Campus & Community

HBS lecturer, environmentalist, Sawhill, dies at 63

4 min read

John C. Sawhill, a senior lecturer at the Business School (HBS) and, during his distinguished career, a government official and leader of several major nonprofit institutions, including New York University (NYU), died of complications from diabetes on May 18 at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. He was 63. At the time of his death, Sawhill was also president and chief executive officer of The Nature Conservancy, which he joined in January 1990. Under Sawhill’s guidance, that organization became the world’s largest private conservation group and the nation’s 14th largest nonprofit organization.

A member of the HBS faculty since September 1997, Sawhill taught and conducted research on the nonprofit sector as part of the School’s Initiative on Social Enterprise. During the winter, he offered a new seminar he had developed for MBA candidates. Titled Effective Leadership of Social Enterprises, it was designed to prepare students for leadership roles in nonprofit management and included class visits by the heads of a number of prominent nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society, Teach for America, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. “I wanted to expose students to leaders who have been effective at strengthening nonprofit management,” Sawhill said. “I also wanted them to get a sense of the excitement, fulfillment, and real social purpose that people working in these institutions experience.”

“John Sawhill was a person of remarkable wisdom, experience, vision, and compassion,” said Dean Kim B. Clark. “He has been taken from us much too soon, but his life was filled with accomplishments that protected the environment and improved the lives of all of us. He has left an important legacy at Harvard Business School and far beyond that will be remembered and appreciated by generations to come.”

James E. Austin, John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration and Chair of the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise, commented, “John Sawhill’s extraordinary career in business, government, academia, and nonprofits made him a role model for our students. He was a gifted teacher and his knowledge enriched us all. His selfless dedication and intellectual contributions to the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise were invaluable. We were most fortunate to have had him as a colleague and friend.”

During Sawhill’s tenure at The Nature Conservancy, that organization protected more than 7 million acres of land in the United States alone. In 1995, it completed the largest fundraising campaign in conservation history, collecting a total of $315 million. In March Sawhill announced the launch of the Campaign for Conservation, with a goal of raising $1 billion.

From 1975 to 1979, Sawhill served as president of New York University, where he was also professor of economics. Leading a $150 million capital campaign at a trying time in NYU’s history, he received widespread acclaim for bringing about an academic and financial turnaround in the country’s largest private university.

Sawhill also held high positions in the federal government, including, under former President Carter, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy.

From 1981 to 1990, Sawhill was a director of the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Company Inc., heading its energy consulting practice.

Sawhill was the author or co-author of numerous publications about energy and energy-related subjects, including the 1986 book Energy Conservation: Successes and Failures (The Brookings Institution) and a series of Harvard Business Review articles on the restructuring of the electric utility industry.

Born in Cleveland on June 12, 1936, John Crittenden Sawhill graduated cum laude from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1958 and earned a Ph.D. in economics from NYU in 1963. From 1960 to 1963, he was assistant dean and assistant professor of economics at NYU. He held honorary degrees from several institutions, including New York University, Syracuse University, and Wesleyan University.

Sawhill is survived by his wife, Isabel V. Sawhill, of Washington, D.C., and Virginia; a son, James W., of San Francisco; a brother, James M., of Newport News, Va.; two sisters, Sally Supplee of Palo Alto, Calif., and Munroe Hodder of London; and a grandson.

A memorial service was held on May 24 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Sawhill’s memory to The Nature Conservancy, c/o the President’s Office, 4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203.