Campus & Community

HBS professor, member of Accounting Hall of Fame Robert Anthony dies

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Robert N.
Robert N. Anthony

Robert N. Anthony, member of the Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty for more than 40 years, renowned and prolific scholar, author and innovator in the field of management accounting and control, and public servant at the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies, died on Dec. 1 at the Kendal Retirement Community in Hanover, N.H. He was 90 years old. At the time of his death, he was the School’s Ross Graham Walker Professor of Management Controls Emeritus. A former president of the American Accounting Association (1973-74), he was a member of the Accounting Hall of Fame. An FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) accounting standard (number 34, capitalizing the cost of interest) is directly traceable to his work.

Graduating from Colby College in 1938, Anthony came directly to HBS as an M.B.A student. After earning his degree two years later, he became a research assistant to the legendary Professor Walker, a pioneer in management control. From that point on, Anthony knew he had found his calling.

“Bob Anthony took a field that was something that only accountants did and transformed it into one that informed top managers in the planning and control of their organizations,” said former student and colleague Regina E. Herzlinger, the Nancy R. McPherson Professor of Business Administration at HBS. “He had a monumental impact not only on his students, through his teaching and textbooks, but also on the business, nonprofit, and government worlds through his many influential articles and powerful personal demeanor – his knowledge, intellectual clarity, sense of duty and honor, and managerial perspective.

“Bob was also a marvelous writer. He made the murky subject of accounting clear. These exceptional qualities of mind and character, coupled with a Yankee work ethic, helped him to transform the field of managerial accounting from the province of accountants to the tool of managers.”

When Anthony retired from the active faculty in 1982, Charles Christenson, the School’s Royal Little Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, observed, “Bob did more than anyone else to introduce a conceptual structure to management control. In his numerous publications, he has ranged across all the important questions. ‘Management Control in Industry Research Organizations,’ for example, examined the problem of measuring intellectual output – a much more difficult task than measuring more tangible output. His 1965 book, ‘Planning and Control Systems,’ became the bible of the field.” For generations of students at HBS and elsewhere, Anthony provided a unique introduction to the basics of accounting and bookkeeping with “Essentials of Accounting,” a self-guided primer that was regarded as revolutionary when it was first published in 1964 and that is the most widely used programmed text on accounting.

Robert Newton Anthony was born in Orange, Mass., on Sept. 6, 1916, and grew up in Haverhill, Mass. His family traced its roots back to the Mayflower. After graduating from high school at 16 and then from Colby, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he considered a job offer from a salt company. However, the head of Colby’s department of business administration had other plans for his prize pupil, suggesting that Anthony visit Harvard Business School and see whether he could be accepted. Two years later, he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class as a Baker Scholar.

Anthony’s tenure as a research assistant ended in 1941, when the United States entered World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy, serving on the island of Guam, where he was in charge of ordering and issuing material to the fleet that was preparing to invade Japan. Retiring from active duty in 1946 as a lieutenant commander, he returned to HBS, earning a doctorate in commercial science in 1952. The onset of the Korean War in 1950 brought Anthony back into government service for a time as co-leader of a team that developed a modern accounting system for the U.S. Air Force. He became a full professor at HBS in 1956.

In 1959, at the request of HBS Dean Stanley Teele, Anthony chaired a committee that was charged with reviewing the School’s required first-year curriculum. The work of the “Anthony Committee” extended over two years. Anthony’s high standing in the HBS community, along with his well-deserved reputation for integrity, equanimity, and a selfless dedication to the School, won over those who were at first opposed to making changes in the status quo. The result was the addition of several new first-year courses, including managerial economics, and a greater emphasis on offerings in organizational behavior. Anthony regarded this effort as his most important contribution to HBS.

In 1965, Anthony took a leave of absence to go to Washington, D.C., to serve as the Defense Department’s assistant secretary (comptroller) under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. As chief of financial management for the Defense Department, he headed a mammoth effort to develop and install a new accounting and control system that for the first time made it possible to evaluate the costs of similar initiatives among the different branches of the armed forces. Anthony’s task was complicated by a substantial amount of internal resistance to his reorganization efforts. But he prevailed. According to Christenson, “He changed the way the Defense Department operated.” Anthony was awarded the Defense Department’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service. He returned to the Business School in the fall of 1968.

A prolific writer, Anthony authored or co-authored some 27 books, many of which have gone through multiple editions and been translated into 15 languages.

After becoming professor emeritus in 1982, Anthony devoted much of his time through his lectures and writings trying to persuade accountants of the need for a new and improved conceptual framework for their profession.

Anthony consulted for many major companies, and he was often called as an expert witness in corporate litigation cases. He was a longtime trustee of Colby College and chairman of its board from 1978 to 1983. He was named a life trustee in 1989. He was also a member of the first board of trustees of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, chairman of its finance committee, and treasurer in 1992-93.

Anthony received awards from many academic, professional, and government organizations, including the Academy of Management (which named him a fellow in 1970), the American Accounting Association, the Federal Government Accountants Association, Harvard Business School, and the Institute of Management Accountants. Colby College bestowed two honorary degrees on him, a master’s in 1959 and a doctorate in 1963. In 2001, the Robert N. Anthony Fellowship Fund was established at Harvard Business School at the request of the then-dean, Kim B. Clark, to honor Anthony’s “extraordinary contributions and dedication to the School and to the field of business accounting.” It provides fellowship support to deserving M.B.A. students, with a preference for those who have both a military background and an interest in accounting and control.

Anthony took special pride in the fact that for more than a decade he was elected town auditor of Waterville Valley, N.H., where he spent much of his retirement after moving from Lexington, Mass., and where he enjoyed hiking and skiing. “It’s the first elective office I’ve ever held,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “I had opposition the first time, but I haven’t had any since. I got 24 votes last year; that’s all there were.”

He lived the last 15 years of his life at the Kendal Retirement Community in Hanover, where he was an active participant in the organization of the institution.

Anthony is survived by his wife, Katherine Yeager, whom he married in 1973; a son, Robert Jr., of Bethesda, Md.; a daughter, Victoria, of Littleton, Mass.; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his first wife, Gretchen Lynch Anthony, of Bethesda, Md.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Anthony’s honor to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Development Office, 1 Medical Center Drive, Lebanon, NH 03756.

A memorial service is being planned for January in Cambridge.