(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Business section on Sunday, July 22, 2001)
By Philip Dine Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
Shortly after a young man named Ray Hilgert joined the business faculty at Washington University in 1961, a dean took him aside to offer some advice.
“He said (to) concentrate on teaching or research or community service or management development. But whatever you do, do it well,” Hilgert said.
For him, the choice was easy.
He would focus his energy on the classroom — not on publishing or consulting or other endeavors often seen as more glamorous than teaching — and his students would come first.
And what he would teach them would be the people side of business, highlighting such topics as labor relations and human resources.
Now, having compiled an extraordinary record, Hilgert is retiring from Washington University’s John M. Olin School of Business.
He has taught 8,800 business students in the past 40 years while championing the school’s program on the personnel and labor sides of business. Washington University is making Hilgert, 70, a professor emeritus.
Many of Hilgert’s students have made a major impact on the business world in St. Louis and beyond.
One, Jerry Hunter, was a third-year law student at Washington University when he decided to take Hilgert’s class on labor relations as an elective in 1978. Within a decade, Hunter was one of the federal government’s top labor officials.
“The enthusiasm he showed in the subject of labor relations and labor law clearly encouraged my interest in the area,” Hunter said. He served as Missouri’s secretary of labor under Gov. John Ashcroft before being tapped by President George Bush as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.
Hilgert’s outspoken approach always hasn’t endeared him to academic administrators.
He has questioned the emphasis at universities on research at the expense of teaching, and he has taken solitary stands such as criticizing school officials who fired a librarian involved in an altercation with a student.
The best deans, he believes, were those who left him alone.
“He’s been a very independent person on the faculty; he’s not only disagreed with the administration, he’s disagreed with his colleagues on many issues,” said Stuart Greenbaum, dean of the business school.
“He has his own views, he feels them strongly and he expresses them passionately.”
And yet, Greenbaum said, “His students in the human-resources area are spread all over the world in influential positions, and they’re very laudatory in their comments about him.
“He’s been a prolific scholar, published many textbooks, and he’s a controversial, provocative and insightful commentator in the labor relations area. We’ve never had anyone like him.”
Hilgert has carved out a role as the area’s most visible analyst on workplace issues.
“He was one of the few analysts around who I thought looked at the St. Louis scene fairly and objectively,” said Bob Kelley, the veteran president of the 250,000-member St. Louis Labor Council.
“I paid attention to what he said. Even when I didn’t agree with it, I knew it was coming from a studied opinion and not a biased premise.”
And he has been one of the region’s top arbitrators. Tom McCarthy, a lawyer in St. Louis who represents management in worker-employer disputes, frequently has found himself in front of Hilgert.
“I won some cases with him; I lost some cases with him. But he was impartial,” McCarthy said. “That was one of his hallmarks. He was acceptable to both sides. And so, he was one of the busier arbitrators.”
Hilgert grew up in St. Louis and graduated in 1948 from the old Southwest High School on Kingshighway Boulevard and Arsenal Street. He belongs to the Southwest High Old Jocks, varsity athletes from the 1940s and 1950s who gather once a year to reminisce.
After serving in the Air Force, he got a master’s degree and a doctorate in business at Washington University and began teaching in 1961, getting his foot in the door early enough to avoid the “publish-or-perish” doctrine that has permeated universities in recent decades.
“I always tried to be, first and foremost, a teacher,” Hilgert said. “I taught a lot of courses, more than I really had to, because I felt that was my primary purpose.
“The current reward system does not really reward good teaching. .o.o. I came along at a time when good teaching was considered to be our objective, and I think it should still be that way.”
Those views have isolated him at times, said Greenbaum, the school’s dean.
“He’s one of those people who believes that first and foremost your obligation is to your students, teaching and showing up for them, and if that conflicts with doing your research, so much the worse for your research,” Greenbaum said.
“When he’s published, he hasn’t published the arcane academic materials; he’s published textbooks. That again goes to his notion of pedagogy, rather than research. And that’s made him a rather lonesome voice on the faculty.”
Nevertheless, students selected him as teacher of the year four times.
“He worked so hard to stay up to date on what’s going on in the real world, and I don’t see that very often in teachers,” said Dale Kreienkamp, the senior director for human resources at St. Anthony’s Medical Center.
“When students wanted to know about the effect of a new law, he’d have a feel for it because he’d already talked to some of the practitioners.”
Like Kreienkamp, Connie Anthony is a past president of the Human Re source Management Association of Greater St. Louis. She says Hilgert’s blend of theory and practice set him apart in the classroom.
“His enthusiasm for human resources was contagious for the students who took his courses,” Anthony said. She is a manager in compensation at Edward Jones, a financial-services firm based in St. Louis.
“The influence that he had on me at Washington University, which is very much a quantitative, financially oriented kind of MBA program, was to follow my basic instinct that human resources was the field that I wanted to work in because the human side of business really does make a difference.”
For decades, Hilgert has traveled a 300-mile radius around St. Louis to arbitrate labor-management disputes.
“I think he’s kind of unique in his balance,” said Clyde Craig, a St. Louis labor lawyer who has represented the Teamsters and other unions.
“A lot of these professors in business schools have a very definite bent which is negative against unions, and he doesn’t have that at all. He’s been a real positive force in labor relations in the city.”
As a media commentator on local and national issues, Hilgert has explained matters from the Teamsters’ travails to complex aspects of labor law.
Believing that unions provide a check to corporate power, Hilgert worries that a continuing slide by labor will cause an imbalance. Not only have unions protected the rights of workers, he says, they have forged key social legislation and have strengthened the free-enterprise system.
“The majority of students in the business school are hostile to labor. They have grown up in an era when unions were looked down on,” Hilgert said.
“So, when they take a course that’s taught hopefully in an objective manner, they learn a lot more about the history and the contributions of unions and the legitimate functions and roles that labor unions play and should continue to play.”
Hilgert and his high school sweetheart, Bernice, live in Kirkwood and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Their three children — including one whom Hilgert taught in the MBA program and who now handles compensation and benefits at Boeing Co. — and eight grandchildren all live in the St. Louis area.
Keeping up with his students
This month, as he has for 15 years, Hilgert taught in the Minority Youth Entrepreneurship Program at Washington University, sponsored by local black business leaders. He also plans to do some arbitration and to write on workplace ethics.
But his main interest remains his former students. “I think of all the things that give me the greatest joy is that people I’ve been able in some ways to touch along the way, they come back to you and they almost always have warm recollections.
“They haven’t forgotten me, and that makes it all worthwhile,” Hilgert said.
Some of those who were Hilgert’s professors feel the same way, including Powell Niland, who taught him production management at Washington University in the late 1950s.
“Ray was always a good student, but it was his personal qualities that made the biggest impression on me,” Niland said.
“We are more than teacher and student; we’re friends. He’s got a very open attitude. He’s got a smile very often, but he’s got an inner strength of steel, if he needs it. I think that makes a wonderful guy to be a friend of.”
Ray Hilgert file
* Occupations: Management and industrial-relations educator, arbitrator, author, consultant
* Age: 70
* Born: St. Louis
* Lives: Kirkwood
* Family: Married, three children
* Military service: Air Force, 1952-56
* Education: Bachelor’s degree, Westminster College, Fulton, Mo.; master’s degree in business administration, doctorate of business administration, Washington University
* Employment: Management positions with Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 1956-60; professor, Olin School of Business, Washington University, since 1961
* Honors: Teacher of the year, Olin School of Business, 1968, 1981, 1985, 1989
Reporter Phil Dine:; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: 202-298-6880
GRAPHIC: PHOTO; (1) Color Photo – Ray Hilgert – Has taught 8,000 students; (2) Photo TEAK PHILLIPS/POST-DISPATCH – After 31 years of teaching thousands of students about management and industrial relations, Washington University professor Ray Hilgert will retire. He’ll keep an office in the John M. Olin School of Business’ Simon Hall as a professor emeritus, a title the school gave him July 1.