Obituary: Professor Charles Baker

Click to follow
CHARLES BAKER, the founder and first director of Durham University Business School, was a seminal influence on management education in Britain. The inferior system of professional training for managers in Britain, especially when compared to the United States, had been the subject of a critical Board of Trade report in 1943, but little had changed after the Second World War. The British Institute of Management was set up in 1947, which added pressure for the cause, but it was, in Correlli Barnett's phrase, "hardly an answer to the array of first-class business schools being deployed by Britain's competitors".

By the 1960s Britain's long-term relative economic decline had become a significant political issue. This intensified the debate and generated a receptive climate for Lord Franks's proposal that there should be two major business schools created, one in London, the other in Manchester; and minor ones elsewhere should demand warrant it. Charles Baker exploited this second recommendation in the unlikely setting of Durham.

Born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1928, Baker qualified as an industrial psychologist at Liverpool. He moved to Sheffield, where he worked for the British Iron and Steel Industry Research Association and later held his first university post. His research led him to a truth that inspired his life's work: while academics could shed light on particular problems occurring in industry, a successful resolution depended entirely on competent managers. Thus began an unwavering commitment to management development.

He was appointed to Durham as lecturer in psychology in 1961. With colleagues in economics he set up the Business Research Unit to foster links between the university and North-East industry. In 1964 Baker successfully sought external funding from the Foundation for Management Education for two lectureships within the BRU to enable it to offer courses for managers. They were heavily oversubscribed.

On the strength of this and a further injection of FME cash, Baker was able to persuade Durham University to create a business school (Dubs), inaugurated in 1967. This was testament to the obstinate streak in his character which never accepted "no" for an answer. Durham had recently seen its activity at King's College on Tyneside transferred to Newcastle University, and much of what remained was traditional in outlook, and unsullied by commerce. In his own phrase he ducked and weaved around the politics of the university until his vision of the role of management studies in the academic curriculum became accepted. He believed strongly in a core of management specialists, eclectic in background but researching and teaching together. He dismissed the notion that this work could be left solely to existing groups such as social scientists or - worse - to accountants, whom he lampooned as "the dot and blot brigade".

From the outset, Dubs provided management development opportunities for all participants around the principle of "action learning". For those already in management posts, courses were tailor-made for individual companies, revolving around problem-solving or team consultancy on actual matters of concern to the business. For masters students, a supervised dissertation in a management setting was compulsory. The success of action learning was clear from the way it spread elsewhere. It also had the advantage that it provided finance for new teaching and research posts. Later, Baker raised capital from industry to build a purpose-built residential business school, which was opened in 1977.

Dubs was the first business school in Britain specifically to recognise the economic importance of small firms when in 1970 it appointed the first specialised lectureship in this field. It was thus able to contribute to the economic regeneration of the northern region, which had become one of the poorest in Europe through the rapid contraction of its basic industries.

Baker was appointed to the first Professorship in Management at Durham in 1975. He relinquished the directorship in 1984, and continued to seek new ways of delivering management education. He initiated the Durham Masters of Business Administration by distance learning, which now enrols 1,100 students in 60 countries around the world.

Though never comfortable when required to deliver a formal lecture, Charles Baker was nevertheless an inspired teacher of managers. His style demanded and received active participation in which he teased out experience, and yet ended with him in charge of the group with positive reflections on the problems raised.

He was a keen golfer, and was a founder member of the City of Durham Golf Club at Mountjoy, which he captained for many years.

Charles Baker, business management educationist and psychologist: born Stockton-on-Tees, Yorkshire 10 February 1928; Director, Durham University Business School 1967-84, Professor of Management 1975-99; FBIM 1976; married 1948 Thelma Pollard (two daughters); died Washington, Tyne and Wear 16 August 1999.

Comments