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Northwestern University

Harvey Kapnick and the Program that Bears His Name

“We need to provide undergraduates at Northwestern with an understanding of the role business plays in our society and the opportunities it provides for outstanding students…To do this we need to have business leaders discuss forthrightly their views of ethics; how social progress can be achieved; the roles of government and business; and the contribution profits make in our economic well-being and growth. It is essential that we provide a dialogue for these issues at the undergraduate level so that more students will seek out business careers. This is the challenge for the Business Institutions Program.” 

In 1989, when Harvey Kapnick delivered these remarks at a dinner establishing the Business Institutions professorship, there was one undergraduate completing the fledgling program. Today, there are 706 students enrolled in BIP, and it is Weinberg College’s most popular minor. With students from all over the University—budding journalists, engineers, and musicians, as well as liberal arts students—clamoring for classes, demand has often outstripped supply. It is a great success story, as is the life of the man for whom the program is now named.

Kapnick, who passed away in 2002, was a nationally-respected leader and innovator in the accounting profession. He was also a life trustee and loyal supporter of Northwestern who, for years, never missed a home football game. To honor him, his family has given a gift that enables Business Institutions to fully realize the vision shared by Kapnick and Northwestern at the outset of the program: to provide for undergraduates a solid grounding in the study of business through a thoughtful investigation of the cultural, political, philosophical, literary, and social sources and consequences of business institutions.

“Because of the gift, we’ve been able to offer a fascinating range of classes, taught by real world practitioners,” said Mark Witte, director of the newly-named Harvey Kapnick Business Institutions Program. “With continuing support from the Kapnick family, in addition to classic courses like finance and marketing, we are able to offer new classes this year about the history of advertising, the process of defining quality, and the issues that come with organizations merging or dividing. These resources have also allowed us to make our new office space appealing in a way that will encourage even more interaction among our faculty and students.”

“Dad believed it was very important for all of us to have a sound understanding of our free market economy, how business organizations work, and how we participate within one,” said his son Brad Kapnick. All three Kapnick sons have emulated their father in pursuing business-related careers. Brad is a partner in a Chicago law firm, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions and in liability litigation faced by directors and officers. David is in venture capital in San Francisco; Scott is with a venture capital hedge fund in New York.

“Harvey Kapnick had strong ideas about what undergraduate education should include,” said Ron Braeutigam, associate provost of undergraduate education and the Harvey Kapnick Professor of Business Institutions. Braeutigam worked closely with Kapnick in developing BIP. “He believed that students who want to be effective business leaders need high-quality exposure to fundamental concepts taught in a variety of academic disciplines, rather than only in a business concentration.”

In the 1960s, Northwestern discontinued an earlier business major that had offered the “business version” of economics, mathematics, statistics, or psychology classes. Classes were almost always less rigorous than calculus taught by the math department, for example, or economics in the economics department. When the BIP certificate was developed in the late 1980s, the faculty insisted that students fulfill the program’s requirements in the departments best equipped to teach them to a high standard. In addition, students pair their BIP minor with a major in almost any subject, so that the program brings together students with widely varying interests and experience. All take three core classes in economics, business and government, and complex organizations, and five of the focused electives. In this regard, the program offers an embarrassment of riches: classes in entrepreneurship, accounting, global markets, leadership and ethics, consumer behavior, sports marketing, non-profit management, and a host of other topics.

Students are also able to gain real-world experience through a dynamic program of internships. They’ve worked at such American companies as Susquehanna Investment Group, Hughes Aircraft, Smith Barney, Allstate Insurance, Motorola, CMG - New York, Medtronic Medical Technology, Wyse Advertising, and Perpetual Robotics. They’ve also traveled abroad for internships in Tokyo and Singapore.

Mr. Kapnick traveled quite a long way himself, in terms of both geography and accomplishments. He was born in 1925 on a farm near Palmyra, Michigan, and carried the values of hard work and plain-spoken honesty to everything he later accomplished. After graduating from high school in 1942, he served overseas in World War II as Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Force. Kapnick was named to a Board responsible for research into the effectiveness of American air operations in the Southwest Pacific. His much-decorated Army career included an award “for outstanding service in the line of duty.” After the war, he completed his studies at Cleary College and attended the University of Michigan Graduate School of Business Administration. He took his analytical skills into accounting, spending most of his career at Arthur Andersen, and eventually becoming its chairman and chief executive officer. There he was responsible for a number of milestones which made the firm, and the profession, more transparent, including production of the first annual report by a major accounting firm and the establishment of the first public review board to monitor the firm’s operations. In 1974 he was instrumental in opening the first office of an American public accounting firm in the Soviet Union.

Courage, said Brad Kapnick, and a strong commitment to ethical business practices were hallmarks of his father’s career.

“He left Andersen in 1980 after a dispute with some of the partners about the future of the firm,” said his son. “He proposed a split of the consulting firm from the auditing firm for regulatory reasons because both divisions had such differing roles. He wanted to make sure the auditors always remained a sort of priesthood that was beyond any suspicion.” His ideas were prescient and foreshadowed the conflicts of interest that would contribute to the once-stellar firm’s downfall. Harvey Kapnick went on to become chairman and chief executive of Chicago Pacific and vice chairman for strategic planning for General Dynamics.

When asked about BIP’s new name and his father’s legacy, Brad Kapnick remarked, “It’s not the name living on that’s important. It’s the principles and ideals that Dad stood for. We are so pleased that the gift will enable more students to take advantage of this outstanding program and enter their careers with a firm foundation in sound business practices and ethical leadership."

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