In early December 2007, then-University President Drew G. Faust and Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow James R. “Jamie” Houghton ’58 unveiled an extensive overhaul of Harvard College’s financial aid policies to make undergraduate tuition more affordable for middle- and upper-class students. Then, the Great Recession started.
Despite the University’s expensive pledge days ahead of the financial crisis, Faust said Houghton remained by her side through all the challenges.
“We agreed that we needed to make a fundamental commitment to not reducing financial aid, even as we were reducing other things in the budget,” Faust said. “That was a sign of his support and enthusiasm and deep belief in accessibility and affordability of education.”
As a longtime member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, Houghton navigated Harvard through the resignation of President Lawrence H. Summers and led the presidential search that selected Faust. Houghton died on Dec. 20, 2022, at his home in Boston after a long battle with dementia. He was 86.
Houghton was born in Corning, New York, on April 6, 1936. Hailing from a prestigious family, Houghton was the third generation to attend the same elite educational institutions: Houghton, his father, and his grandfather attended St. Paul’s School and Harvard College. Houghton later obtained a degree from Harvard Business School in 1962.
Both Houghton’s father and grandfather worked in politics. His father, Amory Houghton, Class of 1921, served as U.S. Ambassador to France. His grandfather, Alanson B. Houghton, Class of 1886, served two terms as a U.S. Representative from New York and founded Corning Glass Works — a company that would remain in the family for over a century.
The Houghton Library, which houses Harvard’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, was named after James Houghton’s uncle, Arthur A. Houghton ’29.
During James Houghton’s second year at the Business School, he met Maisie Kinnicutt Houghton ’62, then a senior at Radcliffe College. They married during their final year as Harvard students, in 1962, but Maisie Houghton said it took some persuasion on her end.
“He was quite keen to be married,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to be a school teacher, and I had no intention of getting married right after graduation.”
Maisie Houghton said she nonetheless accomplished all of her life goals over the course of their marriage. They spent a few years living in Europe, splitting time between Zurich and Brussels. When the family moved back to James Houghton’s hometown in Corning, Maisie Houghton said she became involved in several women’s rights organizations.
“I didn’t think of myself as the perfect corporate wife,” Maisie Houghton said. “I had my own interests and my own life, which Jamie totally encouraged.”
Houghton quickly rose through the ranks of Corning Glass Works, now known as Corning Incorporated. In 1983, he succeeded his brother as chairman and CEO, a role he held until 1996 before he was asked to return for a second stint as CEO in 2002.
The first time Houghton attempted to become a member of Harvard’s governing boards, he failed. Houghton stood for election to the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body, but did not garner enough votes to win a seat on the board.
But in 1995, he was selected to join the Harvard Corporation. Houghton would serve on the board for 15 years, rising to the top post of senior fellow in 2002.
Four years into Houghton’s tenure as senior fellow, he faced his greatest challenge at Harvard. The faculty had lost faith in Summers, and Houghton asked the president he once helped select to step down from the role.
Tasked with navigating the Corporation through this fraught moment, Houghton turned to Derek C. Bok — Harvard’s president from 1971 to 1991 — in hopes of recruiting him back to the University on an interim basis.
Fortunately for Houghton, the task wasn’t a difficult one, and a short trip to Sarasota, Florida, saw Houghton return to Cambridge with a returning Harvard president in tow.
Though Bok spent only one year back in the presidential office, he said he found Houghton to be an “exemplary” help during the transitional year.
“It was, in many respects, the easiest and most peaceful year that I ever spent in office,” Bok said.
With Bok at the helm to “keep the ship steady,” as he described his mandate, Houghton turned his attention back to the presidential search at hand, guiding the University to recovery after the fallout of Summers’ resignation.
From 2006 to 2007, Houghton headed the presidential search committee that chose Faust, Harvard’s first female president. Former Senior Fellow William F. “Bill” Lee ’72, who served on the Board of Overseers during Houghton’s tenure, said the appointment of Faust was Houghton’s greatest legacy at Harvard.
“He led the selection of Drew at a time of some dysfunction in the Harvard community,” Lee said. “He led a process that resulted in a president who then had a more than decade-long tenure, where she and Harvard accomplished many important things — that has to be his most important and most defining achievement.”
Still, the conclusion of the nearly ten-month presidential search did not immediately silence critics of the University’s direction under Houghton. Some questioned his decision to appoint Faust to the presidency.
“It was a brave thing of him to be the senior fellow who was willing to select a woman,” Faust said. “A lot of people were dubious, like, ‘What? Could she possibly do the job?’”
Even before her selection as University President, Faust said Houghton had already proven himself an advocate for women in higher education. When Harvard and Radcliffe merged in 1999, James Houghton and his wife, Maisie, were staunch supporters of the newly minted Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, establishing a fund to support female undergraduates during the transition period.
“He had been very supportive of women in a number of ways,” Faust said. “He was a person who really believed deeply in inclusion and moving Harvard more rapidly towards embracing those kinds of principles.”
The Corporation itself also saw lasting changes as a result of Houghton’s time at the helm of the board.
During his years as a member of the University’s highest governing body, Houghton sought to bridge the long-standing gap in communication and influence between the Corporation and the Board of Overseers.
Even as the mounting tensions between Summers and the Harvard faculty forced Houghton to take action, he took the time to consult both governing bodies before reaching the decision to encourage Summers to step down.
“At the time, the two governing bodies operated very much separately, independently,” Lee said. “He brought the leadership of the Overseers — Patti Saris, the president, in particular — into the discussion.”
Under Houghton’s leadership, the Harvard Corporation began an internal review of its relationship with the Board of Overseers in 2010, resulting in reforms that Lee said strengthened the partnership.
Later that year, the Corporation rolled out a significant overhaul of the University’s governance structure, doubling the size of its membership and establishing term limits.
In addition to broad reforms, Houghton’s colleagues said he also worked to make sure that more voices were heard and represented in the two bodies. Nannerl O. Keohane, who joined the Corporation in 2005, said Houghton helped ease the transition as she adjusted to her role.
“He supported me as a new member of the Corporation in ways that I shall always be grateful for,” she said.
Having joined the Corporation as the sole woman and with only an honorary degree from the University, Keohane said she worried that lacking a Harvard background would lead her to make mistakes.
“Jamie made it clear that that really didn’t matter,” she said. “He wanted me to contribute everything that I could and to succeed and to relax, and he basically made me feel that in a very gracious way.”
Not only did Houghton facilitate smoother working relationships between his colleagues, Lee said, he also helped members of the University’s highest boards to become better friends.
“At the end of the day, he was a wonderful Corporation colleague, he was a wonderful senior fellow, but to me, he and Maisie were better friends,” Lee said.