06 Jan 2015
Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Paul Vatter Dies at 90
Accomplished statistician and superb teacher left his mark on generations of Harvard students
Paul A. Vatter
Photo: Harvard Business School

BOSTON—Paul A. Vatter, Harvard Business School's Lawrence E. Fouraker Professor of Business Administration Emeritus and a highly regarded statistician whose superb teaching skills and collegial manner helped thousands of MBA students and executives understand – and even enjoy -- the daunting subject matter of Managerial Economics (a required course at HBS for many years focusing on statistical analysis and decision making), died on Jan. 4 at Belmont Manor in Belmont, Mass. He was 90 years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade.

Vatter joined the HBS faculty in 1958 and was named to the Fouraker professorhip in 1984. He retired from the active faculty in 1995. "Paul was a superb explainer--very dynamic and with a quick wit and fast repartee in his case-method discussions with students," said Arthur Schleifer, Jr., the School’s James J. Hill Professor of Business Administration Emeritus and a longtime faculty colleague as well as Prof. Vatter’s brother-in-law. "He challenged everyone in his classes, while making a difficult and often dreaded course exciting and interesting. Beloved by his students, Paul was charming, delightful, and funny, and even much later in his life and throughout his long illness, he displayed these qualities. His happiness was contagious.”

In addition to his work in the Harvard MBA program, Vatter taught and played a leadership role in a number of the School's Executive Education offerings, including the Program for Management Development, which in 2004 became the General Management Program. He was also a stalwart in the School's Smaller Company Management Program for entrepreneurs, a pioneering effort now known as the Owner/President Management Program.

According to David E. Bell, the School’s George M. Moffett Professor of Agriculture and Business, who also taught Managerial Economics for many years, Vatter had a significant impact on experienced executives, who appreciated and respected his teaching ability and outgoing demeanor. "Paul was a kind and amiable man whom everyone warmed to immediately," Bell said. "He was always approachable.”

Vatter combined his teaching talents with an outstanding record in administration. He was an assistant dean at HBS from 1958 to 1962 and chairman of the Doctoral Programs from 1967 to 1970. In addition, he was Executive Director of Executive Education and Corporate Relations from 1987 to 1988 and Senior Associate Dean and Director of Institutional Relations from 1988 to 1991.

He also served on the boards of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, Moore McCormack Resources, Inc., and Sbarro, Inc. “Paul made a point of reaching out to the practicing business community – and, in doing so, he played an important 'bridging' role," said Howard Raiffa, Harvard’s Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Managerial Economics. "With Paul, there was no schism between the theorist and the practitioner."

Vatter's board involvement informed his teaching and helped provide material for the many case studies he wrote. An early collection of his work, Quantitative Methods in Management: Text and Cases, was one of the first volumes that brought decision analysis into mainstream business via case studies.

After retiring from Harvard Business School, Vatter became an associate fellow of Templeton College in Oxford University, where he taught in the Oxford Advanced Management Program for several years.

A native of Boston, Paul August Vatter was born on Sept. 14, 1924, one of three children in his family. He became interested in statistics through his father, who was an actuary for the John Hancock Insurance Company and a member of the Business School's first graduating class in 1910. A summer job in Hancock's actuarial department convinced the younger Vatter that he wanted to follow a different career path. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross in 1944, he earned both a master’s (1947) and Ph.D. (1953) in statistics from the University of Pennsylvania.

From 1954 to 1958, Vatter was a member of the Department of Economic and Social Statistics at Penn. He also served as Vice Dean of Men, a job he remembered as "a sideline that was a marvelous experience, but once you've done it, you never want to do it again." That said, because of his success in that role, he was invited to spend a year at Harvard Business School as a visiting dean in 1958. That visit turned into a long and distinguished academic and administrative career. At a time when U.S. business schools were adding more quantitative materials to their curricula, he became associate director of HBS’s Institute of Basic Mathematics for Application to Business in 1959 and director of the Program of Basic Mathematics in 1961. He was named an associate professor in 1962 and promoted to full professor in 1970.

He was a member of the American Statistical Association and an associate editor of American Statistician.

While at HBS, Vatter met and in 1966 married Josette Roman after being introduced to her by his colleague Arthur Schleifer, who is married to her sister. The two French women were an internationally known piano duo, the Roman Sisters, popular in Europe in late 1950s through the early 1970s.

Vatter was a longtime resident of Belmont, Mass., where, among other things, he was for many years a member of the campaign research advisory committee of the United Community Funds and Councils of America (now known as United Way of America). An avid tennis player, he was a past president of the Belmont Hill Club.

He and his wife also enjoyed traveling, retreating each summer to a small stone house they owned overlooking a vineyard in the Provencal village of Goudargues. "Josette loved being in France, and Paul enjoyed the food and ambience of this tiny community," recalled Schleifer. While in Goudargues, they frequented favorite restaurants and often entertained HBS colleagues. Vatter also enjoyed shopping at the town's colorful local markets. “Though he spoke little French, he could deal quite well with the butcher and bakery shops," Scheifer noted.

Vatter is survived by a daughter, Katharine Foucault of Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, and five grandchildren. His wife and their son, Dr. Joel Vatter, predeceased him in 2013 and 2011, respectively.

Burial will be private. Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.


Jim Aisner
Director of Media & Public Relations