James E. Howell – Sixty Years

James E. Howell is recognized in academic circles for his co-authorship of the famous “Gordon-Howell” report that helped initiate a nationwide change in business schools in the second half of the twentieth century.

James E. Howell
Yet he also played a pivotal role locally in helping newly-hired Dean Ernest Arbuckle transform Stanford GSB into a world-class institution. In the fall of 2018, Howell, the Theodore J. Kreps Professor of Economics Emeritus, celebrated sixty years since he arrived at Stanford GSB in 1958 — as well as his ninetieth birthday.

A California native growing up in both Fresno and the Bay Area, Howell graduated from Fresno State College, then went to the University of Illinois for his MA and Yale for his PhD. He was eventually recruited by the Ford Foundation to work on a survey of educational institutions and came to Stanford GSB as part of the school’s efforts to reorganize its image along the lines of the reform of business schools and management education in the Fifties and Sixties.

Transforming Business Schools

The post-World War II era saw a new interest across America in management research and education that incorporated the social sciences, and the Ford Foundation, in particular, sought to foster change in this direction among business schools. There was a perceived need for this, after a long era of business and management education focused on short term, vocational pursuits.[1] Initiated by Rowen Gaither’s presidency of the Ford Foundation, the new thinking sought to focus its efforts on several program areas relating to the application of social science knowledge and perspectives, understanding and addressing social problems. The Foundation set up several commissions and panels to help discuss, frame, and advise those areas, as well as to help allocate grant efforts. George Leland “Lee” Bach, later to come to Stanford GSB himself, was among the earliest advisors; as founding dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) (what later became the Tepper School of Business) at Carnegie Mellon University, he had first-hand experience leading a business school.

The Ford Foundation initiated its institutional support of schools as early as 1954, beginning with the GSIA and the Harvard Business School. Aware of the low academic standards for business schools, an advisory group (that included Bach) recommended setting up centers of excellence in business education, the hope being expressed that management education might be transformed by building on the use of fundamental knowledge, not unlike how medical schools had been transformed a few decades earlier by the famous report of Abraham Flexner (1866-1959). The proposals that the Ford Foundation tended to support involved integrated use of foundational disciplines in teaching and research in business administration — with more emphasis on discipline and an analytic outlook and less emphasis on narrow specialization.

Still, there was a need for a larger study, so in 1956 the Ford Foundation commissioned a review by Robert Aaron Gordon of UC Berkeley and Jim Howell. The result became an articulation of the Foundation’s focus on this area, as well as an analysis of the problems of business schools across America. Gordon and Howell worked with a set of advisors and, on the basis of their research, including many visits to business schools and conversations with businessmen, educators and administrators, authored the study. Published in 1959, it discussed foundational topics such as ‘What are the aims of business education?’ and ‘To what extent is management a profession?’ It concluded that academic standards in American business schools were very low, with a lack of analytical and managerial emphasis and too much emphasis on specialized courses.

To mitigate the problems, Gordon and Howell also had several recommendations for business schools to improve this state of affairs, including focusing on research and scholarly activities to help faculty get up to speed on developments in their fields and the underlying academic disciplines. The Ford Foundation’s efforts and the Gordon-Howell report (along with a parallel effort from 1959, the Pierson Report, which included a chapter by Lee Bach) became a key engine of change in management education, illustrating the way business schools could improve. This included the Stanford business school, which (like many other schools) for many years had suffered from an overly vocational emphasis.

Changing Stanford GSB

Change was already in the air at Stanford under the direction of University President Wallace Sterling and his provost, Frederick Terman, when Howell came on the scene. As part of their general overhaul of the university Sterling and Terman had reviewed the business school and found it wanting. When Howell arrived as part of his fact-finding mission he met President Sterling and found in him a kindred spirit. Sterling appointed Ernest Arbuckle, an executive from W.R. Grace and Company and a Stanford GSB alum, to lead the charge at Stanford GSB, and Arbuckle began implementing a major theme of the Gordon Howell report — that business schools be built on a solid foundation of research.[2] This was a major break from the past for a school that for decades had been under a leadership less appreciative of research.

When Howell first met Sterling in 1957 he had noticed that Stanford was light on research; and Sterling appreciated his honest assessment of the situation. The President offered him a job, with the result that Howell started at Stanford GSB in September 1958. As part of the upgrading and elevation of the school Stanford GSB also subsequently hired Lee Bach (former dean at GSIA and key advisor to the Ford Foundation) as well as several other research-oriented faculty such as Robert Davis, Harold Leavitt and Charles Bonini.

In his new role, Howell served as more than just another faculty member; he worked directly with both Dean Arbuckle and President Sterling himself (and later also with Arjay Miller). Of the unusual arrangement, Howell recently reflected: ‘We really did it together. And the faculty saw the two of us, the President knew it was the two of us.’ Arbuckle appointed a committee to help clarify a long term plan for the school; the plan echoed the Gordon-Howell report in some respects, including noting that business schools had relied too much on cases and too little on science, analysis and research.

The revolution did not happen overnight. One critical step Arbuckle took was to impose controls on hiring, particularly to discourage existing faculty from perpetuating the old mindset and to ensure that new faculty were focused on research. President Sterling was also keenly interested in new hires. As Howell recalls, ‘(Sterling) essentially took the hiring role and said, “I want to make sure that any appointment to the business school over the next four years, or promotion, is going to be vetted by a committee I appoint.” ’

Reflections on Six Decades

All this made for heady times for a newly hired assistant professor. ‘I could stand there and watch and see whether it’s going to happen or not,’ Howell says. ‘And it did because Ernie was very effective about changing things. Once he had a total go, go, go from the President — he went!’ The results were dramatic. Within a few years, the effects of the changes were readily apparent, as Stanford GSB began to draw wide attention. And by the time Dean Arjay Miller succeeded Arbuckle in 1969, Stanford GSB was becoming both nationally and internationally recognized.

Of course, a prominent role in the administration did not preclude Howell from his own teaching and research. Over the years he also authored and co-authored several books, including Bach’s Economic Analysis, Decision Making and Policy (with Lee Bach, Ferdinand Levy, and Robert Flanagan,) which went through eleven editions. Howell also served as director of the Stanford Executive Program. His importance for the school was acknowledged when he became the first recipient of the Robert T. Davis Faculty Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996.

Howell’s own administrative style during this undertaking could inspire varying judgments, senior faculty subsequently recalled.  ‘He had a clear idea. He had excellent intellectual taste,’ noted one. ‘He was very good at separating people who were really smart from people who were “okay” … .’ Another longtime colleague offered a more candid assessment. ‘Jim Howell was absolutely critical to the success of Ernie Arbuckle. I mean, Ernie could not have done it without Jim Howell, period…. But the high standards, the values that Jim had, the toughness – you know, it’s a tremendously hard thing to take a school that’s at one level and take it to the next level. It requires leaving a little broken glass around the way, and Jim never shrank from making hard decisions.’

Perhaps such a spirit is what was called for at the time, the spirit to effect the transformation of Stanford GSB from “good to great” — from a regional business school to an institution of international reputation. That evolution, from its start and continuing for decades thereafter, has brought the school to its present place of global pre-eminence. And that same spirit continued to serve Jim Howell well throughout his long career.

Howell died on March 29, 2019.

— Mie Augier and Paul Reist

[1] Herbert Simon, who along with George Leland Bach and William Cooper founded Carnegie Mellon’s business school, commented: ‘Accurately or not, we perceived American business education at the time as a wasteland of vocationalism that needed to be transformed into science-based professionalism, as medicine and engineering had been transformed a generation or two earlier’ (Simon, 1991, “Models of My Life”, p. 138).

[2] As he noted: ‘As an educational institution, we should be ahead of business institutions in terms of solutions to and improved methods of handling current and future business problems. This job cannot be done without research. In this context I am not speaking of that research which surveys and reports current practices… but of creative research which develops new concepts and new principles.’ (Arbuckle, 1959, “Looking Ahead”, Stanford Alumni Bulletin 28, p. 6).