Wallace Brett Donham

American academic

Wallace Brett Donham (1877 – November 29, 1954) was an American organizational theorist, Professor of Business Administration and the second dean of the Harvard Business School from 1919-1942. The use of case studies in HBS education was greatly expanded during Donham's time as dean.


  • All these associates were willing to help me in expanding my habit of trying to look all around things before interpreting them, as it seemed to me that the administrator should, instead of limiting his range of thought to some specialized point of view.
    • Wallace Brett Donham (1952). Administration and blind spots: the biography of an adventurous idea. p. 3

"The Failure of Business Leadership and the Responsibility of the Universities", 1933


Wallace B. Donham, (1933). "The Failure of Business Leadership and the Responsibility of the Universities", Harvard Business Review 11.4 (1933): p. 418-435.

  • The problem is one in the general physiology of society. The continuance of life and health for any individual depends on maintenance of a moving organic equilibrium within certain definite limits of tolerance. The daily work of the world is done by individuals living their specialized economic and social lives within a moving equilibrium... But specialized progress brought uneven social and economic developments and serious maladjustment. General equilibrium is lost. The limits of tolerance, the margins of safety, are exceeded.
  • Everything ahead of us is dangerous. There isn’t a power the President has asked for that isn’t dangerous. But there isn’t a power or a combination of powers he has asked for so dangerous as continuing to do nothing.

"The Theory and Practice of Administration", 1936


Wallace B. Donham: "The Theory and Practice of Administration", in: Harvard Business Review, vol. 4, Summer 1936.

  • In the social sciences there has been a serious gap, except where administration is involved, between the theorist and the man who must act. As a result our social science theory continues to be detached from reality. There is great need for a new social science, namely, the Science of Administration, where social theory and action must meet. Administration as conceived in this paper is, therefore, a social science with its own techniques, its own abstractions clustering around the concept of action through human organizations, and its own problems of theory. It is vitally concerned in integrating other sciences, physical, biological, psychological, and social, at the point where action is involved. Its social importance is great. Indeed if our civilization breaks down, it will be mainly a breakdown of administration, both private and public.

"Training for Leadership in a Democracy", 1936


Wallace B. Donham: "Training for Leadership in a Democracy." Harvard Business Review, vol. 14, Spring 1936.

  • At this point water-tight compartments of university specialization and theories founded on the selected isolation of facts easily break down. Specialized thinking is rarely a sufficient foundation for concrete decisions involving action. The social scientist cannot often form sound administrative judgments solely on the basis of elements which he has picked out simply because they relate directly to his particular specialty. The present emphasis on artificial subdivisions of knowledge and on specialized thinking and teaching in universities, technical schools, and colleges and the relative neglect of administrative problems involving action have a dangerously narrowing effect on graduates of these institutions. While we may and frequently do arouse the intellectual interest of students in a considerable variety of subjects intimately related to the civilization of which they are a part, we pay almost no attention to the web of cross ties among these subjects.
  • As a result our graduates leave us without having formed the habit of seeking wide generalizations related to diverse variables in the social situations which surround them. Because they lack both habits and methods which lead them to seek generalizations, they become, after they leave us, Specialists themselves and make decisions without the guides to action within their special fields which wider viewpoints might give. To develop them as we must, the artificial dividing lines between social sciences must in large measure be broken down. Specialized training must be both counteracted and supplemented by training which brings in the widest social implications. Otherwise men will not be trained to meet the problems faced by public and private administrators.
The only way these things can be attempted in our universities without resulting in a vast amount of sheer unrealistic sentimentality is, I believe, by paying more attention to the great intellectual field of administration.

"Governmental and Business Executives", 1946


Wallace B. Donham: "Governmental and Business Executives." Public Administration Review, Spring 1946, volume 6, pp. 174-177.

  • I find from experience both with government agencies and with private business that there are striking differences. One of those differences is that, in government, there is more continuity and definition in the mandate. The limits of action are often clearly defined. in many cases by Congress. No such situation exists in large private business. Dimock says bureaucracies are related, for example, to size. Yet he points out some bearings on bureaucracies of the inadequacies in our federal civil service system and the conflict of loyalties which arises out of it. This, he states, he succeeded in overcoming. I have had contact with several war agencies made up mainly of businessmen. These men rapidly took on bureaucratic characteristics radically different from their own behavior in private life. The only close parallels I find in the areas of private business to the deadening effects of the present civil service are, on the one hand, what one of my old labor leaders used to call the "sonority" system and, on the other, the very real problems faced by management in dealing with labor which arise immediately out of the prolonged governmental support for organized labor-which is in my judgment bad for labor.
  • To me, there are multifarious forces at work in government departments which are different from those in private business; the responsibility to and necessary interference of Congress, the responsibility to the President, to defined over-all controls, have little parallel in private business. The power politics of government departments are radically different from the power politics of private companies. The existence of pipe lines into Congress strengthens the bureaucracy against the chief executive of the particular subdivision of government. It may strengthen it against the President of the United States or Congress itself. Dimock himself points out how easily government bureaucracies develop organized opposition to policies involving change. This opposition may in substance, though not in form, sabotage all change which appears to threaten the security of the bureaucracy. Power politics, of course, exists in large private companies; but the urge to expand functions and simultaneously to defend what exists seems to me radically less in the case of well-run, large, private industry than in the case of big departments of the government. The quantitative difference becomes a qualitative change.
  • p. 176; cited in: Albert Lepawsky (1949), Administration, p. 194-5

Quotes about Wallace B. Donham

  • Admitting that business and government are both bureaucratic giants, most authorities take the view that an intrinsic difference separates them. This position was expressed effectively by: (a) Professor Wallace Donham, Dean of the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University; (b) Sir Josiah Stamp, an English businessman and public servant; and (c) Professor Nathan Isaacs, also of Harvard University.
  • As Dean, Donham developed the "case method" of teaching business administration by the study of actual experiences from day-to-day business life. He was also a leader in the scientific study of human relations, and after World War II helped to introduce human relations courses in Harvard College... When he resigned from the deanship in 1942, Donham still continued as George F. Baker Professor of Business Administration until 1948. During this six year period, he especially studied the human factor in economic relationships. His book, "Education for Responsible Living," in 1944 was a critique of college education and stressed the importance of courses in human relations.
    • Harvard University. "Ex-Dean W. Donham Of Busy School Dies In Cambridge Home," in: Harvard Crimson, November 30, 1954
  • His imaginative nature led him to a wider conception of the character of business administration than had been current. The administrator, he said, must "look all around things before interpreting them" and be aware that administration takes place in a context of face-to-face human relations and of conditions imposed by the broader social situation. Thus he came to develop a new way of teaching businessmen about their work and to encourage a field of research that has subsequently had an important influence on the growth of the social sciences generally.
    • Serge Elisséeff. "Wallace Brett Donham (1877-1954)," in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (Jun., 1955), pp. vii-ix
  • The search for original cases and the "superior" rules that would emerge from them spread far outside legal practice. Wallace Donham, dean of the Harvard Business School from 1919 to 1942, was trained at the law school in the heady days of the case system's early and enthusiastic reception. Where law and business parted ways was in the contingent matter of the availability of ready- made cases — law faculty simply reached for their shelves, while professors of business needed to create a new literary species — the business case book.
    • Peter Galison. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. University of Chicago Press, 1 okt. 1997. p. 57
  • To Donham, the case study stood squarely in the legal and cultural tradition of Anglo-American thought. Unlike French or Spanish law. Donham emphasized, English law was grounded on the doctrine of stare decisis, in which the written case decisions of the past shape, and instantiate, the law. Just as the recording of cases allowed English common law to break the arbitrariness of local law. Donham argued in 1925, business needed to universalize its procedures by itself adopting the case system. The chaos of local law that ruled in England before the common law. Donham contended, "is exactly the same situation that we have [in the world of business] where practically every large corporation is tightly hound by traditions which are precedents in its particular narrow field and narrow held only The recording of decisions from industry to industry [enables] us to start from facts and draw inferences from those facts; [it] will introduce principle... in the field of business to such an extent that it will control executive action in the field where executive action is haphazard or unprincipled or bound by narrow, instead of broad precedent and decision" ( W. Donham, transcript of talk to the Association of Coll. School of Business Committee Reports and Other Literature, 5-7 May 1925. Harvard Business School, box 17, folder 10. 62).
    • Peter Galison. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. University of Chicago Press, 1 okt. 1997. p. 57, footnote 66
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