McKersie’s View

Former dean discusses 40 years of labor and industrial relations
Robert McKersie
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Robert McKersie returned to Ithaca Friday after leaving nearly 40 years ago.

ILR dean from 1971 to 1980 and now the Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT, he reviewed his career, which has been focused on labor relations from the 1950s to the present.

When he was coming out of the U.S. Navy and going to Harvard Business School, McKersie said he did not know he would end up in industrial relations. His exposure to the field started at Harvard, which he called his “apprenticeship.”

“Great teachers were the difference for me taking labor relations elective courses,” McKersie said. “I found that this was really exciting stuff.”

Arriving in 1971 at Cornell, he came during a period of ILR founding faculty retirements.

“The provost noticed that there was an opportunity to bring in a new generation of faculty,” McKersie said. “I had a brilliant idea that these folks could retire and we could employ them part-time. On paper it was, but it was not easy to take people from what they love doing.”

In the United States, there is a failure when jobs are lost and that there is a lack of action before, McKersie said.

“It is a failing in this country that job loss is just a problem when a manger makes the decision to shut down or go overseas,” McKersie said.

McKersie as dean was asked to have ILR grant a degree in New York City.

“It was a lot of effort. Empire State College would teach the non-professional courses and ILR the professional courses,” McKersie said. “We were able to get a win-win of keeping a presence in New York City with the labor movement.”

David Lipsky, ILR’s Anne Evans Estabrook Professor of Dispute Resolution and a former dean of the school, asked McKersie if ILR should remain independent from Cornell’s College of Business or if it should join.

“At Sloan, we are in a business school with a unique history dating back to the 1930s,” McKersie responded. “The evidence is not encouraging to go into a business school by looking at Harvard and University of Chicago.”

Harvard and University of Chicago veered from labor relations by having their labor relations department set within a business school, McKersie said.

At MIT’s Sloan School, though, he said after the talk, “technology and the world of work are front and center.”