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John McArthur, Former Dean of Harvard Business School and ‘a Mentor and Advisor…Without Peer,’ Dies at Age 85

Harvard Business School.
Harvard Business School. By Robbie H Edwards
By Ellen M. Burstein, Crimson Staff Writer

When Angela Q. Crispi, the Harvard Business School executive dean for administration, had her first child, then-Business School Dean John H. McArthur arrived at her house with a present: a Polaroid camera.

“I remember him saying that being a parent was so important and every parent wants to take pictures of their child and all he wanted to do was drop that off,” said Crispi.

McArthur’s gift was yet another personal touch in a career defined by close relationships with faculty, students, and administrators. McArthur — who served as dean of the Business School from 1979 to 1995 and engineered the creation of the Partners Healthcare network, which transformed healthcare administration in Boston — died on Aug. 20. He was 85.

Even after retiring from his position at the Business School, McArthur remained active, serving on a number of corporate boards and acting as a patron to the arts. He also served as an adviser to the president of the World Bank.

Current Dean of the Business School Nitin Nohira wrote in an emailed statement that McArthur was a dedicated leader who made significant contributions to the school.

“John’s vision, passion, and unparalleled gift for building consensus transformed the School,” wrote Nohria. “He cared deeply about every member of the HBS community and believed in the School’s ability to transform lives. By encouraging us all to dream big dreams — in effect, spurring our intellectual ambition — he set the School on a remarkable trajectory.”

McArthur, who was born in Vancouver, Canada and grew up in a nearby suburb, received an MBA from the Business School in 1959 and a Doctorate in Business Administration in 1963. He began teaching at the Business School while he was a graduate student and became dean at the age of 46.

As dean, McArthur oversaw the physical transformation of the Business School’s campus, including the construction of three new buildings and 16 renovation projects. During McArthur’s tenure, members of his graduating class donated the Class of 1959 chapel — a fixture of the Business School’s campus. McArthur Hall, a residential hall on campus, was also named after him.

While serving as dean, McArthur became known for sending handwritten notes to faculty, staff, and students, offering praise for academic and professional success and thanks for their hard work.

“He was both incredibly smart, a visionary, but really an incredible leader from the standpoint of being so caring and genuine with people,” Crispi said.

McArthur also played a key role in the creation of the Partners Healthcare system, the physician network that merges Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Mass General Hospital. He served as the founding chairman of Partners before retiring in 1996.

Ron M. Walls, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called McArthur “a mentor and advisor…without peer.”

Walls recalled how McArthur, who formerly served as the chair of the board of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, could find resolutions when other board members struggled with an issue.

“When the time was just right, and John’s sense of persuasive timing was unmatched, he would lean forward in his chair, and in a low, unemotional tone, ask the question. He often began his comments with ‘It seems to me that,’ or ‘What I am hearing is that’ and he would fold this into a question that invariably went right to the heart of the matter,” Walls wrote.

“Invariably, a light bulb would go on for all, or most, in the room, and the issue would move quickly to resolution, without any further commentary or coaching from John,” Walls added.

Crispi said the length of McArthur’s tenure is a testament to the impact that Harvard had on his life as well as the impact that he had on Harvard.

“I’m very mindful with him that he came to Harvard when he was 23 years old, and then he stayed for 60 years,” Crispi said. “The institution shaped him and then he helped to shape it.”

McArthur is survived by his wife, as well as his two daughters, his brother, and his four grandchildren.

A memorial service for McArthur will be held in Memorial Church on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m with a reception at the Business School to follow.

— Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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