Is John H. McArthur the Most Powerful Man at Harvard?

The dean of the Business School, like everyone who had attended the meeting, was disappointed.

Harvard's five teaching hospitals were trying to negotiate a merger backed by Dean of the Medical School Daniel C. Tosteson '46. But talks between them had just broken down.

Business School dean John H. McArthur, however, wasted no time trying to put a deal together. Within minutes after the talks ended, McArthur, who is also chair of the board of the Brigham and Women's Hospital, was out in the parking lot pitching a more limited merger to Massachusetts General Hospital trustee Colorado Mansfield.

"It was out of the meeting [among the five hospitals] that the two of them [first] talked next to the parking lot," recalls Dr. Samuel H. Kim, the president ofthe Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Physicians Corporation. "If five couldn't do it, wouldn't it make sense that the two could do it?"

Meeting in secret--the way McArthur prefers to do business--MGH and the Brigham eventually struck a deal last fall to become one health care porvider known as Partners HealthCare Inc. Tosteson didn't learn about the merger of two giant hospitals affiliated with his Medical School until after the deal was done.

And the merger certainly wouldn't have happened without McArthur. The dean brought business experience to the table that was crucial to final negotiations, says Dr. Robert J. Boyd, chair of the MGH Physicians Corporation.

"He is a brilliant planner and organizer," Boyd says. "He is a politically very skillful person. He was very much of a facilitator."

He may be a better facilitator than anyone else at Harvard. In fact, for all of Neil L. Rudenstine's talk about how he wants to bring Harvard's different schools closer together, the president hasn't been able to pull off anything nearly as grand as the MGH Brigham merger.

Rudenstine has a pulpit, and is trying to use it to change Harvard. But McArthur, by operating behind the scenes and getting things done at wrap-speed, may now be the most powerful person at the University.

Observers disagree on the nature of dean's influence. Some say he hurts Harvard as a whole by putting the Business School's interests first in an era when cooperation is the University buzzword. Others praise him as a skillful negotiator who, unlike many administrators here, actually accomplishes what he sets out to do.

Francis H. Burr, an honorary trustee of Massachusetts General Hospital, subscribes to the latter theory.

"He was very instrumental to this," Burr says of the hospital merger. "The dean is a very powerful guy."

He's Changed Little'

As a student in the Business School's class of 1959, John H. McArthur was already thinking about holding down an administrative position in academia, says professor of Business Administration William J. Bruns Jr., a former classmate of the dean.

"He had the same style and the same way of working [then]," Bruns says. "He's changed very little."

McArthur enrolled in the Business School in the fall of 1957. The native of Burnby, British Columbia never left. He joined the faculty shortly after his graduation and rose through the ranks receiving tenure in 1973.

Since the day he moved into an elegant new dean's office on January 1, 1980, McArthur--a former hand in a Vancouver sawmill--has worked successfully to become one of the most influential members of the business elite.

He has done that not by public words (the dean can seem uncomfortable making speeches) but through behind the scenes dealing. That style was critical to the completion of the MGH-Brigham merger.

"McArthur took the lead of the negotiations and parented the negotiations with MGH, which he felt was the logical merger," says Lee Professor of Health Policy Robert J. Blendon.

Subtlety

McArthur also practices subtlety in over-seeing the school across the river. Business School professors says the dean is a strong, somewhat impatient leader who throws his weight around--but almost always in private.

McArthur is not a consensus builder, but he is masterly at persuading others. Fenster Visiting Professor of Business Administration Steven R. Fenster says McArthur makes firm decisions and then gets others to go along.

"He defines what's important behind the scenes and moves the Business School in a direction he thinks makes sense," Fenster says. "He has defined a sense of community."

That does not preclude compromise, however. Fenster says McArthur is also able to strike a balance between his convictions and the faculty's beliefs.

"It's tricky blend in nudging the group a bit versus something the group moves on it own," Fenster says. "He's very good at the balance."

Other professors says that when McArthur has an objective in mind, he is persistent in fulfilling it his way, says Little Professor of Business Administration Charles J. Christenson.

"One characteristic of him is he is something of a bulldog," Christenson says. "If there is something he wants to accomplish, he keeps after it."

"When he thinks he's right, he's tenacious in pursuing the solution he's developed," adds Bruns.

Once McArthur has studied a problem comprehensively and defined a solution, it's not easy to persuade him from his stand, says Kirstein Professor of Human Relations Jay W. Lorsch, chair of the Executive Education Programs.

"He's not bashful about what he likes to do," Lorsch says. "He listens to people, but you have to be able to convince him."

Professor of Business Administration Francis J. Aguilar, another classmate of McArthur's at the Business School, says the dean has been known to write letters in response to certain proposals stating firmly that "this and this and this won't take place under such circumstances."

"He's not afraid of confrontations," Aguilar says. "He has a lot of experience and power. There is no question who's the boss."

Ironically, McArthur derives that power from his quiet unassuming nature and down-to-earth way of dealing with people, colleagues say.

"John's great skill is understanding how to get people to understand the agenda," says Baker Professor of Business Administration Jay O. Light. "People trust him and understand that he sees the problem through their eyes."

"He's incredibly personable," says Robison professor of Business Administration James I. Cash Jr., who chairs the school's MBA program. "He doesn't have a pretenious bone in his body."

Willingness to Change

McArthur has been a dean for 14 years, but he is hardly set in his ways.

"John has a vision of how things will change," Fenster says. "He has a way of seeing the future and getting an organization that moves in a sensible way."

That made it somewhat natural for him to move quickly last fall to reform the Business School's curriculum. Business leaders and the national media, including a cover piece in Business Week last summer, had claimed that the school, with its emphasis on old standards and the case method, was falling behind the competition.

So McArthur launched Leadership and Learning, one of the largest and most comprehensive MBA program restructing efforts ever implemented by the Business School.

In making a rare public pitch for the reform, McArthur traveled to Yale and released comments from a June 1992 report suggesting that the Business School was facing the possibility of financial crisis and "floundering mediocrity."

That trip came the day before the release of President Neil L. Rudenstine's 83-page report on the results of the academic planing process. The president had labored over the manuscript him self, and some--including Boston Globe columnist David L. Warsh '66--Suggested that McArthur had intentionally timed his speech to overshadow the president.

The next day, media attention focused on the Business School's closed door faculty meeting to review a draft of Leadership and Learning, rather than on the Rudenstine report.

But McArthur has dismissed Warsh's suggestions, and Rudenstine himself has high praise for the reform efforts taking place across the river.

"He is moving the school to a position so that it can be more agile in a new economy environment and a new technological environment," Rudenstine says. "His human commitment is unusually strong."

David Professor of Business Administration Joseph L. Bower says the future of the Business School is in good hands.

"The fundamental issue is we're doing very well," Bower says. "We're constantly innovating and changing."

In the Real World...

McArthur has been able to keep the Business School a leader by maintaining and forging new links with the rest of the corporate World, Aguilar says.

"He's a very savvy guy about organizational matters as well as business matters," Aguilar says. "He's very good at dealing with people with power."

Fenster, a former partner in the investment firm of Lehman Brothers, says he has always known McArthur as "Someone active in financial circles."

"John has an unbelievable ability to get along with business leadership," Fenster says. "He has a great network with the top CEOs and top management of private companies."

That network is central to the Business School's fundraising success. While the Business School officially has a goal of $220 million for the five-year University-wide $2.1 billion capital compaign McArthur says his school won't even need extra fundraising efforts to achieve that figure.

So he's lending them out to the other graduate schools.

"We're expecting to help some of the other schools with our alumni because there are many of them that are interested in the mission of some of these places," McArthur says.

It's debatable whether such sharing of financial resources is an old or new tactic for the Business School. A development official there, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Crimson in the fall of 1992 that the school would not be helping with the capital campaign.

But the dean claims the Business School is currently in its sixth year of putting its alumni donors in touch with other graduate schools, including the Divinity School, the School of public Health and the Graduate School of Education.

Commitments

But McArthur doesn't limit his frenetic activity to Partners HealthCare or the Business School.

Although it's an unusual priority for a Business School dean, McArthur has repeatedly Said that the declining state of American public education is a personal concern. That may be why the dean has become active in the local community in Allston-Brighton, where he initiated a series of programs to use the school to help local public schools.

Local students are often invited to utilize equipment in Shad Hall, the opulent $20 million gymnasium and recreation center McArthur built but hasn't opened to Harvard affiliates.

"He has been very supportive of the local community," Aguilar says.

Some consider McArthur unreceptive suggestions, but those who know the dean says he is simply selective in the issues he chooses to tackle.

"He gets portrayed as not being committed, but that's because he gets very involved in few things," Cash says. "He doesn't commit to things lightly but when he does he commits totally."

The Architect

One issue the dean has given his special kind of total commitment is architecture at the Business School.

McArthur restructured the administrative building to bring faculty into the same space. He also helped to design the school's chapel, which was dedicated to him by the Business School's class of 1959.

But the Chapel's design has drawn strong criticism from architecture experts, especially Boston Globe critic Robert Campbell.

"Sooner or later, I suppose, it was inevitable that the Harvard Business School would build itself a chapel," Campbell wrote, in a review last year. "It's already done everything else it possibly could to isolate itself from the rest of the world, wrapping itself around its own navel in a dream of privacy and wealth."

But McArthur has said he kept the design of the Business School self contained in order to create for the school "a community, not just a bunch of streets with cars and trucks."

Aguilar says the dean is searching for the familiar in how he designs the School. The idea for the chapel's shape comes from the dean's childhood, Aguilar says. And it lends insight into a man who hates wasting time and is so quick to take the initiative--Whether reforming the Business School curriculum or engineering a hospital merger--that he never lets himself be backed into a corner.

"When he was going to church in Canada, there was the idea of the devil trapping you in the corner," Aguilar says. "So McArthur came up with the idea of a round chapel."