Economist James E. Howell, 91, Transformed Modern-Day Management Education

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Economist James E. Howell, 91, Transformed Modern-Day Management Education

Credited with helping to turn Stanford GSB into a model of academic excellence in the 1970s, he profoundly changed business schools around the world.
April 5, 2019
James E. Howell and bookcases full of books. Credit: Courtesy of Stanford Libraries Department of Special Collections & University Archives
A deeply intellectual person, James E. Howell was an insatiable reader of many genres from mysteries, to history, to evolutionary science. | Courtesy of Stanford Libraries Department of Special Collections & University Archives

Credited with raising Stanford GSB to national prominence as a model of academic excellence in the 1970s, he profoundly changed how management education was taught around the world.

Until his death on March 29, 2019, James E. Howell had been the longest-serving member of the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, with tenure of 60 years. He died at his home in Palo Alto after a short stay in the hospital.

Howell, Theodore J. Kreps Professor of Economics, Emeritus, is best known for the report he coauthored with the late Robert A. Gordon, then at UC Berkeley. Published in 1959, the year after Howell joined the Stanford GSB faculty, the Gordon-Howell report was sponsored by the Ford Foundation to assess and improve business school education, which at the time was regarded as having low academic standards. The report articulated a vision to transform management education with a greater emphasis on fundamental knowledge, including analytical and managerial disciplines, and knowledge creation in the form of faculty research.

“It’s hard to imagine where Stanford Graduate School of Business would be today if not for the vision and work of Jim Howell,” said Jonathan Levin, Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean. “He is considered one of a handful of catalysts responsible for the management revolution of the 1960s. As the school’s academic dean, Jim ensured that Stanford GSB was at the vanguard of that revolution.”

Prior to the Gordon-Howell report, business schools relied heavily on the case teaching method popularized by Harvard, said Robert Wilson, Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emeritus, whom Howell recruited from Harvard to implement the plan to bring scientific and management rigor to business schools. “Experiential learning back then meant you’d read case studies and discussed them in class,” he said. “The Gordon-Howell model injected basic discipline materials from economics, psychology, mathematical, and statistical models—fundamentals that are still intrinsic today.”

An Excellent Teacher and Deeply Intellectual

“Jim had a profound ability to cause students to think sharply and intelligently, and he consistently received high marks for teaching in the MBA as well as executive programs,” said his longtime friend and colleague James C. VanHorne, A.P. Giannini Professor of Banking and Finance, Emeritus. He also coauthored books on mathematical foundations for economics, and decision analysis.

“He loved teaching,” said Caitlyn Howell of her father. “Several times he was approached to take an appointment, and he would say no because it would mean a hiatus from his teaching. He especially enjoyed working with students with less developed quantitative skills to help them understand the utility of math and statistics in economics. That’s one reason he enjoyed directing and teaching the Stanford Executive Program so much. These professionals hadn’t been in school for a while, and he was so pleased to see them getting something out of the whole program and his class.”

It’s hard to imagine where Stanford Graduate School of Business would be today if not for the vision and work of Jim Howell.
Jonathan Levin

Jeannine Williams remembers him as a wonderful boss who knew the importance of a well-timed day off to renew intellectual vitality. For 13 years, beginning in 1975, she served as program coordinator for the flagship SEP that Howell directed for several years. The residential program brought 180 business leaders to campus for eight weeks each summer. “One year, we had just finished SEP,” said Williams. “It had been really intense, and we were talking about what we were going to do now that SEP was over. Jim was going to take a mental health day, which was very important to him, and he encouraged me to take one too. I was young and impressionable then, and I thought that was quite decadent.”

In recognition of Howell’s extraordinary service to Stanford GSB, he was honored with the inaugural 1996 Robert T. Davis Award presented by Stanford Graduate School of Business deans to recognize a colleague for a lifetime of service and achievement. The award was endowed by family and friends of the late Robert T. Davis, Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing, Emeritus, who was a member of the Stanford GSB faculty for 37 years.

James Howell at chalkboard with student. Credit: Stanford GSB
James Howell loved teaching and especially enjoyed working with students with less developed quantitative skills to help them understand the utility of math and statistics in economics. | Courtesy of Stanford GSB

An only child born to parents who never attended college, Howell grew up far from academia. “His grandfather was best friends with ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and spent some time in Cody, Wyoming; and his aunts and uncles were ranchers, farmers, and small-business owners throughout Colorado and Wyoming,” said Caitlyn. “His family moved around a lot, eventually settling in San Francisco where he graduated from high school. He fought forest fires in his late teens, then went into the army for a few years, which paid for his college.”

Howell graduated from Fresno State College, earned his MA from the University of Illinois, and completed his PhD in economics at Yale.

Howell was a deeply intellectual person who satiated his voracious curiosity after retiring from Stanford GSB in 1997 by taking classes on such topics as quantum physics and archaeology. Fascinated by marine invertebrates, he served as a volunteer docent at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, just north of San Mateo. He was an insatiable reader — of genres from mysteries, to history to evolutionary science — and he followed the Giants baseball team, and attended the San Francisco and Santa Fe operas. And he loved salmon fishing, returning annually for over 10 years to the Campbell River in British Columbia. Above all, Howell had a keen interest in travel, which was assuaged in part through consulting work for large companies and government organizations around the world, leveraging a few days’ work into longer vacations. Jim and his wife, Penny, traveled in all continents and lived in several countries.

Howell is survived by his wife of 53 years, Penny Howell, and their daughter, Caitlyn; three children from a previous marriage, Kenneth, William, and Jan Langmuir; and seven grandchildren.

— Helen K. Chang

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