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Former MIT President Howard W. Johnson dies at age 87

A ‘loyal friend’ to the Institute, he also chaired the MIT Corporation and guided the school through a turbulent era.
Howard W. Johnson, former MIT president, died on Saturday, Dec. 12.
Howard W. Johnson, former MIT president, died on Saturday, Dec. 12.

Former MIT President Howard Wesley Johnson, who drew upon his management acumen to guide the Institute during the tumultuous late 1960s, died Saturday. He was 87.

Johnson, who also served as chair of the MIT Corporation, became the 12th president of MIT in 1966 after serving seven years as dean of the Sloan School of Management.

“Howard Johnson’s combination of buoyant optimism, extraordinary integrity and deep wisdom enabled him to steer a course well beyond the daily fray. Drawing on these remarkable qualities, he guided MIT through its most turbulent chapter,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield. “He continued to serve the Institute as a loyal friend and advisor all his life, and I was a most fortunate beneficiary. MIT is extraordinarily lucky to have had the benefit of his leadership and his devotion.”

At the Institute’s helm from 1966 until 1971, a tumultuous period for universities around the nation, Johnson gained respect for listening to all sides and for combining progressive views on issues such as Vietnam and the environment with expertise in management. Johnson described those times in his book, Holding the Center: Memoirs of a Life in Higher Education, published in 1999.

“Students have told me, and I agree with them, that they found the institute to be academically vibrant during that time despite the uproar,” he wrote. “Much that was positive emerged from the upheaval, and, as in the aftermath of every revolution, it is important to build upon the good results and minimize the damage. That is what we tried to do at MIT, sometimes with success.”

Kathryn Willmore, former vice president and secretary of the Corporation, described working with Johnson an “extraordinary experience.”

"He was a humanist in the broadest sense of the word, appreciating and fostering the many disciplines that give richness and meaning to an education and to a life," Willmore said. "Calm in the midst of the storm, unfailingly good humored, with a sparkling wit and intelligence, he had a keen sense of what to do in virtually any difficult situation - no matter how big or small. In the midst of the most serious campus confrontations in the late sixties, including the takeover of his office, he refused to act with force, choosing to rely on patience and discussion instead. And it worked."

MIT President Emeritus Paul Gray said, “Johnson’s great contributions could not have been done by his predecessor or his successor. He kept the Institute from flying apart when there was so much concern, so much noisy demonstration and so much division on the point of view of how the Institute should respond to claims it was helping the war effort.”

“It was an enormous contribution that he made, and in my view, it has made all the difference to MIT in the years since because there was no fracture in the faculty or lingering resentment in the way things were handled,” Gray said.

That Johnson knew many members of the faculty was a great help, but it was his ability to be a good listener that made Johnson a true leader, according to Gray.

“He had this touch at just the right moment with a little humor that took the tension out of things,” Gray recalled. “Not everyone had it. I certainly didn’t have it, and that right touch was part of his personality and management style.”

Gray recalled a number of long-lasting changes that were accomplished during Johnson’s administration, including the creation of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and the Independent Activities Period (IAP). The change from full-letter grades to pass-no credit for freshmen was also introduced during his administration.

Johnson oversaw such major initiatives as the opening of several new residence halls (Eastgate in 1967, Random Hall and the east wing of McCormick Hall in 1968 and MacGregor House in 1970). MIT faculty members also received Nobel Prizes in three consecutive years during his tenure: Har Gobind Khorana in 1968, Salvador E. Luria in 1969 and Paul A. Samuelson in 1970.

He said of his presidency upon resigning, “They have been the best years of my life. They have been years of strength for MIT as well.”

He went on to serve as chair of the MIT Corporation from 1971 to 1983 and served on numerous governmental panels and as a trustee or director of such institutions as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Radcliffe College, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was a Corporation Life Member Emeritus since 1997.

"Howard Johnson was a man we all thought was ageless," said MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest. "I frequently sought Howard's counsel, and always found him to be calm, thoughtful and incisive. He was an active participant in MIT Corporation meetings during my presidency. He brought to the Corporation a precise and important 'corporate memory,' yet was very much on top of issues of the day."

Born to a Scandinavian family in Chicago in 1922, Johnson received his BA from Central College in Chicago in 1943 and his MA from the University of Chicago in 1947. He was on the faculty of the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1955, when he came to MIT as associate professor of management and director of the Sloan Fellowship Program. He became professor and dean of the Sloan School of Management in 1959, serving until 1966.

His public service includes membership on the National Commission on Productivity, the National Manpower Advisory Committee, the (U.S.) President's Advisory Committee on Labor-Management Policy, and the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (Weed) Johnson, and three children: Stephen Johnson, of Medford, Mass.; Laura Johnson, of Concord, Mass.; and Bruce Johnson, of Mendocino, Calif. He is also survived by three grandchildren: Luke Johnson Rogers, James Lion Johnson and Oliver Lion Johnson.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Howard W. and Elizabeth W. Johnson Fund at MIT.

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