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Dana Mead PhD ’67, former chair of the MIT Corporation, dies at 82

Accomplished leader in military, private sector, and academia helped advance MIT’s interests on many fronts.
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Dana G. Mead, 1967
Dana G. Mead, 1967
Image: Courtesy of the MIT Corporation

Dana G. Mead PhD ’67, a prominent business leader, military officer, former White House official, and professor who served as chair of the MIT Corporation from 2003 until 2010, died on Oct. 31 in Boston.

Mead was a forward-looking leader at MIT who helped oversee a period of significant advancement, as the Institute expanded its research interests and took landmark steps to diversify the campus community, while remaining at the leading edge of engineering, science, and innovation.

During Mead’s tenure as the Corporation’s ninth chair, MIT broadened its research portfolio to include increased investment in the life sciences, and launched new centers such as the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). The Institute also grew its international research programs and global engagement, and, under Mead’s supervision, hired its first female president, Susan Hockfield, who was also the first life scientist to hold the position. 

"When Dana Mead chaired the MIT Corporation, I was provost, so I had the immense privilege of learning from his wonderful leadership style and observing his intense commitment to sustaining MIT’s excellence, especially through bringing fresh perspectives to the Visiting Committees,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “He understood as well as anyone that the Institute is a system — and that the quality of our Visiting Committees drives the quality of the whole enterprise. MIT continues to reap the benefits of his insight and thoughtful service.”

Hockfield also recalls Mead’s impact at the Institute: “I had the very great fortune to have Dana Mead at my side, as chair of the MIT Corporation, when I embarked on my service as MIT’s president,” she says. “Dana advised and encouraged me, generously sharing the prodigious wisdom he had gained over the course of a lifetime of service and leadership. He quickly became my trusted advisor. Dana deftly but unambiguously established lines of governance, strengthening the roles of both the Corporation and Institute leadership, to MIT’s great benefit.”

Additionally, Hockfield says, Mead’s personal qualities were an integral part of his leadership style.

“But even while Dana instructed us, he also amused us,” Hockfield says. “When a discussion had gone on too long, he often observed, ‘Everything has been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.’ With his wisdom and warmth, and his discipline and depth of curiosity, Dana Mead devotedly served MIT.”

As one product of Mead’s focus on diversity, the number of women serving as Corporation members grew by around 50 percent during his tenure, while representation by foreign members also increased by nearly 50 percent.

In 2009, Mead announced he would step aside as chairperson, in keeping with the Corporation’s by-laws, which require that members do not serve past age 75.

“I will miss working in this very vibrant and dynamic environment — the students, faculty, administrators, alumni and the like,” he said at the time. Mead then became a Corporation life member, emeritus.

Dana George Mead was born in Cresco, Iowa. His long and diverse career in leadership roles included phases in the military, government, private sector, and academia. Mead graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1957 with a BS in engineering, and then served as an Army officer in many roles for over two decades, including assignments as a troop leader in Germany, and a combatant and strategist in Vietnam.

In 1967, Mead completed his PhD studies in MIT’s Department of Political Science, having been selected for a fellowship as an officer. His dissertation, “United States peacetime strategic planning, 1920-1941: the color plans to the victory program,” examined the ways the U.S. military planned for the “next war” in the years following World War I, until the start of World War II.

After completing his academic work, Mead transitioned to government positions, including a fellowship in the White House Fellows program. He wrote military reports, and later served as the White House’s deputy director of the Domestic Council during the Nixon administration. He left Washington in 1974 to take a professorship back at the United States Military Academy.

“Other than his wife of 60 years, Nancy, and his family, our dad was most passionate about his varied and longstanding relationships with three great American institutions; MIT, West Point, and the White House Fellows Program,” says Dana Mead Jr., one of Mead’s sons.

Mead then moved into the private sector, forging a highly successful career in industrial management. Notably, for most of the 1990s, he was chair and CEO of Tenneco Inc., the conglomerate with businesses in oil and gas transmission, shipbuilding, auto parts, packaging, chemicals, and more. Mead oversaw the expansion of Tenneco’s operations across the globe and a concurrent rise in productivity and profitability at the company.

Mead recounted and analyzed many of these experiences at Tenneco in his 2000 book, “High Standards, Hard Choices,” which frankly analyzed the his time in the executive suite and offered a look at his pragmatic style.

“There is no rocket science in quality management,” Mead wrote in the book. “Getting it right the first time, satisfying customers, reducing variations in process, and continually improving products is just common sense in business.”

At the same time, he wrote, “you will discover a lot of talent buried in the organization at all levels,” and allowing talent a chance to thrive is important. Such people, he adds, “not only know how to work the valves and switches in the middle of the night, but they probably have a lot of ideas on how to do it better. You have to put your ear to the ground and listen carefully to identify the people who are looked to and respected by their peers.”

As an extension of his corporate leadership roles, Mead served terms as chair of the National Association of Manufacturers from 1995 to 1997, and of the Business Roundtable from 1998 to 1999. He also served on the boards of Pfizer, Zurich, Textron, and Cummins.

Additionally, Mead was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009, and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served on the board of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the School for Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He also served on the National Board of Governors for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a long-time philanthropic interest.

Mead is survived by his wife, Nancy, as well as his two sons, Dana Jr. and Mark; his daughters-in-law D-Arcy and Susie; his brother, Michael, and sister-in-law, Anna; and seven grandsons.

Funeral services will be held at the Old Cadet Chapel at the West Point Cemetery, at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, at 10 a.m. on Nov. 20. Donations in his name can be made to the Boys and Girls Club of America.

To honor Mead’s memory, the flags on MIT’s Killian Court will fly at half-staff Nov. 13-16.

Press Mentions

Boston Globe

Boston Globe reporter Bryan Marquard memorializes the life and work of Dana Mead, who chaired the MIT Corporation from 2003 until 2010. Marquard notes Mead was committed to “increasing diversity on the institution’s board,” highlighting how the number of women on the Corporation increased by about 50 percent by the time Mead stepped down.

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