"Over the years I have come to believe that life itself is a classroom for growth in consciousness, that adversity provides a chance for new learning, that nothing is impossible, that dreams become guiding stars to lead the way.” — Dr Robert Boland
Dr Robert (‘Bob’) Boland was the ultimate role-model for lifelong learning. Described by MBA graduates from the late 1960s as "a multiplier of talent who made a real difference to the lives of so many people,” and that “we got so much more from him than an MBA,” he was an inspired, innovative and irreverent teacher, and leaves a lasting and rich legacy.
Raised and educated in the UK, Boland initially qualified as a chartered accountant. He completed a PhD in Finance at Harvard Business School, and after a year there as visiting faculty, Boland went on to establish the first Engineering Management Programme at Cranfield, the UK’s first management school.
Boland was recruited by UCT’s principal, Dr JP Duminy, to take over the Chair of Commerce in August 1965, but he arrived in Cape Town with a dream of developing a multi-racial Harvard Business School in Africa. Despite many doomsayers proclaiming there was no market for the MBA in South Africa, Boland pressed ahead with a speed that left some of his colleagues breathless. Energetic and highly intelligent, he quickly made his mark.
The school was officially launched in 1966 and applications rolled in for the MBA, which soon gained a reputation for innovative teaching methods, unconventional lectures and a gruelling academic schedule that produced keen business minds. Gordon Parker, a 31-year-old mining engineer when he came to the GSB, was bowled over by Boland. “He was a dynamic director and one of the finest teachers I’ve ever encountered in my life,” said Parker who went on to be nominated Class President. “I doubt if anybody else could have established a business school at the time that he did.” Parker went on to be nominated Class President of the first MBA class at the school.
The demand for the programme surpassed all expectations — with the school able to cherry pick from a pool of candidates.
Another early student, Anthony Marshall-Smith, a young banking executive at the time, was wowed not only by Boland but by the quality of his classmates. “It was unbelievably stimulating,” says Marshall-Smith. “It was an extraordinary hothouse experience working with a hell of a lot of bright people, which put you under a lot of pressure to keep up.”
The Financial Mail claimed in a review of the UCT GSB 12 years after its launch that Bob was regarded by business with a mixture of fascinated admiration and horror, commenting: “Boland and his imported instructors introduced an extroverted style of teaching, the likes of which the campus had never seen, one that students adored because it encouraged their participation.”
This participative learning style was to become a cornerstone of the UCT GSB’s approach to teaching and learning, which endures to this day, starting a long tradition at the UCT GSB of leading change in business education on the African continent.
Boland left the UCT GSB in 1972 to pursue a medical degree and to further his work on programmed learning systems. He became a medical doctor at 44, learning Spanish in order to study medicine in Mexico, as it had the only university that would accept him. He qualified at John Hopkins in Maryland, USA a few years later.
In subsequent years he concentrated on consulting, teaching and research into behavioural science as applied to accelerated learning systems and educational technology, and was a visiting professor and consultant in Educational Technology to INSEAD.
In addition to his experience in the teaching consulting field, Boland authored numerous books, articles and reports dealing with accounting, finance, investment and environmental management. From 1983, Dr Boland worked in Africa and Latin America as a consultant to the International Labour Office in Geneva.
Latterly Boland was a volunteer IRS advisor and treasurer of Impact Switzerland, an international NGO dedicated to the prevention and care of disabilities in children. He also played piano, served lunch to school children, and wrote plays in his spare time, having been to London in December to watch one of his plays produced in Russian. Boland was still very involved in his many activities and had much planned for 2020, when he passed away suddenly, in January, aged 93, at his family home in France. He leaves behind his wife, Catherine, their children and grandchildren. He was a deeply significant leader of the UCT GSB, and his memory will live on in all those he touched with his energy, commitment and spirt.