When James R. Houghton ’58, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, asked Derek C. Bok to return to Cambridge to lead Harvard a couple of years ago, the two septuagenarians joked that they were “both in their second time around.”
Like Bok, Houghton had also come out of retirement to reprise leadership of a beloved institution that had happened on troubled times. In 2002, after the stock of Corning Inc.—a glass and fiber-optics company that his great-great-grandfather founded in 1851—plummeted by 95 percent, the company’s board asked Houghton to return as chief executive.
Houghton, the former Lowell House resident called “Jamie” by his friends and colleagues, accepted the challenge, because despite the other commitments he was juggling, Houghton felt a sense of loyalty to the company. Since Houghton still lived in the town of Corning and was already familiar with the company’s inner workings, he thought the transition back to chief executive would not be too difficult despite the company’s dire financial straits.
“I’m not sure that he wanted to because he made the decision to retire, but when the board asked him if he would come back, of course he would say yes,” said Amory Houghton III ’74, the nephew of the senior fellow. “The board trusted him, the employees trusted him, and the customers trusted him. It was a perfect match, and he brought the credibility.”
A FAMILIAL PATH
Growing up in Corning, N.Y., the family company played a large role in Houghton’s childhood: the Corning plant—which had been run by the Houghton family for four generations—was next door to the family’s house.
He attended public schools with children of factory workers in Corning before moving to Concord, N.H. at age 14 to attend St. Paul’s School.
For Houghton, his childhood in Corning grounded him with a sense of humility that he would carry for the rest of his life.
“Growing up in a place like Corning gives you a certain stability because you’re nothing special, you are just one of the people in town,” he said. “That’s very healthy.”
After high school, Houghton followed the footsteps of many family members, enrolling as a student at Harvard College. The family had a long history with the University, with its name gracing the rare book library—which opened in 1942 after a donation by James’s cousin Arthur.
Following a long tradition of Houghtons, James had his sights set on Harvard and did not seriously consider other universities.
“I was lucky to get into Harvard because I think that today it would be a different story,” he said.
At Harvard, Houghton lived in Lowell House and concentrated in history. He developed a love for European history, and also took a handful of art history courses—a prelude to his future work as chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Houghton was also an active member of the A.D. Club, an experience he describes as “something that neither helped nor hindered” him at Harvard. (A picture of Houghton and several friends from the Class of 1958 once adorned the wall of an upstairs bar room in the club’s elegant Plympton Street house.)
After graduating from the College, Houghton crossed the Charles to attend Harvard Business School, a transition that came less easily than the one from New Hampshire to Cambridge.
When he received poor first-year grades, Houghton was advised that he should temporarily withdraw from school in order to acquire more experience in business.
“The first year was not good because I was a history major . . . and I didn’t really know anything about business,” he said.
Returning for his second year at the Business School after stints in the army and at Goldman Sachs, he met his future wife, Maisie Kinnicutt Houghton ’62, at the time, a senior at Radcliffe College. The two have now been married for 47 years.
When he finished business school, Houghton joined Corning, Inc. as the European area manager. Living in Zurich and Brussels in the mid-1960s, Houghton experienced business through an international lens, something that would serve the company well when it sought to internationalize its outreach.
In 1983, Houghton succeeded his brother as chairman and chief executive of Corning, where he earned wide acclaim from colleagues.
“I’ve worked with him for over 20 years and he’s a great guy...fun to work with, very principled and extremely organized,” former Corning vice chairman Van C. Campbell said in 1995.
Though Corning’s financial position was strong throughout the 1990s, its fortunes dropped sharply following the end of the dot-com boom when the company’s large investments in optical communications soured. As the stock fell to just five percent of its previous value, Corning’s board turned to their trusted leader to revive the company, even though he had been retired for six years.
“It was clear that nobody knew it was going to happen,” Houghton said. “It was an absolute bubble that just burst.”
At the time, it was unclear whether Houghton would come out of retirement.
Far from living a life of leisure, Houghton kept himself busy with a range of activities. A lifelong patron and connoisseur of the arts, he served as the chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the boards of J.P. Morgan, Exxon, and MetLife.
While Houghton said that his role in his second term as chief executive was only as a “cheerleader,” others say that that assessment is based more on his natural modesty than on the duties he actually performed.
James’ older brother Amory Houghton Jr. ’50 says the vision James used to help revive the company was apparent at an early age.
“You see a younger person with a sort of peripheral vision rather than tunnel visions,” Amory recalled. “That’s what he always had.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Just as he had returned to Corning, Houghton came back to Harvard nearly 40 years after graduating, when in the fall of 1995, Houghton joined the Harvard Corporation, the executive governing board comprised of six fellows and the University president. Eventually rising to become the senior fellow, Houghton spends approximately 24 days a year at Harvard where he meets with other Corporation members to discuss issues like the University budget and its expansion into Allston.
The most tumultuous moment of Houghton’s tenure came in early 2006, when he found his colleagues divided on the question of whether to keep on former University President Lawrence H. Summers in the face of faculty discontent.
In the end, Houghton would side with two of his colleagues who believed Summers’ position was untenable, creating the bloc that forced Summers from office. Houghton then flew down to Florida with Corporation fellow Nannerl O. Keohane, where the two convinced Bok to return to lead Harvard.
But even then, the hard slog wasn’t over for Houghton—as senior fellow, he was in charge of leading the Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers in the search for Summers’ successor, which ultimately led to the selection of current President Drew G. Faust.
Today, with the governance of the University more stable, Houghton said that he does not have any specific day-to-day responsibilities but that the job remains demanding. In the past year, he has assisted Faust in her transition into Mass. Hall and has played a prominent role in the selection of other key administrators.
To facilitate easy access to Harvard, Houghton purchased an apartment in Boston, making the area a second home.
Houghton said his continued involvement with Harvard all comes back to his love for the College.
“I must say that if you think about people who have good experiences in their lives and education, my situation was that I loved my schools, but I really loved Harvard College,” he said. “That was the pinnacle for me.”
—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at email@example.com.