James R. “Jamie” R. Houghton, a former member of the Harvard Corporation who had deep Harvard roots, died at age 86 on Dec. 20. Houghton’s grandfather, father, brothers, and several other relatives attended the University, and the Houghton Library opened in 1942 with a donation from his cousin Arthur ’29.
Former chairman and chief executive of Corning Corp., Houghton ’58, M.B.A. ’62, served on the University’s highest governing board from 1995 through 2010 and helped oversee the transition from President Lawrence H. Summers, who resigned in 2006, to Derek Bok’s interim presidency through mid-2007. As senior fellow of the Corporation, he chaired the search committee that selected Drew Faust as Harvard president in 2007.
Houghton himself described his time with the Corporation as a “wonderful, wonderful experience” and an “enormous honor.” Others say his tenure represented a legacy of selfless and consequential service and commitment to his alma mater.
When Houghton stepped down in 2010, then-president Faust commended him for his service.
“Throughout his tenure on the Corporation,” she said, Houghton “dedicated his time and care to helping knit the parts of the University more closely together and to helping realize the promise of collaborative ventures from the sciences to the arts and across the professions.”
Former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine (1991-2001) recalled Houghton’s warmth, sunny disposition, and leadership style.
“Jamie always took a very constructive point of view,” said Rudenstine during a recent phone conversation. “He was always ready to discuss any matters that came up. He was never shy, and he was always looking for ways to solve a problem rather than to raise a problem. We all liked him and admired him greatly.”
Nannerl O. Keohane, LL.D. ’93, who served on the Corporation from 2005 to 2016, shared the sentiment. The former president of Wellesley College and Duke University remembered Houghton’s thoughtfulness, sense of humor, and down-to-earth approach. When Faust broached the idea of expanding the size of the Corporation to make it a more effective governing body, Houghton reacted with skepticism, recalled Keohane in an email. “He knew that this suggestion had been made before and gone nowhere,” she wrote. “But when it became clear that Drew and several others were very serious about pursuing this, Jamie gave full support and strong leadership to the effort.”
In 2010, the Corporation approved several reforms, including the expansion of its members from seven to 13, and the introduction of six-year term limits for members. “He cared deeply about Harvard and made sure that the best interests of the University were always at the top of our priority list,” said Keohane.
Ron Daniel, M.B.A. ’54, LL.D. ’05, director and former managing partner of McKinsey & Company and former treasurer of the University (1989-2004), recalled Houghton as a very enthusiastic and optimistic man who “made things happen.”
“He got things done,” said Daniel in a telephone interview. “I think that was true on the Corporation and in his business activity as well.”
A history concentrator, Houghton lived at Lowell House and was a goalie for the junior varsity hockey team. During his undergraduate years, Houghton said he had “the best time in the world.” Every time he visited campus, he made sure he looked up into Thayer North, where he lived as a freshman, because he would experience a “great feeling of joy.” He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 2011.
Born and raised in Corning, N.Y., Houghton spent his professional career at Corning Inc., a leading maker of specialty glass and ceramics founded by his great-grandfather in 1851. His first job was as a shift foreman in Danville, Kentucky. He joined Corning Inc. in 1962 and spent 16 years as its CEO and 41 years on its board of directors, including 19 as chairman. He retired as chairman of the board emeritus in 2010.
Houghton served on the corporate boards of MetLife Inc., CBS, Exxon Mobil Corp., and JP Morgan, and on those of nonprofits such as the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Corning Museum of Glass. A lover of the arts, he was also a chairman of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Houghton is survived by his wife of 60 years, Maisie (Kinnicutt) Houghton; his son, James DeKay Houghton; his daughter-in-law, Connie Coburn; daughter, Nina Bayard Houghton; and four grandchildren: Isabelle and Abigail Houghton and Finn and Augusta George.
In an interview with the Gazette, Houghton reflected on his 50-year association with the University and how his Harvard education helped him build a successful life and career. He shared a piece of advice with graduating seniors. “Don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t commit yourself to any set career before you’re ready,” he said. “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.”