Campus & Community

Michael Porter named University Professor

8 min read
Michael Porter, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, in his conference room in Aldrich Hall at the Business School. Porter will hold the Bishop William Lawrence University Professorship. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

His books adorn the shelves of CEOs, heads of state, academicians, and business school students alike. Countries and companies all over the world have embraced his theories on competition and strategy in the expanding global marketplace. His work has also been applied to a variety of important social issues, from the economic development of U.S. inner cities to environmental concerns.

Michael E. Porter MBA ’71, Ph.D. ’73, C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), whose prodigious research and course development efforts center on both economic theory and business practice, has been appointed to a University Professorship, the highest professional distinction for a Harvard faculty member.

“It’s a great honor,” Porter stated. “I am also proud to follow in the footsteps of my late HBS teacher, mentor, and friend, Chris Christensen, as a University Professor. This appointment is particularly important to me since the scope of my work has broadened considerably over the years.

“My first area of interest examines how firms compete in industries and gain competitive advantage,” he continued. “The next focuses on locations and why some cities, states, or nations can be more competitive or prosperous than others. And the third area, which arose from the second, looks at how you can apply competitive thinking to social problems. This University Professorship will multiply the opportunities I have for cross-disciplinary research and enable me to work with many other Harvard scholars.”

Porter will hold the Bishop William Lawrence University Professorship, named after a member of the Harvard Corporation who played a key role in raising the funds from banker George F. Baker that led to the building of the Business School’s Soldiers Field campus in the 1920s. His University professorship is the 20th in a line of venerable positions endowed at Harvard since 1936. At that time, President James B. Conant identified the need to establish “a certain number of University Professors with roving commissions whose teaching and creative work shall not be hampered by departmental considerations.” University Professors are encouraged to cross over disciplinary boundaries in their research, and often divide their time between their “home” departments or schools and others.

Commenting on the appointment, President Neil L. Rudenstine said, “From every point of view – as an imaginative and penetrating thinker, an influential writer, and a gifted teacher – Mike Porter fits the role of University Professor perfectly. His work has steadily expanded in breadth. He spans many fields, including issues related to global competitiveness and problems in health care. He will now have the chance to bring his extraordinary energy and intelligence to bear on many subjects of inquiry across the entire University.”

HBS Dean Kim B. Clark called the appointment “a wonderful tribute to Mike Porter, who during almost three decades on our faculty has been a pioneer in using economic principles to solve important problems in competitiveness.

“In an array of groundbreaking books, articles, and papers that combine deep and rigorous scholarship with real-world relevance and applicability, he has created a body of work that is ‘must’ reading for students, academicians, practitioners, and political leaders around the world,” Clark continued.

“The impact of his ideas has long stretched beyond HBS to classrooms and board rooms, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, and numerous nations abroad as well as this country’s inner cities. As the fourth University Professor in the 92-year history of HBS – a group that includes Nobel laureate Robert C. Merton, the late C. Roland Christensen, and the late Sumner H. Slichter – he can now use his great skills in teaching and research to make important contributions throughout the University.”

Porter joined the HBS faculty in 1973 after earning his doctorate in business economics at Harvard, and he soon became one of the School’s youngest tenured professors. A prolific scholar, he has written 16 books and more than 75 articles. His 1980 volume “Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors,” which has since been translated into 19 languages, is considered the pioneering treatise on corporate competition and strategy. His most recent book, “Can Japan Compete?,” has just been published.

“From the start, my goal was to integrate what we knew about the economics of markets and industrial organization and what we knew about companies and business strategy,” Porter explained. “These two fields had never really intersected before. In addition to scholars, I wanted to reach practitioners, offering them a systematic framework for developing an overall strategy for competing in an industry.”

In 1985 Porter was named to President Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness. That appointment launched his study of national, state, and local competitiveness, findings that were first published in his book “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” in 1990.

“That work brought a new theoretical perspective to bear on the impact of location on the prosperity of nations or states,” Porter observed. “I began with a microeconomic point of view – individual firms and industries – which complemented the more top-down, macroeconomic perspective that had long predominated. In particular, I focused on the effect of clusters – geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, and firms in related industries – on innovation and success.”

“Mike Porter is probably the world’s most influential business academic and one of a handful of the most influential who have ever lived,” said Thomas K. McCraw, Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at HBS. “His insights and models regarding competitive strategy have become the canon in this area of study and the starting point for a considerable amount of work by other scholars around the globe. In short, he has reconstituted the field of business strategy.”

In recent years, Porter has served as an adviser to several foreign governments, including Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the seven nations of Central America. He has also worked with leaders in Catalonia, Scotland, Connecticut, Mississippi, and other states and provinces in this country and abroad.

In Massachusetts, Porter chaired former Gov. William Weld’s Council on Economic Growth and Technology; beginning in 1991 he led the effort to develop and implement a new economic strategy for the Commonwealth. In addition, Porter is co-chair (with Jeffrey Sachs, Galen L. Stone Professor of International Trade) of the Global Competitiveness Report, an annual ranking of the competitiveness and growth prospects of countries.

Porter has served as a strategic adviser to a number of U.S. and international corporations, including Entel, Navistar, Procter & Gamble, and Royal Dutch Shell. He sits on the boards of several companies as well and has worked with numerous nonprofit organizations.

According to Raymond V. Gilmartin, MBA ’68, chairman, president, and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc, “Through his research, teaching, and writing, Mike Porter has made an indelible mark on businesses and markets everywhere. His leading-edge research has directly influenced the strategies and competitiveness of individual firms and the nation. More recently, he has helped to identify the key drivers of innovation, which has now become the basis of global competition. His insights are directly relevant to understanding the vital ingredients for success in a host of industries, including pharmaceuticals.”

Porter noted that while working on “The Competitive Advantage of Nations,” he realized that “viewing economic and social issues as separate agendas was not only wrong but counterproductive. A successful economy depends on people who feel safe at work, who are healthy, and who have a sense that if they work hard, they will have the opportunity to do better. Productivity is also consistent with a clean environment.”

These insights led to another large body of work, including two influential Harvard Business Review articles, “Philanthropy’s New Agenda” and “Green and Competitive: Ending the Stalemate.” A further result of Porter’s society-focused research was the establishment of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to putting his theories about urban economic development into practice.

Throughout his career, Porter has maintained a high profile in the Business School’s MBA and Executive Education Programs. A course he created, Competition and Strategy, is a core requirement for Harvard MBA students. “I thrive in the classroom,” he said, “because I find HBS students challenging and invigorating.”

An all-state football and baseball player while growing up in New Jersey, Porter played intercollegiate golf as an undergraduate at Princeton, where he studied aerospace and mechanical engineering. His accomplishments on the links won him All-America honors in 1968. In fact, his first look at Harvard came when he arrived in Cambridge to compete against the Crimson golf team. Porter, who resides in Brookline with his wife, Debbie, and their two daughters, spends his leisure time these days watching his children play sports.

“I care about changing how people think and how they behave,” Porter noted in a 1996 interview. “I’m pleased when other academicians use my work. But I feel equally satisfied when people tell me my ideas made a difference in their lives.”