01 Sep 2006

Light Years Ahead

Jay Light, the School’s ninth Dean, talks about program innovation, faculty development, and the impact of globalization.
by Roger Thompson


Forty years ago, in September 1966, a young mission analyst named Jay Light left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and headed east to Harvard Business School. At JPL, Light used his undergraduate engineering physics training to lead a space-mission analysis team, an experience that convinced him that he needed more management skills. By his own recollection, he was virtually “clueless” about the very special place to which he was heading.

His application to the MBA Program caught the attention of Managerial Economics Professor Howard Raiffa, “who pulled my application aside and asked whether I’d like to get a doctorate instead,” recalls Light. After discussions during a visit to the campus, Light agreed to enter a new doctoral program in decision and control theory, a joint program between HBS and Harvard’s economics and applied mathematics departments. “The underlying logic of much of decision and control theory was similar to the underlying structure of how we at JPL would design trajectories and track and control a spacecraft,” says Light. “So intellectually, though this doctoral program was in a business school, it included some coursework similar to what I had been doing at JPL.”

As his doctoral work progressed, Light became “more and more interested in the Business School side of the joint program.” He found mentors in Raiffa and Finance Professor Eli Shapiro, who encouraged Light’s growing fascination with markets and investment. In addition, he worked half-time with a Boston-based management consulting firm on the strategy problems of several important corporate clients. He soon decided to focus his full attention on HBS. As the first graduate of the joint doctoral program in the winter of 1969–70, he joined the HBS faculty.

Just two years into his HBS career, Light won the 1972 Excellence in Teaching award for his work in the first-year MBA course on Managerial Economics, which, he points out, drew on the faculty’s research in decision theory. In 1973, he joined the Finance area, and began teaching the second-year MBA courses on Investment Management and Capital Markets. Later in the decade, he took a two-year leave of absence to serve as director of investment and financial policies for the Ford Foundation, returning in 1979.

Back at HBS, Light focused his research and course development interests on asset management, risk management for global investment, and negotiation and deal structuring. He also served in a variety of leadership roles: as chair of the Finance unit (1986–88); as senior associate dean, director of Faculty Planning (1988–94); and as senior associate dean responsible for the School’s strategic planning and new initiatives (1998–2005). Light became Acting Dean on August 1, 2005, upon the departure of Kim B. Clark, and Dean on April 24, 2006.

While in graduate school at Harvard, Light met his future wife, Judy; they are the parents of two grown children. For fun, Light takes to the water for sails on the ocean near his Dartmouth, Massachusetts, summer home. “I grew up sailing every day on the Great Lakes, and that experience has stayed with me,” he says.

In his first interview since becoming Dean, Light shared his views about the School and his priorities for the coming years. The following is an edited version of his remarks.

You have deep and long-standing connections to HBS, both as a student and as a faculty member. Were there any surprises once you became Dean?

I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of support I received after the announcement from former students and faculty. People really care deeply about HBS and are committed to its ongoing excellence. The good news is, the School is in great shape.

Looking ahead, what are some of the big issues facing the School?

I think the biggest issue and opportunity is globalization. As business becomes more global, and our students and faculty more international, we need to build on the efforts we’ve launched and seek new ways to prepare students to lead in a globalized world. We’ve made important progress in the classroom. Our research centers in Latin America, Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and, most recently, India have worked with faculty to enrich the global content of the HBS curriculum. In addition, members of the Class of 2008 come from almost seventy countries, bringing a rich diversity of perspectives that has a profound influence on learning. In the future, we need to think about ways to provide more direct international experiences for our students, and for our faculty. One idea might be short study trips that would combine immersion in key regions around the world with individual preparation beforehand and class work or field studies after.

In executive education, we might think about increasing the number of programs we offer overseas. We’ve experimented with regional research symposia, where our faculty take their work back to its roots and test out new ideas with practitioners, and I’d like to see those continue and possibly expand. Last year, we convened a faculty task force to formulate several different approaches as to the many global opportunities before us. I hope we’ll decide between these different approaches during the coming year.

Is faculty development one of the challenges you see for the School?

Faculty development is crucial, but the challenge includes attracting and retaining faculty as well. On the incoming side, the tightening supply of new faculty is a concern, not just for us but also for business schools more broadly. At HBS, we seek out faculty candidates with a strong commitment to teaching and research who also show a deep interest and respect for the practice of business. This is a rare blend of characteristics, and competition for outstanding faculty is growing.

Moreover, an entire generation of faculty who helped shape the School over the last half-century have retired or will soon retire. We’ve launched Baker Foundation professorships to keep great senior faculty engaged in the work of the School for as long as possible. We also must ensure that the next generation is prepared to follow in their footsteps. We are approaching this on two levels.

First, we are recruiting from a wide variety of disciplines and providing the resources new faculty need to thrive in terms of both teaching and research. The Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning has been particularly helpful on this front. It enables new faculty who may not be familiar with case-method teaching to hone their classroom skills and to learn from the expert teachers the School has cultivated over the years.

Second, we have invested heavily in research support. In addition to the research centers I mentioned earlier, we’ve established the Computer Lab for Experimental Research, for example, and the Faculty Research Computing Center. These resources, and others like them, enable faculty to pursue ambitious, multiyear, and often cross-disciplinary research projects.

Long term, I hope we can evaluate how our doctoral programs might be leveraged better to address these challenges.

Stanford and Yale business schools recently announced major changes in their MBA curricula. Do you foresee any changes here at HBS?

We are always evaluating the MBA curriculum and looking for ways to innovate. In recent years, for example, we’ve launched three new courses — Finance II, The Entrepreneurial Manager, and Leadership and Corporate Accountability — in the required MBA curriculum, as well as a new prematriculation module on information technology. And in the elective curriculum, there’s a steady stream both of new courses and of new materials. We’ve built a significant degree of flexibility into our curriculum and thus see less of a need for large-scale change.

We’ve looked carefully at what we do outside, or alongside, the curriculum as well. Last year we launched learning teams for first-year students. These are diverse groups of roughly seven who work together on projects throughout the year. Writing is an important component of what they do, in addition to developing the skills necessary for effective teamwork.

Our goal is to ensure that our graduates are well-versed in the principles of general management and prepared to lead organizations. We are committed to offering programs — and this goes for our doctoral and executive education programs as well — that are engaging, challenging, and relevant to the real world.

What other priorities do you have in mind?

There is tremendous opportunity and need in the area of health care. We launched a five-year MD/MBA joint-degree program with Harvard Medical School a year ago, and it now has seventeen really outstanding students. We also have launched the Healthcare Initiative that will draw on the work of our faculty and alumni leaders in the field to create innovative solutions to health-care problems. In addition, the University plans to break ground next year on a 500,000-square-foot interdisciplinary life-sciences research center on Western Avenue across from the HBS campus, and several of the Harvard professional schools are scheduled to move next to us within several years. This will eventually position us at the heart of the University’s growing commitment to the life sciences, and advance our goal of establishing HBS as the leading business school in the health-care sector.

I also would like to find new ways of interacting with our colleagues throughout the University. There’s more than you might imagine going on already, from informal collaborations on research, to teaching undergraduates, to longer-term projects and programs. I believe there’s additional work we might do that would benefit all the schools and faculties involved.

HBS spends nearly $80 million a year on research. How do you view the impact of that investment?

It’s huge. We think generating ideas is where the whole process starts. It’s all about intellectual capital. And those ideas are what become the foundation of the cases used in the classroom, plus in articles and books. We use that intellectual capital in teaching here, and we also market cases to other schools around the globe and thus seek to influence the way management education is delivered worldwide. So we have a strong commitment to ideas as the place where the educational experience begins. That’s why we make the investment we do. It certainly is far more than any other business school.

While Harvard University searches for a new President, what is the status of planning for the future Allston campus?

I think the vision of the future Allston campus is pretty broadly shared in the University community, and there is considerable momentum to carry the process forward. Harvard is unique among the nation’s urban universities in its ability to contemplate a development of this magnitude. I hope and trust Allston will stay on everybody’s priority list.

What will be the impact on HBS?

It’s a definite plus for the School. We’ll go from being on the periphery of the Harvard campus to being at its very center. While it will be many years, indeed decades, before the full vision is realized, we only stand to benefit from the interactions and activities the move will bring.

What’s your view on business school rankings?

The difficulty with the rankings is they don’t reflect any of the interesting and complex distinctions among business schools or among the men and women who apply to them; they assume that all schools and all applicants are basically the same. In fact, business schools are quite different from each other, and Harvard probably is even more different than others. So at one level, rankings are no more than an effort to boost magazine and newspaper sales, with little foundation in what’s really important to know about a school.

What do you do in your spare time, if you have any?

Sailing is an early passion that I continue to enjoy. When I have the opportunity to read, in addition to investment management information, I’m a fan of history and especially biography.


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