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A group of Yale deans in academic regalia attending the opening of Yale SOM in Sprague Hall

The Historian’s Notebook: Different from Day One

The first edition of the Historian’s Notebook looks back at Yale SOM’s origin story.

The Historian’s Notebook: 50 Years of Business & Society is a blog series created in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Yale SOM in September 2026. The series is written by Yale SOM’s resident historian, Michelle Spinelli. Reach out if you have an idea for a blog post, memories or photos to share, or an inquiry about SOM history.

The Yale School of Organization and Management, as it was first known, opened with pomp and splendor on Monday, September 13, 1976, with a convocation in Sprague Hall. The capstone to decades of planning, the majestic ceremony signified the unveiling of something special—a whole new kind of graduate school.

Dressed in formal academic gowns, the deans of Yale College and the university’s 10 existing graduate and professional schools watched as William Donaldson, Yale SOM’s inaugural dean, received a blue and green banner adorned with the school’s very own coat of arms. Yale president Kingman Brewster presided over the ceremony, bringing with him an official gilded mace, which represents the authority of the university president and the Yale Corporation. With the mace resting on a blue pillow in front of the podium, the Yale Glee Club performed a chorus of “Alleluia.”

“We are very pleased indeed to be born,” Donaldson remarked to an audience that included dignitaries on the school’s advisory board, among them World Bank president Robert McNamara, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League, and Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II. Also in attendance were students prepared to take a chance on a completely untested professional school and a faculty, many drawn from other parts of Yale, ready to take a gamble as well.

SOM's inaugural dean, William Donaldson, receives a banner adorned with the school's coat of arms
William Donaldson, SOM's inaugural dean, speaking at the school's opening

News of the school’s opening headlined the business section of the New York Times that day, announcing that Yale’s “business school” would matriculate “a student body as diverse as the curriculum its members will be asked to absorb.” The Charter Class was indeed diverse, but was Yale SOM really a business school?

In fact, the university had taken great pains not to have Yale SOM be considered a traditional business school. Instead of conferring an MBA, the school would grant a brand-new degree, a Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM). The name of the degree clarified what Donaldson had explained in a previous New York Times article—that the endeavor was “not Yale’s belated attempt to get in on the business-administration field, but an attempt to define a whole new kind of manager.” That manager would be able to move easily between public and private institutions and would understand the interconnected nature of these two sectors of enterprise.

What type of student would take a chance on such a unique institution? To some degree, Yale SOM’s inaugural dean himself served as a model. A self-described “academic entrepreneur,” Donaldson had worked in both the public and the private sectors, including as an undersecretary of state, an advisor to Rockefeller during his vice presidency, and a founding partner in a successful investment banking firm.

The new students were similarly bold and unconventional in outlook. While they could have gone to highly ranked business schools at peer institutions, members of Yale SOM’s first cohort chose to take a risk on a new program with a higher social purpose. The Charter Class, Donaldson told the Yale Daily News, was comprised of “an intrepid, highly qualified group of entrepreneurs.”