Prof. Emeritus Robert A. Beck ’42, who served as dean the School of Hotel Administration from 1961 to 1981 and pioneered a school-wide emphasis on international research, died on July 31 in Redding, Conn. Beck was 91.
As dean of the hotel school, Beck distinguished himself from his predecessors by opting to hire formally trained scholars instead of people working in the hotel industry. In 1973, he founded the Master of Professional Studies program, which later became the Master of Management in Hospitality, and launched the hotel school’s executive education program.
According to both current and former faculty, Beck had a profound impact on those he came into contact with during his time as dean.
“He had personally — and he instilled in the school — a high level of expectation of excellence,” said Prof. Emeritus Neal Geller ’64, hotel administration, who was named the first Robert A. Beck Professor of Hospitality Financial Management. “It made me really proud to be the first Robert A. Beck professor.”
Beck’s influence extended to the hotel school’s curriculum of which he expanded the scope to give students both an interdisciplinary and international research focus. He also integrated technology into the curriculum by incorporating classes on computing and by hiring faculty members with engineering backgrounds.
“He took a technical and managerial approach to hotel management. He had a strong belief in that. There were five of us on the faculty who were Cornell engineers, and he liked engineers for the way we thought and the way we talked,” said Prof. Emeritus Richard Moore ’67, hotel administration, whom Beck hired.
Beck established research partnerships in Latin America and France, including a joint masters program between several French universities and the hotel school, from 1979 until 2004. Beck also sent several Cornell professors, many of whom were on sabbatical leave, to teach there.
“He did a lot to improve the faculty in terms of the professionalism of the faculty and the international stature of the school,” said Prof. Emeritus Richard Penner ’68, hotel administration, who was hired during Beck’s tenure. “He was also interested in faculty doing research, but he made sure that teaching was still their foremost [concern].”
During his tenure, undergraduate enrollment in the hotel school doubled. According to Dean Michael Johnson, under Beck’s direction, the school particularly increased female involvement in hospitality at a time when the field was dominated by males.
“The hotel industry was a very male-dominated industry. The perception was that you took a 14-year-old young man, made him a bellhop in a hotel, and over time he became a general manager in a hotel,” Johnson said. “Dean Beck was the one who really started growing the number of women on the faculty and the number of women in the program ... He was very proactive on the gender basis.”
Despite his numerous projects both at Cornell and abroad, Beck was known for spending much of his time interacting with hotel school students, both during daily coffee hours and down time between classes.
“He certainly had stature, but he was friendly and he tried to make it a point that he was accessible to students. He had an open door policy,” Moore said. “There was a chemistry class that was taught nearby, and students would come back from that class and pass the dean’s office. He always made sure that he was out in the hall at that time, working on the bulletin board or just standing there, so that students would see him and he could say hello to them.”
According to faculty, Beck was also a dignified and authoritative leader. He expected professionalism from his peers, but was also known for his sense of humor and friendliness, faculty said.
“I was a former architect, and one day, I wore a brown leather jacket and a brown turtleneck, and I believe he said to me, ‘My, you look like an architect today,’” Penner said. “He mostly wore ties and was a pretty old-school guy who liked people to dress up to teach, but he was a great guy.”
Johnson, the dean, said that he will most remember Beck for his charming demeanor and his humor, which endured into his old age.
Once, Johnson said, he, Beck and some alumni were eating lunch. Beck was 89 years old and used a walker.
“While we were eating lunch, he saw two 78-year-old ladies eating lunch all by themselves. Beck, in all of his charm, went with his walker and made a beeline for these two ladies and asked, ‘what are two beautiful ladies like you doing all alone at a place like this?’” Johnson said. “He made their day. He just had a charm that would light up a room.”
Beck’s legacy at Cornell continues in the form of the Robert A. Beck ’42 Scholarship Fund, which was founded in his honor in 1984 to provide scholarships to undergraduates in the hotel school.
In 1961, Beck, then 41, was the youngest member of the faculty when he was appointed the hotel school’s second dean and H.B. Meek’s successor by Cornell President Deane Malott. Faculty say that his impact on the school was immediate.
“I have great admiration for him. He was a great orator, and he commanded respect, but he was not dictatorial,” Moore, the professor hired by Beck, said. “I am amazed because we have had deans, and we’ve had three or four deans since him, but people always speak about ‘the Dean’ with a capital D, and that was [Beck].”
Beck is survived by three daughters, two sons-in-law, seven grandchildren, and his extended family.