In talk, former dean recalls MIT Sloan’s building years

June 13, 2012

Dean Emeritus William Pounds, left, speaks with Dean David Schmittlein

Dean Emeritus William Pounds, left, speaks with Dean David Schmittlein

There was a time when MIT Sloan was an upstart, building a leading business school from a few small buildings on the edge of the MIT campus.

Many of the early years were presided over by then-dean William Pounds, who returned to campus last weekend for a discussion about the School’s formative period. The talk with alumni attending Reunion 2012 was led by John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein.

With almost no money, alumni, or reputation, Pounds said, MIT Sloan in the 1960s and 1970s differentiated itself by attracting faculty and students who would find better ways to manage organizations.

“The world is clearly not very well managed,” he said. “I think the best way to contribute to the world is to make organizations more effective.”

Pounds was MIT Sloan’s third dean and its longest serving, holding the office from 1966 to 1980. His leadership of the school marks a sort of golden years when MIT Sloan was a “startup” that, in his telling, ran on slim finances and a reputation for academic rigor and quality.

“You just have to decide where you want to be,” Pounds recalled telling faculty who were offered higher salaries at Harvard, Stanford, and other storied institutions. The implication was that what MIT Sloan could not pay, it made up for with the opportunity to work among a unique group of colleagues.

“That’s all I had to sell,” he told the crowd last week.

Incredibly, it worked for a time, and Pounds kept a group of faculty in pocket that would set the bar in modern finance and other important fields. Nobel laureates Robert Merton—who left and later returned to MIT Sloan—and Myron Scholes, as well as economists Paul MacAvoy and Lester Thurow—later dean of MIT Sloan—conducted groundbreaking research under Pounds’ leadership.

“We were a little band of optimists, I think, trying to see if we could make it go,” he said.

Pounds said he believes MIT Sloan’s small size during his tenure as dean created a collaborative atmosphere among faculty and students that the then-leading business schools lacked. But he did not bemoan MIT Sloan’s rapid growth and program diversification since the 1990s, suggesting that nostalgia is not always complimentary to progress.

“I sound like every startup manager there ever was,” he joked. “I long for the good old days when we knew everyone.”

Though the School has grown—MBA class size has quadrupled since Pounds’ tenure—its mission and people remain as valuable as ever, he said.

“I have always had a very modest estimate of what we know about management,” Pounds said. “It’s an enormously complicated task, and to think that we have in any way figured it out, I think, is a mistake.”

“I have devoted my life not to saving the world myself, but to saving the world through the people I can help,” he said. “I can’t think of a more promising group than the students who are attracted to the Sloan school to make that happen.”