UP GIBS Masterful History

Posted on October 17, 2012

The University of Pretoria's (UP) business school is 12 years old in 2012. Or is it 63?

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), founded in 2000, has quickly earned a reputation as one of the world's top providers of executive education, and its MBA programmes are also gaining recognition. Its modern campus in the Johannesburg suburb of Illovo has just undergone another multimillion-rand upgrade.

It's hard to equate this airy, spacious building with the school's dusty, post-World War 2 history. For while many might consider GIBS a modern, stand-alone institution, its roots lie 60km away in 1949.

That's when UP launched its Graduate School of Management (GSM) to become the first school outside North America to offer an MBA. Well, almost an MBA. For the first few years, students graduated with a specialist commerce master's degree, the MCom (BA).

When GIBS was founded - courtesy of contributions from UP and Liberty Life founder Donald Gordon - the GSM was still going strong. It continued to offer its own programmes until 2008, when it formally gave way to GIBS as UP's business school.

Now the university has published a history of its business school(s). Pioneering the MBA in SA charts the progress of the GSM and GIBS from 1949 to 2011.

The GSM was born into a very different era from its successor, as many countries were still trying to rebuild their post-war economies. Besides the history of the school itself, Pioneering the MBA paints a fascinating picture of the political and economic eras through which it has come, and the personalities who dominated them. It's a snapshot of 20th and 21st century SA.

One of the attractions of this book is the way it allows different people to tell the story. Alumni and academics from every era describe their experiences of the school and its MBA.

PA von Willich recalls how, in the early 1950s, he raced his motorbike from his job at Iscor to reach the GSM in time for evening lectures. The MBA in those days was still in its infancy in SA and he was one of only three students in his class.

He writes: "I did not have the talent to listen, absorb and take notes all at the same time, but was lucky in that Theuns and Ivanhoe had the talent to do so. My allotted task was to combine the two and type the resulting notes for the three of us. For this purpose I bought an Olivetti portable typewriter on an auction and a book called Juta's Teach Yourself Typing. It wasn't long before I was a reasonably proficient touch typist (another advantage gained)."

Every person who has played, directly or indirectly, a significant role in the school's history is here. The compilers have amassed a host of fascinating pictures to record the progress of a ground-breaking institution.

The shift from GSM to GIBS is faithfully recorded, following the university's realisation that SA's changing academic environment required a shift in emphasis. To establish a school in "that other city", at the centre of SA business and therefore of the school's potential market, required bravery and foresight. Gibs' success has repaid that courage.

If there is a criticism, it is that the book deserves a wider readership than it may initially get. A significant part of the text, including the story of the GSM's first 40 years, is in Afrikaans. Given the university's Afrikaans past, it is only right that this should be reflected in the book.

University officials say a translated version will follow. The sooner the better. For now, much of this excellent history is inaccessible not only to potential overseas readers, but also to many modern GIBS students for whom Afrikaans is not part of their lives. For them, the history of UP business education may indeed seem to begin in 2000.

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