At the 2018 Harvard Business School commencement last month, 915 newly minted MBAs packed the lawn in front of Baker Library to receive their diplomas. Friends and family were on hand to witness the ceremony, the 108th HBS commencement, which included speeches by Dean Nitin Nohria and a series of noteworthy alumni. The sun made it a warm event; the collective achievement of the degree-earners made it a felicitous one.
Not only degrees but special recognitions were announced: 179 garnered second-year honors, while 81 were named graduates “with distinction.” But the cream of the crop, the top 5% of the Class of 2018 — graduates with “high distinction” — were given another level of laurel. They were named Baker Scholars, the highest award for academic achievement given by HBS.
One of those 47 Baker Scholars was Kiernan Schmitt. When the Wallingford, Connecticut native started his MBA journey in 2016, he knew what a Baker Scholar was, but he didn’t know much beyond that — including whether he would be vying for one at the end of two years.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Schmitt tells Poets&Quants. “I knew that I was potentially in the running for it, but the only information that HBS really gives out about it is that it’s relative to each class — that it’s the top 5% of each class. So it’s actually quite a shifting target. Depending on where your grades fall, you may just make the cut, you may not make the cut depending on the year.”
‘THE SPHINX OF WALL STREET’
Schmitt made the cut, something he learned about a week and a half before commencement. There would be a reception and luncheon, he was told by phone, and he could bring four guests. At the luncheon, Dean Nohria gave a speech welcomed for its “pithiness,” and each Baker Scholar was given a certificate and pin. The entire event was a “speedy affair” lasting no more than an hour-and-a-half, Schmitt says.
Though brief, it was through Nohria’s speech that many in attendance learned about the award’s namesake. Like HBS’ Baker Library, where each year’s HBS commencement is held, the Baker Scholar honor is named for George F. Baker, a major early donor to HBS. Baker was a titan of the banking industry in the latter half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th, known as the “Sphinx of Wall Street,” an original shareholder in the First National Bank of New York — now known to the world as Citibank. By the time Harvard Business School was founded in 1908, Baker had already become a legend; in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, his esteem only grew, even if it was confined to the world of banking and finance.
“Dean Nohria described the award by saying that Baker, the donor himself, had been approached early on in the history of people trying to establish Harvard Business School, and he had been asked for a certain amount of money and gave way more than he had been asked,” Schmitt recalls. “And that’s were the library naming and the award came from afterward.”
‘A NEW START TO BETTER BUSINESS STANDARDS’
George F. Baker was not a Harvard man — in fact, he never graduated college. (His son, George Baker Jr., graduated Harvard College in 1899.) So how did he leave such a lasting imprint on the school, such that nearly a century later, it still remembers him in honoring its most academically successful MBAs?
Harvard’s reticence regarding the Baker Scholar award is a reflection, however incidental, of the man for whom it is named. Even as he became one of the nation’s most successful financiers and philanthropists, Baker jealously protected his near-anonymity, refusing all requests for interviews and eschewing most public engagements. But in 1924, when he was in his mid-80s, Baker finally stepped into the limelight with an act of unexpected and unparalleled generosity.
As recounted in Sheriden A. Logan’s 1981 biography “George F. Baker and His Bank, 1840 to 1955” — copies of which are given annually to each Baker Scholar — Baker was approached by Bishop William Lawrence, chair of the Harvard Fellows, about giving a “pace-setting” gift for the $5 million campaign then underway to erect the first Harvard Business School buildings. Lawrence asked Baker for $1 million; Baker countered, offering to give the entire $5 million. The aging tycoon reasoned that “my life has been given to business, and I should like to found the first Graduate School to give a new start to better business standards.”
Baker continued: “It may not be the right kind of pride, but I should like to feel that my descendants could point to the Harvard Graduate School of Business, the first of the them, and know that I had done it.” A year later, Baker gave HBS another $1 million.
A MEMORIAL TO THE SCHOOL’S ‘FIRST MAJOR BENEFACTOR’
A few years after that in 1927, Baker, already in his late 80s, would be photographed attending the dedication of the library that still bears his name. He would not live long enough to see the academic honor that also memorializes him. Baker died in 1931 at the age of 91.
Eight years after his death, HBS bestowed a final honor on Baker. Up to that point the school’s honorary group had been comprised of Harvard Business Review editors, but in October 1939, acting on a recommendation from the dean, the faculty formed the Baker Scholars. According to information from a 1950-51 school catalogue, the move was made in recognition of “a distinct need for some type of honorary scholarship for the students” — and with a belief that those with “the highest scholastic achievement in the School should bear the name of the School’s first major benefactor.”
Over the years, some Baker Scholars have gone on to high achievement—and also embarrassing failure. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was a Baker Scholar and so was Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. On the other hand, Rajat Gupta, who won the accolade in 1973 and went on to serve three consecutive terms as managing director of McKinsey & Co., had been convicted of securities fraud in 2012 and was sentenced to two years in prison and required to pay a $5 million fine.
What separates the scholars from everyone else in a Harvard MBA class? Tim Johnson, who graduated from HBS in 1985, notes that he might have spent three hours working one of the school’s famous case studies. “A Baker Scholar might spend three hours on a case also,” he writes on Quora. “But their analysis will be more complete, more big picture, and more nuanced.”