James G. March, Professor of Business, Education, and Humanities, Dies at 90

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James G. March, Professor of Business, Education, and Humanities, Dies at 90

A revered yet humble teacher whose research profoundly impacted many disciplines, he found exquisite beauty in both math and poetry.
October 29, 2018
James March held professorships at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education, and School of Humanities and Science. | Courtesy of Stanford GSB

James Gardner March died on September 27 at his Portola Valley home one month after the death of his wife of 71 years. An interdisciplinary scholar, his contributions were both deep and broad.

He is best known for his research on organizations, organizational decision-making, and organizational behavior. A trilogy of works published within a span of seven years led to the opening of an entirely new and broad field of study. His seminal book, Organizations, written jointly with Herbert A. Simon in 1958, and five years later, Behavioral Theory of the Firm with Richard M. Cyert in 1963, and the edited volume, Handbook of Organizations, injected uncertainty and internal resource allocation problems, among other complexities. The book coauthored with Cyert challenged prevailing assumptions that firms exist to maximize profit and have perfect knowledge. His later research focused on understanding risk-taking, decision-making, learning, and leadership, drawing lessons from literature and literary classics.

March held professorships at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education, and School of Humanities and Sciences. He is credited with transforming the fields of political science, economics, management, psychology, sociology, and education.

James G. March, 1928–2018. | Courtesy of Stanford GSB

In addition to his prolific academic writing, he authored 11 books of poetry and two films. Throughout his career, he remained an inspirational teacher, winning Stanford’s Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in teaching in 1995.

“The scope of Jim’s research interests was breathtaking, as was his passion for teaching,” said Jonathan Levin, Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business. “He was determined to break down interdisciplinary walls, insisting that as a condition of accepting the job offer to come to the GSB in 1970 his courses be open to students from any department of the university. As a result, he probably had more students in his classes from outside the GSB than inside.” At Stanford GSB, March was Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Management, Emeritus.

In the School of Humanities and Sciences, he was Professor of Political Science and of Sociology, Emeritus. “Jim March was an amazing scholar focused on understanding how organizations work. He was well known for using Don Quixote and War and Peace in his classes to help students understand the complexity of leadership, the importance of strategic timing, and the nature of motivation,” said Debra Satz, Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Marta Sutton Weeks Professor in Ethics in Society.

Geoffrey Lawrence Cohen, who holds the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford Graduate School of Education, had just visited him a few months ago. “‘Understand Don Quixote’ was the last piece of advice he gave me,” he said. “He was the epitome of a gentleman — patient, sweet, wise, with a sparkling intellect that lit up his eyes when he talked. I feel lucky that our paths crossed, if only for just a little while. Jim had a style and soul that will always stay with me as the perfect example of what we mean by a ‘gentleman and scholar.’ I miss him. Every time I remember Jim, I smile.”

“Jim March was a towering figure in the field of organizations, easily the most influential scholar of the second half of the 20th century,” said Walter W. Powell, “Woody,” Professor of Education at GSE whom March hired to continue his organizations courses. “Yet his extraordinary record of scholarship and teaching was exceeded by his wisdom, warmth, and humanity. Above all, Jim was a marvelous person who welcomed everyone, and his infectious manner always made people laugh and smile.”

An Influential Educator

At Stanford Graduate School of Education where he was professor emeritus, March had a lasting impact on generations of leaders. Joseph Castro, GSE PhD ’98, remembers him as by far the most influential professor of his life. First in his family to go to college, Castro recalls that March guided him through a complex doctoral education process.

“I felt that Jim cared about me as a student, and he wanted me to be successful,” said Castro, the first Californian to serve as president of California State University, Fresno. “I learned through my own research and through conversations with faculty and other students that Jim was one of the most highly respected leadership scholars in the world. Yet, he was always kind to me. He was gentle with his feedback but he set a very high standard for rigor in our work together. When I was appointed president of California State University, Fresno, I was deeply honored to have him on my transition team, and he gave me great advice. He urged me to focus all of my energy on raising the academic stature of my university. That, he said, would be my presidential legacy. These words have been guiding lights for me ever since.”

U.S. Senator Cory Booker calls him a giant in his life. “Professor March was my teacher and advisor, but our many conversations went far beyond what classes to take and academic studies. He was someone who encouraged me to be bold, to be authentic, to be unafraid to take chances even at the risk of scorn or criticism,” said Booker, BA ’91, MA ’92. “His spirit was infectious — his ideas ignited something within me and I continue to benefit from the gifts he gave me. I hope he is looking down at us now and celebrating the great harvest of what he sowed over the years in Stanford students like me.”

In what he describes as one of the best decisions of his academic life, Robert Gibbons, GSB PhD ’85, delayed taking the mandatory doctoral course in organization theory, waiting for March to teach it. “During the 35 years since taking Jim’s course, I have frequently found in my files tattered copies of papers we discussed, often overflowing with margin notes ranging from amazement to indignation. And Jim had an equally important impact on my teaching. I try to teach courses that cross disciplines and model dialogue among them; Jim showed me this, too, in his course and long thereafter.”

An Intellectual and Polymath

Now the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management in MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Professor in MIT’s Department of Economics, Gibbons’ research concerns organizational economics, which sprang from foundations March helped build. In April 2013 he organized a conference hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cyert and March’s Behavioral Theory of the Firm and discuss its many scholarly offshoots. “Jim’s contribution to economists’ understanding of decision-making within organizations is already huge, but I believe his ideas we have not yet borrowed will come to have even greater impact,” observed Gibbons.

“Jim saw scholarship as an activity challenging widely held but possibly erroneous beliefs,” said Johan P. Olsen, March’s long-time friend and collaborator. Together with Michael Cohen in 1972 they developed the oft-cited article Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice about organizational learning and decision-making. “He was fascinated by the emergence and the pursuit of novelty, sometimes produced by ignorance and error. He was an endlessly creative scholar who tried out his ideas in very different empirical settings, and he questioned the theory rather than behavior when the two did not coincide.”

As he did with organizational behavior, management theory, and economics, March contributed to an increased interest in democratic organization and political governance. With Olsen in their 1989 Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics — cited more frequently than the Garbage Can article — and together with New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life in 1984 and Democratic Governance in 1995, these works are usually viewed as starting points for the new institutionalism in political science. “This trilogy combined organization theory and political theory, and brought Jim back to his roots as a political scientist,” said Olsen.

The scope of Jim’s research interests was breathtaking, as was his passion for teaching.
Jonathan Levin

In an October 3 memoriam published in Le Monde Thierry Weil asserts that many believe March should have shared the 1978 Nobel Prize for Economics with Herbert Simon for the theories of limited rationality and organizations they had developed together. Coauthor with March of the book, On Leadership, Weil is a faculty member and former dean of Mines ParisTech.

"Jim March was one of the giants of organization theory,” said David M. Kreps, Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford GSB. “His work with Herbert Simon had enormous influence throughout the social sciences. Among his many virtues were his creativity and his critical openness to ideas from everywhere, including all the social sciences and the humanities. In an age of academic silos, Jim was the quintessential polymath.”

Rooted in the Midwest, Drawn to Scandinavia

“He was a fiercely independent scholar who wouldn’t put his name to anything he didn’t actually write,” said his daughter Kathryn “Kath” March, professor emerita in the Anthropology Department at Cornell University. In cases where he was lead author he would insist on alphabetizing names rather than being listed first. “He was an unassuming craftsman, putting integrity before all else,” she said. He himself said much of his personality derived from Midwest values, which emphasized humility and reticence.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Wisconsin, March earned his BA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and his MA and PhD from Yale University, all in political science.

From 1953 to 1964 he served on the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and joined forces with Herbert Simon, Richard Cyert, Harold Guetzkow, and others to create what was to be known as the Carnegie School. “There was this intellectual groundswell where they revolutionized the prevailing thought about the theory of the firm,” said Mie Augier, a March scholar and collaborator, now associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. “They were bringing together many disciplines, contributing to each of them but also in the process founding a new field of organizational studies.”

Before coming to Stanford in 1970, March was Professor of Psychology and Sociology at University of California, Irvine, and served as inaugural dean of its School of Social Sciences, which he designed as an organizational experiment. His aim was to “make artists out of pedants,” said Olsen.

While at UC Irvine, March was visited by Olsen from Norway, and Olsen’s Danish colleague Søren Christensen. March reciprocated the visit two years later. “We developed a U.S.-Danish-Norwegian circle of scholarship and friendship. And in 1972–1973 I went to Stanford to visit Jim again. Later, Swedes and Finns came along and the Scandinavian Consortium of Organizational Research was founded,” said Olsen. From 1989–1999 March served as founding director of SCANCOR, which today facilitates inquiry in organizational social science among a transnational network of scholars from Stanford and Harvard, and member institutions in Scandinavia and greater Europe.

No wonder that among a long list of honors, awards, and affiliations Scandinavian institutions loomed large in March’s vitae. For example, more than half of the 17 honorary doctorates listed on his Wikipedia page are from a Scandinavian university. He also received the 1995 appointment to Knight First Class in the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, conferred on Norwegian citizens for remarkable accomplishments on behalf of the country and humanity.

“My impression is that Jim sincerely liked the people he met in Scandinavia — their attitudes and way of life, reminding him of his Wisconsin roots,” said Olsen. “I also think he found out that some interesting scholarship was taking place in the Scandinavian countries.”

James G. March standing in a field. Credit: Robert Holmgren
March drew inspiration from Don Quixote and the line "I know who I am" became his personal motto and oft-quoted advice. | Photo by Robert Holmgren

I Know Who I Am

Titles and credentials did not much impress March. “It didn’t matter if you are a student or professor,” said Augier, “what matters is your ideas.” Nothing delighted him more than “the pleasure of the process” of exploring the domain of organizations and decision-making, she said.

However, he had a litmus test for weighing the value of an idea. “He called it a ‘model bias in social action,’” said his daughter, Kath, “asking people to test their ideas against three values.” It had to have truth, reflecting reality as accurately as possible. It had to have beauty, which could mean coming up with a new mathematical equation, an elegant expression in an essay or poem, or a presentation. And it had to be just, especially concerning racial equality and gender bias.

He was the driving force behind Stanford GSB’s Public Management Program, an academic certificate option created in 1971 by former Dean Arjay Miller to prepare MBA students to lead change in government, social action, and public policy. “He worked very hard to bring the PMP to the forefront,” said James C. VanHorne, A.P. Giannini Professor of Banking and Finance, Emeritus. “Without him, it would’ve suffered.”

“He understood that all work was driven by visceral passion — that’s one reason why Don Quixote held such fascination for him,” said Kath. “That kind of commitment to a sense of who you were and ideals that went beyond yourself, even though that might appear as madness to others, it was the only way that ideas could move forward.” The line from Don Quixote, ”I know who I am,” became his personal motto and oft-quoted advice.

March, who had been in hospice since July, was still actively engaged over email with friends and researchers until the end. In the month of March, he and his wife, Jayne, celebrated their 90th birthdays and 71st wedding anniversary.

He leaves behind four children: Kathryn, Gary, James, and Roderic; nine grandchildren — or 19 by his expansive count, which included the children of two exchange student-daughters — and one great-grandson.

In keeping with March and his wife’s adamant wishes there will be no public memorial. Friends and colleagues can honor him by carrying on his work, which would have given him the greatest pleasure, according to his daughter. “Those who want to gather privately can raise a glass of wine together to remember him and his Friday afternoon wine and cheese gatherings at his office,” she said. Or, those who wish to support a cause in his memory may choose to donate to the United Negro College Fund or East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in tribute to March’s enduring values around justice and equality.

Ever humble and modest, March often insisted: “I have never been, nor will I ever become, relevant.”

The world begs to differ.

James G. March

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