Arjay Miller

Content originally published in Stanford Business magazine, May 2000.

This former Whiz Kid needs no last name to be recognized around Stanford. A near-mythic figure who led the Stanford GSB through the 1970s, Arjay Miller is still a presence to be reckoned with.

It is hard to believe today that Arjay Miller was not always an integral part of Stanford’s community and history. But in 1968 when the school chose the smart, straight-shooting Ford Motor executive for its new dean, Miller had never set foot on campus. Nor did he have any experience in academia beyond that of a onetime teaching assistant at UC Berkeley.

But Miller moved into the dean’s office in 1969 and very quickly, very calmly, and very smoothly set about changing the school forever. In the process he became one of the school’s most storied and beloved figures. During his 10 years at the school, Miller increased its endowment from a modest $6 million to $25 million and boosted the number of endowed chairs from 6 to 22. He created the innovative Public Management Program, which remains the envy of business schools across the country. And Miller helped complete the revolution in management education at Stanford by recruiting outstanding professors from a variety of disciplines, from psychology to political science, and putting the school on the cutting edge of business education. Says Bob Jaedicke, who served as associate dean under Miller — and who became dean in 1983 — “If you had to pick a decade when the school made enormous progress, lots of folks, including myself, would pick the Arjay decade.”

Jerry Miller, associate academic dean from 1974 to 1976, agrees: “Stanford emerged in the middle of Arjay’s regime as the number one business school in the world.”

It is easy to make too much of the achievements of a single individual in shaping an institution — as Arjay Miller himself puts it, recognition always lags achievement. Many of the changes that vaulted Stanford into the top ranks of business education were under way when Miller arrived, set in motion by his predecessor, Ernest C. Arbuckle.

“Ernie was like an entrepreneur who gets a lot of things going,” says Paul Johnson, who was Miller’s assistant dean for administration. “But when an entrepreneur leaves, there’s not much infrastructure in place. What Arjay did was consolidate all the energy and advancements Ernie had supplied.”

In addition to being an exceptional institution builder, Miller is now a near-mythic figure in business school lore. Everyone has a favorite Arjay story — some incident in which he exhibited his startling candor, blunt good sense, dry sense of humor, or a sweetness that often came as a surprise. Never a chummy backslapper, Miller was a serious, practical, and goal-oriented dean, but he was far from stiff. He was genuinely interested in people. He showed up at casual spaghetti dinners in student houses. He loved — and still loves — to meet with young MBAs. And they with him. One group of students started a beer-drinking club they dubbed the Friends of Arjay Miller — FOAM. Another group founded a 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll band and named themselves the Arjays. When it came time for a publicity photo shoot in 1979, one of the Arjays’ band members, Blake Winchell, went up and knocked on Miller’s door. Would the dean be willing to pose with them in the conference room, he asked. Arjay did, grinning, his thumbs up. Someone later hung an enlarged print of this photo in a cabin at the Bohemian Grove.

“He was totally out of keeping with what I would have thought such a corporate icon would be — humorless and driven by numbers,” says Phil Gioia, who designed the Arjays’ T-shirts and worked with Miller in his capacity as president of the Class of 1979. “I found him to be a lovely man. He had a real wicked sense of humor, a depth of understanding of people — a great guy.”

Miller grew up on a Nebraska farm, one of eight children. But he decided early on that farmwork was not for him. As he tells it, one sweltering afternoon while shoveling wheat he turned to his cousin and said, “Hermie, there’s got to be an easier way to make a living, and I’m going to figure out what it is.”

He attended UCLA as an undergraduate — where he met his wife, Frances, a fellow student — then began working toward his PhD in economics at Berkeley. His studies were interrupted by World War II, when he went to work in the Pentagon tracking the logistics of air operations. He gave up plans to finish his PhD when, in 1945, he joined Ford Motor Company as one of a group of 10 brainy former military officers — the so-called Whiz Kids — whose mandate was to reenergize and reorganize the ailing company.

“Write your names down, tell me how much money you want and when you can come to work,” Henry Ford told the group, says Miller. The Whiz Kids, the most famous of whom was Robert McNamara, helped turn Ford Motor around and became legends in the process.

Miller was named president of Ford in 1963. In 1965, Ralph Nader published his scathing critique of the safety record of the auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. A group of auto execs including Miller traveled to Washington to account for themselves. Watching his colleagues in those tense meetings, Miller was struck by how ineptly they handled negotiations with the government regulators. And vice versa. “We blew it,” Miller says.

Then in 1967, Detroit was ravaged by urban riots. As chairman of the city’s Economic Development Committee, Miller was charged with bringing jobs to the inner city. It was a huge, daunting project, and he didn’t have a clue how to do it. “We failed miserably,” he says.

These two events were fresh in Miller’s mind when Lee Bach, who was heading up Stanford GSB’s search for a new dean, first offered him the job. The deanship entailed a substantial pay cut, and yes was not the first word to cross Miller’s lips.

Miller carefully considered the offer and agreed — on condition that the school begin a program that would educate business in the concerns of government and society, and government in the needs of business. Essentially, he envisioned a program that would produce managers better able to anticipate and deal with the two disturbing and unexpected crises he had just encountered in his job as a high-ranking corporate executive.

The school agreed to start the program, and Arjay Miller came to Stanford.

Miller likes to joke about the shock of arriving at Stanford from the cushy corporate world he was accustomed to, with the phalanxes of secretaries, chauffeurs, and corporate jets. He says it was startling to lose the buffers that kept people out of his office. At Stanford, students, faculty, and alums were constantly barging in to confer, argue, or chat.

Some people at the school had their own misgivings about the corporate chieftain taking the reins of their school. “He was associated with the Whiz Kids, and Robert McNamara had a pretty scary reputation. People wondered if he’d be really hard-nosed and demanding,” says Paul Johnson.

He wasn’t. Someone once described Miller as a “human McNamara” — the same mental capacities, but a truly nice, gracious person. Despite all the initial doubts and jokes, the transition was extremely smooth, and the fit, from the very beginning, almost perfect. Miller is almost universally praised for the way, from the beginning, he delegated authority. Seeing that Jaedicke had a strong rapport with faculty, Miller didn’t interfere. He stepped back and let Jaedicke handle virtually all the internal negotiations and operations of the school.

“He could delegate almost to the point of abandonment,” recalls Jaedicke, who served as associate dean. “He was always there for advice, counsel, and interaction. But he never second-guessed you. We didn’t have to seek his approval, never had to say, ‘Wait, and we’ll ask the dean.’ And that was nice.”

This is not to say Miller was alienated from the faculty or unpopular. Quite the contrary. “You don’t expect a businessman dean to do research, but they do need to value it,” says Jaedicke. “Arjay had a great deal of intellectual curiosity, and he was very quick to see the big picture and the importance of things being done.”

Faculty, says Jaedicke, loved to talk to Miller about their work; he brought a fresh perspective, often recognizing and pointing out the real-world relevance of their research. And then there were the students. “In business school, you’re surrounded by successful people, but successful people who are academics,” says Blake Winchell. “Business school students aren’t aspiring to be academics. They’re aspiring to be corporate leaders. Arjay Miller was a role model for us.”

Not only had Miller been a famously successful executive, but he had shown how those same leadership skills could be transported to an entirely new environment, Stanford GSB, and used to equally great effect. He was the embodiment of a businessman who was at home in many worlds. He understood how to run a large company and turn a profit but clearly thought there was more to a rich and rounded life. The students who got to know him well loved him, and many have stayed in touch with him through the decades.

Students also were impressed with Miller’s honesty and high ethical standards. Frequently mentioned is Miller’s quick and easy TV test of ethics: Whenever a moral dilemma arises, ask yourself how you’d feel if your decision were aired on the nightly news. “It’s a great way to test your actions,” says Ted Kaye, MBA ‘79. “I’ve used it often over the years. The second comment of his that I’ll always remember is: ‘Don’t worry about making a mistake. You can always be used as a bad example.’”

Miller has been credited with bringing huge amounts of money to Stanford GSB at a time when it didn’t have a whole lot and its alumni/ae body was too small to generate much in the way of donations. Fundraising was not, Miller says, his favorite activity. But it had to be done if Stanford was to become a world-class business school, and nobody could have done it better than Miller.

He turned to his friends and business associates from across the country, people he had worked with or knew from his various boards. From the board of Utah International alone, Miller got five endowed chairs. “He was a marvelous fundraiser,” says Jaedicke. “He was able to ask for money from people that other people wouldn’t have been able to, people who did not necessarily have any affiliation with Stanford. He was the right person at the right time.”

Miller was adamant that Stanford GSB get to keep the money it generated — he did not like to see it siphoned off by the university. When the administration tried to extract money from the school early in Miller’s tenure, he had a somewhat famous confrontation with then-president Ken Pitzer. “Arjay wouldn’t stand for it, and he said if they didn’t believe it, he would resign on the spot,” says Jerry Miller. “The usual outcome is that the central administration prevails, but he just outgunned them.”

Arjay Miller got the deal he wanted, which is still in place today. “For a school to lead and grow, it must have that kind of an arrangement with the central university,” he says.

And the school did lead and grow. It was with the money that the school raised — and kept — during Miller’s tenure that it tracked down and hired some of the best academic talent in the country, top professors in fields from accounting to health care management. But the legacy Miller seems to be most proud of is the Public Management Program, the main reason he came to Stanford in the first place. The program, founded in 1971, provided courses focusing on the study of government and public policy and reserved spaces within the school for students who were interested in going to work for government. The idea was to give Stanford GSB a social conscience — and graduate MBAs who realized they should think about more than just making money. Miller wanted MBAs to understand that their hard-won management skills might be useful outside the corporate boardroom. The program has evolved over the years and has become, if anything, more ambitious. It is a reason many students choose to come to Stanford rather than other top schools. “And there’s more need for it today than ever,” says Miller.

Miller retired from Stanford in 1979, at the age of 63, but he has stayed closely involved with the School. He still lives in his spacious Woodside home amid a grove of oaks. He currently sits on the board of the Public Policy Institute of California, which publishes reports on problems facing Californians, from immigration to education and transportation. He is a member of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and he is actively working for campaign finance reform, a subject about which he feels passionate.

He spends a couple of hours reading the New York Times every day with his wife, and they watch Ted Koppel every night. “We have a real intellectual companionship,” he says.

But no chat groups, web surfing, or email for Miller. He uses his electric typewriter and the telephone. “I’ve simplified my life,” says Miller. “I don’t want to be responsible to email pressure.”

This is somewhat surprising, because Miller is transfixed by the potential of the internet and the burst of business activity surrounding it. “It’s a great time to be young now,” he says, “a fascinating time to be living. This revolution is equal to or greater than the Industrial Revolution and we’re right here in the middle of it, right here in Silicon Valley. But I’m pleased people are still going out to get MBAs. It’s like the Gold Rush days — why get a geology degree when you can dig for gold? But the real successes take the skills that Stanford GSB teaches.”

Miller still meets with MBAs looking for advice, help, and venture capital. Of a group of young internet entrepreneurs he met with recently, Miller says: “I was just so impressed. They’re bright, turned-on, hardworking. And those are adjectives you could apply to any number of Stanford MBAs. There’s a spark about them.” The meeting clearly gave him enormous pleasure.

“One of the things he once told me was that a good manager has got to really love the organization,” says Jaedicke. “Well, he just loves the organization. Even though he arrived never having been here, you could tell from the minute you stepped in the school that one of the things Arjay Miller cared most about in the world was Stanford GSB.”

by Jennifer Reese