19 Oct 2022

Jay O. Light, Former Dean of Harvard Business School, Dies at 81


Jay O. Light, Dean of Harvard Business School (HBS) from 2005 to 2010, died on Saturday, October 15, at his home in South Dartmouth, MA, of cancer. He was 81 years old.

Former HBS Dean Jay Light, in his office
Photo courtesy Webb Chappell

Light served on the HBS faculty for more than four decades. He loved being in the classroom and engaging with his students (including after they graduated), was a gifted case writer and course developer, and generously mentored junior faculty colleagues. As Dean, Light led HBS through some of the most momentous and challenging times in its history. In 2008, as the global economic crisis unfolded, Light acted swiftly to strengthen the School's financial structure. Ever the teacher, he mobilized a group of HBS faculty experts in finance and economics to spur research into the causes of the crisis, generating seminars as well as new course materials and courses that provided a deeper understanding of risk management, financial regulation, and changes in the capital markets.

"Jay came at the recession like the expert he was," said Angela Crispi, executive dean for administration during Light's tenure. "He moved quickly to manage expenses, while continuing to invest in the people and activities that are core to our mission. He was a remarkable leader during a very difficult time."

Nitin Nohria, University Distinguished Service Professor who served as Dean following Light, noted, "Jay gave me the best gift a new Dean could ask for: a School well-positioned for the future. Moreover, he was a trusted advisor and sounding board. His dedication to the School ran deep and, in everything he did, he was a true servant leader."

Light joined the Business School faculty in 1970 after earning his doctorate from Harvard’s joint program in decision and control theory. He quickly made his mark as an effective and gifted teacher and an innovative course developer. Just two years into his appointment, he was the first faculty member to receive the new Excellence in Teaching Award for his work in the first-year MBA Program. He delighted in interacting with students as much as they enjoyed learning from him, and this connection continued long after they graduated—with many counting Light as the person who most shaped their HBS experience and influenced their careers. Seth Klarman (MBA 1982), CEO of the Baupost Group, noted, "Jay was a wonderful friend and valued mentor. He was always willing to listen and then share an insight or perspective. His kindness and generosity of spirit had no limit."

Similarly, Jamie Dimon (MBA 1982), chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., said "Jay was my teacher at HBS and he earned tremendous respect from his students. He was strong and analytical, yet with a big heart and great character—a force of nature, but in a subtle way."

Light’s leadership could also be found in his dedication to mentoring junior colleagues and many of the School's senior faculty—especially in the Finance Unit, of which Light was a member—point to his influence on their careers. Josh Coval, Jay O. Light Professor of Business Administration, said, "Above all, Jay taught me what it means to truly love what you do for a living: to love teaching, to love one's students, to love research, to love one's colleagues, to love HBS. Through his example, I learned love of family, of friends, and of life. I know HBS is a very different place today because of because of Jay's deep love of the institution and all of us within it."

Light's contributions to HBS were broad and deep. Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who appointed Light as Dean, said, "Light understood that HBS and Harvard were bigger than any of us, and that making them better was important work—but that to do it, one had to see them clearly. He loved HBS and saw it so clearly. That is why he made it so much better as Dean."

Light viewed globalization as a significant opportunity for the School and opened a research center in India and the ambitious Harvard Center Shanghai, expanding the extensive network of HBS research centers around the world. New courses brought MBA students to countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. And the seeds of the Harvard Innovation Labs (i-lab), which opened in 2011, were planted during his tenure—a thriving ecosystem which today includes the Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab and Launch Lab X GEO.

In a University widely known for “every tub on its own bottom,” Light worked to foster closer collaboration across the University, including by building and strengthening joint graduate degree programs linking MBA students with medicine, government and public policy, and law.

HBS garnered widespread recognition for Light's initiatives that addressed systemic societal issues. Significant strides were made in the critical area of health care, for example. In addition to the joint degree program with Harvard Medical School, HBS launched several executive programs for management teams from the world's top medical centers—including those in Boston. An innovative MBA elective, Commercializing Science, evolved into a powerful field course open to students from across the University.

"Jay was, in so many ways, ahead of his time," said Srikant Datar, Dean of Harvard Business School. "He saw clearly the ways business would need to play a role in solving society's most pressing challenges, and laid the foundation for work we are carrying forward today. His impact on the School is immeasurable and his legacy will be long-lasting."

Jay Owen Light was born in 1941 in Lorain, Ohio. Growing up in the Sputnik generation, he was keen on science. Studying engineering physics, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1963, before joining Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California where he led a space-mission analysis team. Convinced he needed more management training, he entered the new joint Doctoral program at Harvard and developed a fascination with finance. After graduation, he joined the Harvard Business School faculty as an assistant professor.

An expert in corporate finance and risk management, Light developed a new way to teach capital markets, resulting in wide-ranging course materials and a successful book, The Financial System (with W.L. White). He also wrote numerous articles and cases, including one on Harvard Management Company that remains a bestseller today. And his integrative valuation and negotiation classes were used with all 900 students in the first year Finance course in the MBA Program.

Dwight Crane, the George Fisher Baker Jr. Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, and a long-time colleague, said, “Jay had the ability to reimagine how things work and that translated into new ways to think about how financial markets work. That made him a remarkable teacher. He also became a skilled leader at the School. He was able to succeed in each of these positions because his colleagues trusted him."

Throughout his career at HBS Light held a series of leadership roles: as chair of the Finance Unit, as senior associate dean for faculty planning, and as senior associate dean for planning and development. Glancing back over his long HBS career, Light noted upon stepping down as Dean, “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had. Despite the challenges, it was a truly remarkable time to be here on campus.”

Light served as a director of the Harvard Management Company, a director at Blackstone, a director of Partners HealthCare (the Massachusetts General and Brigham & Women’s Hospitals) and chairman of its Investment Committee, the lead director of the board of directors of HCA Holdings, Inc., a member of the investment committee of several endowments, a director of several private firms, and an advisor/trustee to numerous corporate and institutional pools of capital.

After leaving Soldiers Field, in addition to continued board service and pro bono work in Boston, Light divided his time between his homes in South Dartmouth, MA, and Jupiter Island, FL. He often took to Buzzards Bay to sail, a lifelong passion. A voracious reader of history and exploration—his offices were decorated with antique maps that he collected—Light also continued to consume great quantities of books, including biographies.

He is survived by his wife, Judy; his daughter, Anne, her husband, Jason, and their daughter, Olivia, of California; his son, James, of Colorado; and his sister, Joan, of Michigan.


Mark Cautela

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.