Jay Light, former dean of Harvard Business School, dies at 81

By staying, rather than leaving, Dr. Light began a career that saw him become the ninth dean of Harvard Business School – a leader credited with having a consistent influence during the 2008 economic crisis that rocked finances of universities around the world. country.

He was 81 when he died of leukemia on October 15 at his home in South Dartmouth.

Joining the faculty in 1970, after earning a doctorate from a joint business school and Harvard University program, Dr. Light was immediately popular with students and was the first faculty member to receive the Excellence in Teaching Award for his work in the Master of Business Administration program.

“Jay was a natural teacher,” Angela Crispi, executive dean for administration, and Srikant Datar, dean of Harvard Business School, wrote in a message to the school community announcing Dr. Light’s passing.

Dr. Light “was a wonderful colleague, caring mentor, and beloved friend to many generations of faculty, staff, students, and alumni,” they added. “He wasn’t intimidated by what seemed difficult. He wasn’t afraid to say no. He relished a good laugh and a good story.

He was also considered an accomplished Harvard insider when then-president Lawrence H. Summers appointed him acting dean in 2005. Dr. Light was previously senior associate dean for planning and development, and no was originally not to be a candidate for the permanent post at Harvard. Post of dean of business school.

“Every dean has his or her portrait painted,” said Dr. Light’s wife, Judy. “He said he thought his was going to say, ‘2005-2005.’ “

Within months of becoming acting dean, Dr. Light successfully completed a fundraising campaign that raised approximately $600 million to fund student financial aid, faculty recruitment, technology initiatives, new global research centers and construction projects on the school campus.

These projects would provide students with “what will be a much better and more functional campus,” he told the Globe in early 2006, shortly before officially becoming dean.

During his tenure, Dr. Light “advanced the school’s global engagement, opening a new research center in India and launching the ambitious Harvard Center Shanghai,” Datar and Crispi said in their statement. .

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, they said, Dr. Light “acted quickly to manage expenses and generate additional income for the school, strengthening the financial structure of not only Harvard Business School but Harvard University”.

Then, in December 2009, saying the school was “safely on the other side of this great recession”, Dr. Light announced he would be stepping down the following June.

“His wisdom and advice meant so much more than me,” Harvard President Drew Faust told reporters that day. “His financial wisdom has been important to all of us. My feeling is one of deep gratitude and sadness at the end of his mandate.

Jay Owen Light was born on October 3, 1941, in Lorain, Ohio, where he grew up the second child and only son of Marian Leisey Light and James Light. Dr. Light’s mother was a high school teacher and his father supervised a steel mill.

“His family lived right on Lake Erie in a little house,” Judy said.

Throughout his life, she says, he pursued a passion that began in his youth: “He grew up sailing Lake Erie every day.

Dr. Light also remained close with friends from high school and college, she said, including a friend from her teenage years who visited her a few weeks before her death.

“I think everyone who met him really loved him,” she said.

After graduating from Lorain High School, he went to Cornell University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1963, after studying engineering physics in a five-year program.

“It was the Sputnik generation and everyone was thinking about science,” she said of the time the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit. “He had really hoped to be an astronaut.”

Instead, he kept his feet on the ground and traveled to California to work as an analyst at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, studying space missions.

He felt he needed a management education and applied to Harvard Business School’s MBA program, then was recruited as one of the first students in a fledgling doctoral program jointly run by the school. of Commerce and Harvard College of Arts and Sciences.

In 1970 he obtained a doctorate in decision and control theory.

That year, he met Judith Hodges, then a computer programmer, through his roommate.

“He had an incredible sense of humor,” she said, and it continued throughout his final illness.

“I actually wake up every day smiling, thinking about something he said,” she added. “He was a really fun guy in a very bright way, in a very smart way.”

Dr. Light and his wife split their time between homes in South Dartmouth and Jupiter Island, Florida.

After joining the faculty at Harvard Business School, Dr. Light eventually held positions including director of the Harvard Management Company, which manages the university’s endowment investments. But when asked in the Harvard Gazette interview what he was most proud of during his decades at school, he talked about his years as a teacher.

“I loved my time in class,” he said. “As a faculty member, I created a series of lessons that challenged students to think in new and different ways about important issues.”

Thanks to Harvard, Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co. and one of Mr Light’s former students, said Dr Light “has earned immense respect” as a professor. “He was strong and analytical, but with a big heart and character – a force of nature, but in a subtle way.”

And Dr. Light offered classes to more than just students.

“I treasured our dialogues and learned so much from them,” Summers said of Dr. Light in an email expressing her condolences to Judy Light. “I admired Jay so much and greatly appreciated our friendship.”

Besides his wife, Dr. Light leaves a daughter, Anne of Irvine, California; one son, James of Boulder, Colorado; one sister, Joan of Michigan; and a grandson.

Gatherings to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Light will be announced.

To better understand the complexities of business school, Dr. Light told the Harvard Gazette that as dean, “I found I had to make a constant effort to get out of my office and walk the halls. , inviting students to lunch and getting with faculty and having staff meetings. And ultimately it was great, and I learned a lot.

In a statement through Harvard, Nitin Nohria, a distinguished service professor at the university who succeeded Dr Light as dean, called him a “trusted advisor and sounding board”. His dedication to the school was deep, and in everything he did he was a true servant leader.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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