The Human Relations Center at Boston University

The 1950s in America was a time of transition and rapid growth. New developments were especially keen in the nation’s colleges and universities as they faced unprecedented enrollment from the post-war baby boom generation. For institutions of higher education, it meant new opportunities for explorations in knowledge and this was reflected in the number of university affiliated research institutions that were being established to meet the demands of a modernizing society.

The Human Relations Center at Boston University was a prime example of such an institution. Established in 1953, it sought an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences that integrated research, theory and praxis. Although the center was more or less disbanded by 1970 and its history largely forgotten (even within the university itself), it is illustrative of the social impact an organizational “life” can have. A review of the center provides not only an interesting intellectual history of the period, but it also provides a context through which we can better understand the origins of the social scientific study of culture, and by association, the development of cultural studies and Korean Studies in the 1950s and 60s.

The idea for the Human Relations Center came from a workshop held in 1952 where seventy educators and community leaders in Boston came together under the theme: “Brotherhood in Action.”[1] One of the main motivations for establishing a research center on Human Relations was to tackle problems of intergroup relations; a rather conspicuous racial and religious divide was evident in Boston during that time. The initiative rapidly gained momentum when it was endorsed by Boston University’s then president, Harold Case.[2] By 1953, Kenneth Benne was chosen as the center’s Executive Director, with Prof. Theodore Berenson from the School of Education, Prof. Francis Hurwitz of the School of Public Relations and Communication, and Prof. Robert Chin of the Department of Psychology serving in various roles as administrators, faculty, and staff. From the very beginning the center stressed interdepartmental collaboration, with scholars contributing from Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Education, Social Work, Business, Communications, Nursing, and Theology. Shortly after launching, several graduate students became associated with the center, including Dr. Hesung Koh, who was then a Ph.D. student in sociology and anthropology. Dr. Koh began as a research assistant and subsequently received a two year fellowship, then later became a lecturer on courses administered by the center, which included seminars like: Problems in Intergroup Relations and Proseminar in Human Relations.[3]

The center’s initial goals were three-fold in nature: 1) education – to provide instruction on human relations issues to students, administrators and faculty; 2) research – to develop and engage applied social science methods to study group and organizational dynamics; and 3) community service – to foster best practices on human interactions at the grassroots and local level.[4]

An excerpt from a 1956 brochure summarizes it well. It reads:

“The Human Relations Center is not a school or department. It is rather a University wide facility which attempts to stimulate and support, in all schools or departments, programs of instruction, research, and community focus in human relations. Its initial focus in the broad spectrum of human relations is upon problems of change in relationships within small groups, organizational, and community settings.”[5]

The center was to serve as a clearinghouse for education, research, social policy, and community service. An eclectic sample of the studies conducted by the center include: Ecological Mapping of Social Characteristics of Greater Boston, 1954; Study of the Role of the Nurse in Hospital Out-Patient Department and Clinics, 1955-60; and Communication Network Study—Problems of Change in Organizations, 1958-59. Through various training programs, conferences, and summer institutes, the center had a broad reach, far beyond the confines of a university setting.

The true significance of the center, however, cannot be readily measured by the output of its studies and publications. Rather, it is best attested to by the important figures associated with it, namely Kenneth Benne, Warren Bennis, and Robert Chin. The breadth and depth of the center’s research reflected the expansive vision of its Executive Director, Kenneth Benne. Today he may be best known as one of the pioneers of the study of organizational change. He was one of the founders of the National Training Laboratories (NTL), an institute advocating Applied Behavioral Sciences for the betterment of society, and along with Kurt Lewin, an originator of the idea of the T-group, or training group.[6] By all accounts Benne was a Renaissance man, a polymath intellectual who was a consummate thinker, philosopher, poet, musician, educator, and leader. Warren Bennis, after obtaining his Ph.D. in Social Sciences and Economics from MIT in 1955, taught at Boston University from 1956-59 and worked at the Human Relations Center. Concurrently, he taught classes in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, which like the Human Relations Center, was Harvard’s attempt at synthesizing the applied social sciences, with influential figures like Gordon Allport and Talcott Parsons behind it.[7] Later, Bennis would go on to teach at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Robert Chin was a psychology professor at BU who had worked as a research analyst for governmental agencies and the military and was a general editor of the Journal of Social Issues.

The fortunate convergence of these minds at this particular time and at this particular center should not be overlooked. Their collaborative research and efforts at the center would culminate in the influential work, The Planning of Change in 1961. In the preface of the book, the authors state that “many of the ideas in this volume have been developed and seasoned by work in the Boston University Human Relations Center during the eight years of its existence.”[8] Although the center’s publications focused on the minutiae of practical social interactions in groups and organizations, what these researchers were primarily interested in was no less than the big picture issues of authority, democratic decision making, and social responsibility. Their advocacy of progressive social policy prophetically anticipates the turbulence of the 1960s with its political upheavals, the rise of people power, protests over the Vietnam War, women’s rights and the civil rights movements. Their calls for democratic, rational dialogue and “planned change” prefigure the democratic theories of John Rawls and the communicative action of Jurgen Habermas. Curiously, Martin Luther King, Jr., was doing his doctoral studies at Boston University right around the time of the center’s heyday. Most likely Martin Luther King never crossed paths with Benne, Bennis, or Chin and the Human Relations Center, but they shared similar agendas for progressive societal change. Indeed, Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was precisely the kind of cultural touchstone of change that these researchers advocated. After their departure from the Human Relations Center in the 1960s, all three authors continued to expand on their personal interests in human relationships, social issues, and democratic ideals. Kenneth Benne pursued further work on educational theories. Warren Bennis became a pioneer in leadership studies and became a well-known management guru. Robert Chin went on to author a book: Psychological Research in Communist China, 1949-1966. Although they went their separate ways, their work continued to be influential in the field of social change. By 1985, The Planning of Change was in its 4th edition.

The Human Relations Center also served as a training ground for many future researchers. As part of the center’s first cohort of graduate students, Dr. Hesung Koh was deeply influenced by the Human Relations Center and her time there as a researcher, lecturer, and professor. It was at the center where she learned quantitative data analysis and culture coding. In addition to the practical skills gained, she absorbed the theoretical and methodological creativity of the scholars she encountered at the center. In the 1950s when Dr. Koh began to lay the groundwork for Korean Studies in the United States with the incorporation of the Korea Institute in 1956 (which later became the East Rock Institute), much of what she learned at the Human Relations Center became a source for inspiration. She was certainly interested in promoting Korea, but she intuited early on the need for an academically sophisticated social scientific study of Korean culture. In 1966, while working at the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University, she oversaw a project on a computerized bibliographic system for Korean social science data, which developed into KOCIS-KD, a special Korean Culture Information System to facilitate comparative studies across various disciplines.[9] The founding and development of the East Rock Institute (ERI) paralleled the Human Relations Center in many ways, the foremost being the intellectually curious and open-minded atmosphere of the institutions. To this day the East Rock Institute functions as a facilitator to Korean Studies scholars by offering training, hosting conferences and summer institutes and publishing studies as well as a newsletter. Although the institute endeavors to apply social scientific methods to the nuts and bolts of culture, just like the Human Relations Center and its early practitioners, it seeks to continue asking the big picture questions of human social dynamics.

[1] Henry Jon Stonie, “The Human Relations Center at Boston University” (EdD diss., Boston University, 1975), 34.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Hesung Chun Koh, email message to author, October 10, 2013.

[4] Stonie, 42.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] “Kenneth D. Benne (1908–1992) – Contribution, Concept of Democratic Authority, Social Foundations of Education,” accessed March 16, 2014.

[7] Warren Bennis, Still Surprised (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 72-74.

[8] Warren Bennis, Kenneth Benne, and Robert Chin, eds., The Planning of Change (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), vi-vii.

[9] Hesung Chun Koh, ed., Korean Diaspora: Central Asia, Northeast Asia, and North America (New Haven: East Rock Institute, 2008), K1-3.

Written by: Paul Choi