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The Human Capital of the Future

  • Declan Kelly
  • |
  • Mar 14, 2017

Al Silk, HBA ’59, LLD ’15, invests in Ivey’s PhD students through his scholarship, recognizing their invaluable contribution to a school’s overall research capacity.

The Human Capital of the Future

When it comes to making the most of a second chance in higher education, Al Silk is something of a poster child.

Silk entered Ivey’s HBA Program in the late 1950s after having “flunked out” of the civil engineering program at Queen’s University. Few would have predicted then his remarkable rise to the upper echelons of management education or his breaking new ground in marketing and advertising research. Least of all, Silk himself.

So when he reflects now on a distinguished academic career that has included faculty positions at UCLA, the University of Chicago, and tenured and senior administrative roles at MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School, Silk is quick to point to the opportunity for a new beginning that made it all possible.

Following his unexpected departure from Queen’s, Silk returned to his family’s home in Hamilton, where he found work in one of the city’s then-booming steel mills. Working shifts in gruelling conditions “led me to think long and hard about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

After pleading his case to Western University’s registrar and completing an obligatory “summer school” session, Silk was admitted into the HBA Program in the autumn of 1957.

“They obviously found some reason to have faith in me, and I’ll always be grateful for that,” Silk says from his home in Boston.

Silk’s enduring gratitude and first-hand appreciation of the precarious nature of graduate studies – through both his own struggles, and those of many talented peers and students through the years – were the impetus for his 2015 gift of $250,000 to endow the Dr. Alvin J. Silk Graduate Scholarship at Ivey. The scholarship directly supports one full-time PhD student annually in the fourth year of the Program.

Silk says it’s not only about supporting PhD students in their research – typically conducted “in the shadows” of more prominent HBA and MBA Programs – but also recognizing their invaluable contribution to a school’s overall research capacity.

“My experiences as a student and faculty member have served to heighten my appreciation of the risks doctoral students may run if they become ‘lost in the crowd,’” Silk says. “But at the same time, I also know how vital they are. They are vital contributors working with faculty in the development of a business school’s current knowledge and intellectual capital, and they are the human capital of the future.”

Silk’s time at Ivey reads like a who’s who of the School’s own formative years, with classes taught by past and future deans Walter Thompson and J.J. (Jack) Wettlaufer, HBA ’50, MBA ’51. But it was the advice of another future dean that would play a pivotal role in Silk’s career path.

“When I first entertained the idea of going to graduate school, I went to talk to the faculty and especially Bud Johnston, HBA ’54, MBA ’57,” Silk says. “He told me that he was going to Northwestern, and recommended that as a place I should seriously consider.”

Silk followed Johnston to Northwestern, where he completed his MBA, with distinction, and enrolled in the PhD program on a fellowship. That support, and the opportunity a few years later to assume an acting assistant professorship at UCLA, provided the financial breathing room needed to complete his dissertation. He went on to lead pioneering research in the development of models and measurements to support management decision-making around new product development and advertising. His recent research focuses on the economics of the advertising and marketing services industry. At Harvard, where he is now Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Silk developed the first MBA course on “brand marketing,” and taught a doctoral seminar on research design and measurement.

But others were not as fortunate as Silk. Of five Canadian PhD students specializing in marketing at Northwestern then, only two completed their dissertations.

“Over the years, I’ve observed numerous cases where students left their doctoral programs before finishing their degree, particularly when they were at the critical stage of writing their theses,” Silk notes. “Another year or so of financial support, and a lot of those abandoned dissertations would likely have been completed.”

Hadi Chapardar, the inaugural recipient of the Silk Scholarship, says the award’s impact on his career has been immediate and two-fold.

“On the one hand, it brings me further confidence in pursuing my longterm research plan,” Chapardar says. “And on the other hand, it helps me focus on my research without financial hindrance.”

Silk says endowing the award is about paying forward a second chance granted more than half a century earlier. “I’m delighted to be able to do it,” he says. “Western made a big difference in my life and I’d like to do a little something to make sure that that opportunity persists for others.”

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
Art Direction: Greg Salmela, Aegis