s strategic plan and our brand identity—has been there since Olin’s beginning.

“Values-based and data-driven is not something we just dreamed up. It’s imprinted in our DNA,” said Stuart Bunderson, director of Olin’s Bauer Leadership Center. “We don’t do enough here to clarify and take pride in our heritage.”

Actually, the notion predates the existence of the business school itself.

William F. Gephart, who would become the first dean of the WashU “School of Commerce and Finance” in 1917, drafted a lengthy memo to Frederic Aldin Hall, the sixth chancellor of WashU, three years earlier to argue the case for the business school he envisioned.

Only a page into the typewritten document—and in the gender-exclusive language of the era—he writes that “the vision of the business man must be both far and wide. He must not only see the numerous and seemingly conflicting facts, but he must be able to analyze them.”

Sounds a lot like data-driven decision-making, no?

On the very next page of the 15-page document, Gephart writes a bit more expansively:

“Many men in business rightly view with alarm some of the governmental tendencies in regulating business. This threatened and actually experienced undesirable restriction on business enterprise has resulted from two causes:

“(a) The excesses of a minor number of business men who in their zeal to secure private profits have needlessly sacrificed public interests.

“(b) The demagogue in office or desiring office, who would sacrifice public interests to further his political success.

“The properly trained business man will act as a restraining influence on each class. He will set an example of good private business that is also good public business…”

Does anyone else hear “values-based” in that description?

Bunderson, the George & Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics & Governance, uses these quotes in a class he co-teaches with Seethu Seetharaman. The course is called Values-Based, Data-Driven Decision-Making.

Gephart drafted those remarks on February 19, 1914. A little more than three years later, on March 30, 1917, the School of Commerce and Finance—the precursor to Olin Business School—was established.

Pictured above: William F. Gephart with screenshots from his 1914 memo.

About the Author


Kurt Greenbaum

Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

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