24 May 2017
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John H. McArthur, MBA 1959, DBA 1963

2017 Alumni Achievement Award Recipient
by Susan Young

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Dean Emeritus, Harvard Business School

John McArthur’s informal manner charms, disarms, and deflects—and very often, quietly advances a visionary agenda. His unassuming demeanor might cause the casual observer to mistake the former Dean of Harvard Business School for a “regular guy,” rather than a legendary leader who has spent 60 years shaping HBS, Harvard, Boston, and society at large.

McArthur arrived at HBS in 1957, newly married to his eighth-grade sweetheart, Natty. The pair grew up in Burnaby, British Columbia, where the proprietor of a local forest products company spotted McArthur’s potential and helped fund his college education. Upon earning his MBA, McArthur entered the DBA program and soon joined the faculty. He then studied government-directed industrial planning in Europe, sparking a lifelong interest in large-scale planning across multiple sectors. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the McArthurs raised their two daughters, John taught corporate finance and gained the respect of colleagues as he took on administrative roles.

In 1979, McArthur wrote Harvard President Derek Bok a letter outlining an ambitious vision for the School—one that hinged on rebuilding the faculty, high-quality research, and a welcoming academic community. Impressed, Bok asked McArthur to lead the School. In January 1980, the new Dean took office and over the next 15 years he successfully implemented his ideas.

When McArthur became Dean, the School was on tenuous financial footing, relying heavily on the MBA Program for revenue. He grew the publishing division and executive education offerings, both of which reinforced the School’s intellectual capital and shored up its financial foundation. One of his more tangible legacies is a transformed HBS physical plant. McArthur oversaw renovations of much of the campus, including the Dean’s House, Morgan Hall, Baker Library, and several dorms, and built the Chapel and Shad Hall. By barring traffic and planting hundreds of flowers, shrubs, and trees, he realized his vision of a welcoming and people-centric campus.

A central focus of McArthur’s tenure was building the faculty. He made bets on scholars and practitioners who ultimately defined their fields and strengthened both the academic agenda and administrative core of the School. He also created a climate of mutual respect among all HBS employees. “This place is a reflection of the people who work here,” says the former Dean, whose many friends include landscapers, politicians, Nobel laureates, and cops. “John does whatever he can to eliminate any differences in status,” notes Professor Emeritus Howard Stevenson, whom McArthur recruited to develop the School’s entrepreneurship program.

“You simply cannot survive as Dean unless you keep the faculty engaged in something that is interesting and important.”
“You simply cannot survive as Dean unless you keep the faculty engaged in something that is interesting and important.”

McArthur’s influence outside of HBS is also significant, focusing on large-scale institutional reorganization. In the 1970s he served as a Trustee in Bankruptcy of the Penn Central Transportation Company, an enormously complex legal and administrative effort. In Canada, he served as a founding director of the Canada Development Investment Corporation. Locally, he helped engineer the merger of Brigham and Women’s (BWH) and Mass General Hospitals. “John is the father of Partners HealthCare,” says cardiologist Eugene Braunwald, a renowned health care leader who was part of the BWH team. That merger serves as a model for others throughout the country. McArthur’s vision has also benefited HCA Healthcare, Duke University Medical Center, and GlaxoSmithKline.

At HBS, across Harvard, and throughout Canada and Europe, awards, buildings, scholarships, a professorship, and even a hockey tournament bear McArthur’s name. In 2013, he received the Order of Canada, a prestigious civilian honor, and last year he accepted the Harvard Medal.

Now 83 and retired, McArthur travels regularly to Turkey as a member of the Koç Holdings Board. He spends several days a week at HBS, using a simple guideline to determine how to spend his time: “Who can I help the most?” In that way, he continues to shape our world and quietly impress others. Perhaps Joe O’Donnell (MBA 1971)—who worked for McArthur at HBS before founding Boston Concessions—puts it best: “John is an incredibly impressive person who has never been interested in impressing people.”

Photo by Susan Young

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1959, Section C

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