Campus & Community

James Houghton: ‘I had the best time in the world’

9 min read

Departing Corporation senior fellow shares half a century of Harvard memories

James R. Houghton, the Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, member of the College Class of 1958 and of Harvard Business School’s Class of 1962, will step down in June after 15 years on Harvard’s executive governing board. The Gazette chatted with Houghton to gain his perspective on more than a half century’s association with Harvard:

Q I’m sure you have plenty of interesting stories. Why don’t we start at the beginning?

A. First of all, I come from a Harvard family. My grandfather went here, my father went here, my brothers went here, my wife went to Radcliffe. Other relatives, too.  My daughter got into Harvard but chose to go to Stanford. We’ve never forgiven her.

Q. How has the University changed since you first arrived in 1954?

A. It’s just gotten much bigger, more complex, more engaged with the world. Obviously, the Yard is pretty much the same. But there wasn’t a Kennedy School then, or the Science Center, or Holyoke. I think our budget, when I first went on the Corporation [in 1995], was a little over $1 billion. And it’s now almost $4 billion.  It’s just a different place. But at the same time, I look around here, and I feel very comfortable that parts of the University look and feel exactly the same as they did then.  The great thing about this place is that it’s constantly reinventing itself, there’s always something new.  But there’s also always something reassuringly familiar, and there’s the same commitment to what really matters: excellent education and research.

Q. Do you have a favorite memory of your undergraduate times?

A. Every time I come to the campus, I look up into Thayer North, where I was for my freshman year, and I get a great feeling of joy. That was really fun and a great year.  I went from there to Lowell House for the next three years — another happy experience because it was so central. I had the best time in the world as an undergraduate. I went to the Business School too, but my focus after graduation has generally been on the college and on the undergraduate side.

Q. Did you participate in sports here as a student?

A: I rowed on the freshman crew. Let me qualify that — I rowed on a freshman crew.  The problem with me was that I was too heavy for the lights, and too light for the heavies, so I never was a particularly good oarsman.  I also played JV hockey here.  I was a goalie.

Q. Have things turned out as you expected when you graduated in 1958?

A. Well, when I got out in ’58 I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. I went on to the Harvard Business School. I worked briefly in the investment banking industry, and debated whether I should stay in financial services or go to Corning, which is really my home base, given our family’s long association with the company.  I finally decided that the best thing to do was to go to Corning, which I did. I was there from 1962 until this last year.

When I was here, I was the treasurer of our class.  Over time I participated in several committees, including one on Asia, which I chaired for a while. And I actually ran for the Overseers and lost. And then when they asked me to go on the Corporation, the timing was very good because I was about to step down as the chairman at Corning in the next year.

Q. If you were able to go back in time, what would your 21-year-old self say about you now? Would you be surprised at how things turned out?

A. [I’d be] surprised. I couldn’t have imagined the idea of being on the Corporation, or anything like that, when I was 21.

Q. What trends or priorities do you see for the University going forward? Do you see Harvard getting much larger?

A. I think Harvard will get bigger, selectively (especially with its international focus), but I don’t see us branching out and adding many more new schools. I think we have a very good balance.

One of the things that President Faust is trying to do is help strengthen the Schools individually, but also build on the “one University” concept. Her emphasis on “one University” and crossing disciplines, the emphasis on innovative science, the emphasis on making the arts more central, and the developments on the international side, I think these are all very healthy. The recent focus on global health is a fine example of how some of these come together. So there are some very interesting initiatives, to say nothing of what Drew has done to make our financial aid program so strong.

Q. Is it mandatory today that Harvard become a more international institution?

A. Oh, I think so. It’s more important than ever for us to attract really talented international students here.  At the same time, it’s good we’re taking David Rockefeller’s advice and financial help to see how many people we can send abroad as part of their experience here. But I also feel that Harvard should not aspire to be twice as big as it is. We’re doing just fine, and, incrementally, we should be more international, but not at the expense of quality.

Q. What is your assessment of the last couple of years and Harvard’s financial struggles?

A. We’ve been working our way through a challenging time, but most everybody else has too Many of our peers had similar results. But if you look back over the last five, 10, 20 years, Harvard’s investments have outperformed the averages by a lot. So we’ve done very well over time, and we’ll keep working our way through the downturn.

Q. How well is Harvard positioned for the future?

A. Very well. I think Drew and her team have their eyes on the right opportunities and the right challenges. We are getting the best students. I expect we will continue to get the best faculty. I think we have a superb president. I think we’re in very good shape for the years ahead.

Q. How would you describe the Corporation’s role?

A. I look upon it as being very much like a normal board of directors, not running the place but [providing] oversight, setting the right strategy, making sure that the place is financially healthy, being a sounding board for the president.

Q. How has the experience been of serving on the Corporation?

A. It’s been fascinating. I think if you had a clean sheet of paper, you probably wouldn’t start with the governing structures that we have today. This goes back, however, to 1650, and any significant changes we might make need to be carefully considered.  We’re doing a review of the Corporation and the governance of the University to see what we should or might change.

I think we will make some changes. One area we have our eye on, for example, is how the Fellows connect with the rest of the community.  We should get out and around more, be more visible, talk to more people in the different Schools.  It’s a big, complicated, constantly changing place, and there’s always a lot to learn.

Q. So that’s something you’d like to see changed?

A. It’s certainly one of the areas where we’re talking about how we can do more.  Another example involves the Overseers.   When I first went on the Corporation, we had very little contact with the Overseers. And one of the things I’ve tried to push is much more interaction between the two boards. Now we tend to meet every time the Overseers come to town. Several of us go to the Overseers plenary sessions.  We have a number of joint committees.  We meet from time to time with the Overseers executive committee.   And we’re doing more and more with them, which is wonderful. You’ve got 30 people on the Overseers who are highly talented and love Harvard. We’re trying to figure out how to best work together in the future.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. The person who worries the most about that is my wife, because she’s terrified I’m going to be around. I’m trying to reassure her that I will find things to do. We have an apartment in Boston. I think I’ll spend quite a bit of time here still. So I’m not worried about what I will do. There are lots of fascinating opportunities.

Q. Is there anything else you want to add?

A. Let me just say it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience serving on the Corporation, and an enormous honor. I think the Corporation has contributed a lot to this University. I think it will continue to do so. You have a wonderful new senior fellow in Bob Reischauer. He’s first-rate. And I’m going to stay in touch. I’m going to be just across the river in our apartment some of the time. So I will definitely not let Harvard out of my mind, and I stand ready to help if needed.

Q. Is there a message in your experiences to graduating seniors this year?

A. Well, my message to graduating seniors is, “Don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t commit yourself to any set career before you’re ready.” I think the wonderful thing about a liberal arts education is it should be just that. And it should allow people to have all sorts of doubts and try different tracks, because they’ll sort it out eventually.

I always despair of the high school senior who knows exactly what they’re going to be doing 30 years from now. I just think that’s too bad. The great thing about Harvard is you can try all these different things before you have to set a definitive course in your life.