Hazeltine's Way

By Jennifer Sutton / May / June 2000
October 19th, 2007
Even if you’ve never met Barrett Hazeltine, you’ve probably heard of him. An engineering professor for the past forty years, he has, in recent decades, been known primarily for his courses in management. It’s an area of study that makes him an academic maverick at Brown, which, after all, has no business school and doesn’t want one.

In another sense, though, Hazeltine is the apotheosis of Brown’s teacherly culture. Last fall 539 students – nearly one-tenth of all undergraduates – enrolled in his Engineering 9, Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations; so many students signed up, in fact, that Hazeltine had to divide the class into two sections and lecture four times a week instead of twice. Depending on whom you ask, Hazeltine is "a modern-day Mr. Chips," "a Macintosh while all other professors are vacuum-tubed mainframes," "a Pied Piper," or "the grandfather I never had." So many senior classes have given him their annual teaching award – thirteen, to be exact – that in 1985 the University renamed it the Barrett Hazeltine Citation.

One reason for the popularity of "Engin. 9" is that Hazeltine’s on-campus reputation translates into off-campus loyalty. Hazeltine recruits former students and longtime friends to return as guest lecturers. It’s an impressive list. Current favorites, for example, include Tom Scott ’89 and Tom First ’89, founders of Nantucket Nectars. Such visitors help make Hazeltine’s course "a smorgasbord of ideas and expertise and leadership," says Randy Haykin ’85, a former Hazeltine student and founding manager of Yahoo! who is now a managing partner of iMinds, a venture-capital firm for Internet startups. "Sooner or later one of these people grabs you. Seeing them and hearing them is a lot more meaningful than reading a textbook." Haykin, who took Engin. 9 in 1981, remembers a particularly motivating visit from John Sculley ’61, who at the time was head of Apple Computer. A few years later, Haykin, armed with an M.B.A. and the name of a contact from Hazeltine, launched his own career with a job at Apple.

"What Barrett has tried to accomplish," says John Rosenblum ’65, a former Harvard Business School professor who is now dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, "is unusual for a liberal arts college, and people in traditional disciplines are often skeptical of what he does." Such criticism tends to focus on the course’s real-world subject matter, which in the eyes of some, translates into a lack of academic rigor. Among students, however, a hunger for business learning is evident in a number of student-initiated clubs and activities, including the Brown Investment Group and the increasingly popular Brown Entrepreneurship Program, in which students develop product ideas and compete for seed money.


Randy Haykin argues that what Hazeltine teaches is entirely consistent with Brown’s general academic approach. "The skills that are rewarded at Brown are the skills of an entrepreneur," he explains. "The people who go to Brown set their own pace and define their own academic search, and that’s the same kind of person who’s likely to start a business or end up in an entrepreneurial position. Going to Brown was like starting myself as a business, developing leadership skills, convincing others of my vision."

Hazeltine himself says that his definition of academic effort is simply broader than that of some colleagues. "There’s not much memorization in my courses, and the exams are open book," he says. "I don’t send students to the library to look up lots of obscure stuff." Hazeltine’s texts are case studies published by the Harvard Business School, true stories about real companies that succeeded or flopped. Students read the cases and play the role of business consultants and troubleshooters. "Most students don’t learn from theoretical models," Hazeltine says. "I sometimes worry that Brown does too much of that. Students learn best if what they are taught is connected to the real world."

On an afternoon in early December, Barrett Hazeltine whips off his crewneck sweater, clips a tiny microphone to his tie, and looks out at the roughly 100 students scattered around the Salomon Center auditorium. This is Engin. 9. Normally the class has a bigger turnout, but today many students, anxious about the looming final-exam period, are holed up in their rooms. "Can everybody hear me?" Hazeltine asks, rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt.

At sixty-eight, he doesn’t quite fit the persona of campus legend. He is a smallish man with cropped gray hair and wire-rim glasses. Today his first order of business is scheduling the final exam. The registrar’s office long ago assigned a date for the exam, but Hazeltine finds it unsuitable, and he inquires whether the class would like to vote on an alternative. After much back and forth over several dates, an exam date is chosen.

All that time spent voting turns out to be a part of the day’s lecture, which at first focuses on Dunkin’ Donuts. "We’re talking about franchise development and motivation," Hazeltine begins. Say you work at a Dunkin’ Donuts store. "If the company owns the store, then it’s just a job, and maybe you’re not gonna come in to work. But if you own the store, are you gonna come in? Damn right you’re gonna come in. You’re gonna get your grandmother to come in. You’re gonna bust your tail." The students chuckle. "Why do you think we spent all that time at the beginning of class voting on when to have the exam? Because I’m indecisive?" Hazeltine asks. "It’s about having your voice heard. It’s important to give people control because they’ll act more productively than if you say it’s my way or the highway."

Later, Hazeltine outlines the final paper assignment. He advises the students that "college often teaches you to write long, discursive papers on extremely complicated things. Don’t do that here. In the real world people want solutions, and they want them expressed simply." The deadline for these final papers, it turns out, is flexible, unofficially at least. "They’re due on December 9th," he tells the class, "but if they don’t come in that day the world won’t come to an end." Hazeltine is also open to changing grades. "There’s nothing wrong with telling students to rewrite a paper for a better grade if they think they can do better," he says later in his office. And when asked about cheating, he says, "In a way, students talking to each other during a final exam is not a bad thing. When you ask employers what they look for in an employee, they always say they want someone who can work efficiently as part of a team." Hazeltine emphasizes that he does not endorse cheating, however; if he discovers a student cheating on a final – and because the class is so large, there are always some who do – the grade for the test is an automatic zero.


As he lectures on the Salomon stage, Hazeltine shifts his weight from one leg to the other and rolls back and forth on the balls of his feet. During class, he often hops off the stage and strides up and down the aisles. He has a long-standing tradition of shaking the hand of every student who correctly answers one of his questions, and, because he asks a lot of questions, he does a lot of jogging from one corner of the auditorium to another. After the lecture, walking back to his office in the Barus & Holley building, Hazeltine admits the handshaking is a little gimmicky. "But the students expect it," he says, "and if I forget to do it their feelings get hurt. They come up to me after class and say, ‘Why didn’t you shake my hand?’ "

Born in Paris in 1931, Barrett Hazeltine first became part of a university community at the age of three, when his father, an inventor, moved the family to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he’d taken a teaching job at the Stevens Institute engineering school. For a time the family lived on campus, in a house that overlooked the Manhattan skyline and from which they could see cruise ships floating by on the Hudson River. Sometimes the elder Hazeltine took his son to visit his laboratory. "He was good at showing me how things work," Hazeltine says.

Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, Hazeltine’s interest in management was sparked when he was still a teenager, after the removal of a tumor in his hip left him unable to play competitive sports. While his friends played on their high-school football team, Hazeltine became the team’s manager. He soon realized that he enjoyed organizing, planning, and figuring out ways to do things more efficiently. At Princeton, he ran the yearbook committee and was coxswain for the crew team. He studied engineering, in part because his father had convinced him that it was a good background for all kinds of professions.

Just before Hazeltine graduated and took a job at the electronics firm his father had started, he drove up to Wellesley College outside Boston to bring his younger sister home for the summer. Polite young man that he was, he offered to carry some suitcases downstairs for a freshman named Mary Frances Fenn, who lived in the same dormitory as his sister. Barrett and Mary – he calls her "Muffin" – married three years later, and promptly moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Barrett earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, while Mary got a master’s degree in chemistry and gave birth to their first child, a son.

In 1959, Hazeltine moved his growing family to Providence to take what he believed would be a temporary teaching job at Brown. As an assistant professor of electrical engineering, he wasn’t a star, and he worried about his future. By 1966, Hazeltine and Mary Frances had three children and Hazeltine had tenure. He had also participated in a Ford Foundation program called "Residents in Engineering," which temporarily placed engineering academics in engineering companies. Specifically, Hazeltine worked as the assistant to the manager of research in Raytheon’s Space and Information Systems division. Assigned to work on a NASA satellite communications project, he found that the management part of the job intrigued him as much as the research. Back at Brown, he created an introductory course in business management; soon afterward, in the early 1970s, he helped develop a pre-business concentration called Organizational Behavior and Management (OBM), which required courses across such disciplines as sociology, political science, economics, and computer science.

Hazeltine also had a hand in management at Brown. Having worked on and off in the dean of the College’s office since the early 1960s, he’d developed a reputation as an advocate for students; in 1972, he became a part-time associate dean of the college, a position he would hold for twenty years. "Students loved and respected him," says President Sheila Blumstein, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics who was dean of the College in the late 1980s and early 1990s, "and he went to the mat for them on any academic or personal matter. If there was a problem with a student, you could always go to Barrett and you knew the student would be well taken care of."

One day in early 1970, when his children were eight, ten, and twelve, Hazeltine entered his rambling clapboard house not far from campus and asked the family, "How’d you like to go to Zambia?" He had received an offer to spend his upcoming sabbatical at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. Although they had to look up Zambia in an encyclopedia to figure out just where it was, they took the offer. Hazeltine taught engineering, Mary taught chemistry, and the children attended an international school.

Hazeltine has been going back to Africa ever since, teaching at schools in Malawi, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The trips have drawn his attention to the changing role technology plays in people’s lives. Because much of technology only recently arrived in Africa, he has been able to observe how technological choices are made. The first year the Hazeltines were in Malawi, one of Barrett’s students invited them home to his village for Christmas. "The place reminded me a little of Sturbridge Village," he recalls. "You’d walk through the village and there’s the blacksmith, there’s the lady who makes beer, there’s the guy who sews clothes sitting on the front step of his shop." At the student’s home, the mother and aunt cooked wonderful meals for the Hazeltines – "the number of chickens running around the yard got smaller and smaller," Mary says – but the father sat silent. One evening, when he and his guests went out to the porch after dinner, he asked his son to translate a question: "Did man really go to the moon?"

Experiences such as these helped push what Hazeltine calls his "perspective on knowledge." He began growing increasingly "impatient with theoretical analysis – consideration of how the world ought to be," he later wrote in the Brown Daily Herald. He saw a need to work on specific, real problems, both in Africa and at Brown, even though he felt some of his academic peers would disdain his approach as "too practical."


Other colleagues placed themselves squarely in the Hazeltine camp. Professor of Engineering Eric Suuberg and Assistant Professor of Enginering Greg Crawford, for example, this year introduced a new course on entrepreneurship, in which small teams of students start simulated spinoffs of local technology companies. "We’re running a grand experiment based on Barrett Hazeltine’s philosophy," says Suuberg, who also recognizes the uneasiness such a course can trigger. "It rekindles the debate about professional schools at Brown that has gone on for some time," he says.

When you visit Hazeltine’s office, he hangs up your coat and offers you coffee. On his desk are two foot-high stacks of manila folders – case studies of companies that are potential final-paper topics for the students of Engin. 9. Because the end of the semester is fast approaching, Hazeltine has begun holding office hours seven days a week. By 9:15 on a Tuesday morning, a few students have straggled in to choose their case studies; by ten, six students are packed into the tiny office and more wait outside in the hall.

"What interests you?" Hazeltine asks one student, trying to match her with a case. "How about an airline? Here’s one on Southwest Airlines. You have to decide what city they should go to next, give some potential strategies." He looks over the shoulder of a senior leafing through a folder. "Oh, baseball, that’s a tough one. You have to talk about how another strike can be averted. You’re a smart guy, though. You can do it." To another student, he offers his own chair and asks, "Don’t I know your dad and your brother? How are they doing?"

"I’ve never seen another professor so willing to give so much time," says Greg Crawford. "He is genuine," offers John Rosenblum of the University of Richmond, "and he has an amazing ability to respond to people, whether it’s someone my age or someone my children’s age." Unconditional support for students is part of the equation, too. When Jonathan Hull ’01 went to Hazeltine recently with an ambitious and offbeat senior thesis proposal – he wanted to travel to the Hague, interview people connected with war-crimes prosecution, and analyze the international tribunals’ work from an average American’s perspective – Hazeltine immediately jumped in with suggestions on how to get the job done. "He never questioned my desire or said, ‘You’re too young,’ " Hull says.

Watching Hazeltine talk to his students, one quickly understands why he considers engineering his back-up career. "It’s important to maintain my identity as an engineer," Hazeltine says. "It’s a trade, something I can always go back to. But mostly I identify myself as a teacher. And at my age one likes to be a mentor." Technically, Hazeltine is retired. He is now an emeritus professor, and OBM, the field of study he helped originate at Brown and almost single-handedly administered, is about to be absorbed into a new concentration, Public- and Private-Sector Organizations. But Hazeltine still feels needed, not only by the 539 students in Engin. 9, but by the 140 whose independent study projects and senior theses he oversaw last fall. This spring he has been teaching three business management courses at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

The job of a teacher, Hazeltine believes, is not only to impart knowledge, but to help students find their way through one of the more complicated phases of their young lives. "They’re not just thinking about academic subject matter," he says. "They’re growing from an eighteen-year-old kid into a twenty-two-year-old adult." One of the biggest lessons he tries to impart, he says, is that "learning doesn’t have to be awful."

He does some of his best work in his office. "What are you going to do next year?" he asks a senior who’s shuffling through the stacks of folders on Hazeltine’s desk. "Morgan Stanley Dean Witter," the student says with obvious pride. "Good for you! Tell me all about it," exclaims Hazeltine. And then few minutes later, to a female student: "Hi, need a case? What interests you? Do you like accounting? Church? Cookies? TV?" He flips through the stacks, handing her folders to peruse, then glances at his watch: 11:45. He shrugs his narrow shoulders into a tweed blazer and asks the student to close the door on her way out. Emeritus Professor Barrett Hazeltine has another class to teach.

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May / June 2000