Campus & Community

The ‘ideal candidate’ who didn’t get away

Friends, colleagues share fond memories of D. Ronald Daniel, former Harvard treasurer, McKinsey managing partner

6 min read
Ron Daniel.

D. Ronald Daniel in 2005.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Knowledgeable and trusted advisers assured Harvard President Derek Bok that D. Ronald Daniel would make an “ideal candidate” for Harvard treasurer. But there was one catch. They all added “that there was no chance of attracting him since he was far too busy to serve,” Bok said, given Daniel’s career at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which he led as managing partner from 1976 to 1988.

When Daniel, M.B.A.’54, stepped aside from that position, he became managing director emeritus. After Bok’s offer, Daniel joined the Corporation in 1989. He would oversee the growth of the University’s endowment from $4 billion to $22 billion during his 15-year tenure.

“We were thrilled … when he immediately accepted our offer. He lived up fully to our high expectations. During his tenure, Harvard’s endowment grew remarkably, the University’s budgets were kept in balance, and in all respects, he proved to be a conscientious member of the Harvard Corporation and a most congenial colleague for us all,” recalled Bok, who led Harvard from 1971 to 1991.

Friends and colleagues recently shared memories of Daniel, who died at his home in New York City on Dec. 16 at age 93. They described him as an accomplished man of principle and a source of wise counsel, with a ready smile, a deep interest in ideas, and a commitment to the University’s mission of producing knowledge.

As member of the Corporation, Daniel served on the presidential search committees for Neil Rudenstine (1991-2001) and Lawrence Summers (2001-2006). Rudenstine got to know Daniel very well during the decade he led the University. Daniel was “exceptionally discerning about all Harvard matters,” and a “constant source of exceptional advice,” said Rudenstine in an email.

“Ron was also of course an extraordinary leader of Harvard finances during a time of immense growth,” he said. “He and Jack Meyer [who was the CEO of the Harvard Management Corporation between 1990 and 2005] were an indomitable pair, and Jack’s great loss in the early 2000s led to considerable difficulty for a while thereafter. Without Ron, Harvard would not have prospered in many ways during the 1990s.”

Rudenstine praised Daniel’s commitment to the University. “Corporation members like Ron are rare indeed. He and Bob Stone, Charlie Slichter [former members of the Corporation], and others dedicated countless hours to Harvard, and although the Corporation met for the better part of a day nearly every other Monday, they never failed to attend a meeting. It was a marvelously informed and committed group,” he said. “We will miss Ron greatly, for all that he did but even more for all that he was.”

A 1952 graduate of Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Daniel completed his M.B.A. at Harvard Business School two years later. In 1957, after serving in the U.S. Navy, he joined McKinsey, where he had a successful career that spanned 60 years.

In addition to his role as Harvard treasurer, Daniel served on both the Board of Overseers and the Corporation, the University’s two highest governing bodies. He was also chair of the Harvard Management Company, which handles the University endowment, now valued at $ 50.7 billion, the largest such fund in the world.

Corporation members praised Daniel’s business expertise and his easy demeanor.

“Ron should be remembered as an exemplary trustee who understood the University in all its parts and cared deeply for its work of liberal learning, professional excellence, and the discovery of knowledge.”

Hanna Holborn Gray

“Ron’s manner was gracious and his smile, ready,” said Conrad Harper, J.D. ’65, who served on the Corporation from 2000 to 2005 and was its first African American member. “He read widely and was deeply interested in ideas. He brought to our deliberations the careful judgment of a lifetime spent in advising major institutions and their leaders. As treasurer, he was instrumental in keeping the University’s endowment pre-eminent among American universities.”

Hanna Holborn Gray, Ph.D. ’57, president emerita and Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of History at the University of Chicago, served with Daniel on the Corporation and the Board of Overseers. She described him as a kind and generous man with great analytical skills and a powerful commitment to the University.

“Ron should be remembered as an exemplary trustee who understood the University in all its parts and cared deeply for its work of liberal learning, professional excellence, and the discovery of knowledge,” said Gray in an email. “He understood people well and encouraged those of promise to develop their strengths, generous in his help and in acknowledging their achievements. He was a man of principle who knew and dealt comfortably with the ways of the world.”

Daniel described his time with the Corporation as being among the most fascinating and fulfilling experiences of his life. “It has truly been a privilege to serve this great University, which continues to excel because people throughout the community never stop thinking about how it can be better,” he said when he announced he was stepping down in 2004. “I’m grateful to have been part of the enterprise. I’m proud to be associated with its superb faculty, students, and staff, and I’ve enjoyed working with such remarkable colleagues on issues that matter to Harvard and to higher education.”

In thanking Daniel for his service to the University, officials commended him for his invaluable contributions as “a cornerstone of the Corporation,” “a leader in overseeing the University’s investments and finances,” and “as someone whose judgment, experience, and organizational savvy have greatly helped Harvard to thrive.”

When Daniel received the Harvard Business School’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2004, he offered a piece of advice that served him well in his career. “No matter what job you take when you graduate, your first months and first couple of years will mark you,” he said. “You’ll be creating a reputation for yourself. If you build a good one, your professional opportunities will expand.”

Daniel is survived by his wife, Lise Scott, his sons David, Peter, and Stephen, his stepson, David Scott, 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.