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William Pounds, MIT Sloan School dean who chaired a key Vietnam War-era panel, dies at 95

William Pounds, a former MIT Sloan School dean.Justin Knight

Amid nationwide college protests against the Vietnam War, William Pounds — then the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management — was appointed in 1969 to lead a committee that would decide what to do about US Defense Department research being conducted at two of the institute’s major laboratories.

The 22 panel members arrived “two by two,” Dr. Pounds recalled in a 2009 MIT oral history, a veritable “Noah’s Ark of, you know, conservative and radical students and faculty and staff members from the laboratory.” Joining them were alumni and representatives from the MIT Corporation — “just every shade of constituency was represented.”


Giving each member of what was called the Pounds panel a chance to voice opinions, he guided the group toward a consensus reached for different reasons, liberal and conservative. “I kept us on the track of saying what should MIT do? Don’t tell me about the why,” Dr. Pounds said.

In June 1969, the panel recommended that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation and Lincoln laboratories should continue to conduct defense-related research, while also trying to shift toward addressing a balanced blend of civilian and military problems. “This is the hard way,” he said in a Globe interview of the decision, adding that “we’re not so naïve as to think that the changes will be easy.”

Dr. Pounds, who was 38 when he became the Sloan School dean and was among the longest-serving leaders of a major business school when he stepped down 14 years later, died Aug. 23 in his Brookhaven at Lexington home. He was 95 and had suffered from pneumonia during the summer.

In all roles — as an administrator and professor, as a board member for corporations and institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and even with wait staff he encountered in restaurants — Dr. Pounds was “famous for being willing to approach and talk to anybody,” said his son Thomas of Cambridge.


“The thing that everybody would say was he never met a stranger,” said Dr. Pounds’s sister, Dr. Lois Pounds Oliver of Durham, N.C. “He would talk to anyone.”

As dean, Dr. Pounds also played a key role in bringing to MIT Phyllis A. Wallace, the first woman granted tenure at the Sloan School. After hearing Wallace speak about her research on young Black women in the labor market, he invited her to become a visiting professor in 1973.

“Through his great gifts and skills and determination, Bill brought the MIT Sloan School into the modern landscape of management education and research,” said David Schmittlein, the current Sloan dean, for MIT’s tribute.

“Much of what has been accomplished during my time at MIT has been shaped by his voice and guided by his vision,” Schmittlein said. “Bill’s legacy for the school is, and will remain, unequaled.”

Dr. Pounds arrived at the Sloan School in 1966 after working for Kodak and Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and after serving in the Navy as a fighter pilot, stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea during the Korean War.

As an administrator, he wanted to guide business school graduates to become able leaders of corporations like the ones where he had worked.

The Sloan School, he said in the 2009 Infinite MIT interview, should be “an enterprise aimed at producing people who are capable of making whatever part of the world they may be involved in work better.”


William Frank Pounds was born in Pittsburgh on April 9, 1928. The oldest of three siblings, he was the son of Frank Pounds and Helen Fry Pounds, both schoolteachers.

“The three of us all agreed we would never be teachers, and we all ended up being teachers,” said his sister Lois, a former associate dean for medical education and medical school admissions at Duke University School of Medicine.

Bill attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh because “the expense of going away to college wasn’t even on the agenda,” he said in the 2009 oral history. “And I commuted by streetcar in those days.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he worked for Kodak until the Korean War began and he enlisted in the Navy.

Lois introduced him to her friend Helen Means. In 1954, Dr. Pounds married Helen, who later worked with the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and helped get MIT’s daycare running.

After his military service, he worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and was recruited in 1961 to teach at the Sloan School, becoming dean five years later. In 1964, while a professor, he received a doctorate in mathematical economics from the Carnegie Graduate School of Industrial Administration.

He stepped down as dean in 1980. The following year, he began a decade-long stint as a senior adviser to the Rockefeller family, while still teaching at MIT. In addition, Dr. Pounds served on the board of businesses such as Sun Oil, General Mills, and Putnam Investments.


A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Pounds was chairman emeritus of the MFA’s board.

He also spent roughly an entire calendar year of his lifetime wading in rivers in Canada and elsewhere, keeping detailed records of more than 1,000 fish he caught and released, among them more than 700 salmon.

Ever optimistic, “he was a great fly-fisherman,” his son said, “and he was a great believer in having your hook in the water.”

In addition to his wife, son, and sister, Dr. Pounds leaves a daughter, Julia Mudge of Dedham; another sister, Nancy Giddens of Boise; and six grandchildren.

A remembrance service will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Samberg Center at MIT.

In an essay titled “On Successful Careers,” Dr. Pounds wrote that he was “frequently asked for career advice. I recommend a good education, hard work, a positive attitude, broad interests, and positioning oneself to find good luck. Successful careers depend on all these things — plus great skill in rationalization. The best way to have a successful career is to believe you’ve had one. That never fails.”

Instinct, optimism, and talent also played parts in one of his most memorable experiences.

In September 1953, a couple of months after the armistice that ended the Korean War, he was part of group of pilots who were instructed to simulate an air battle in the North Atlantic.


He flew off from the USS Bennington aircraft carrier in the early afternoon into clear, sunny skies. But by the time he was summoned to return, “a dense fog had enveloped the entire task force,” he wrote years later in a memoir.

“Knowing that fuel would be important, I adjusted my engine to a mixture so lean that every time I adjusted my throttle my engine coughed, paused, and restarted,” he wrote. “There was nothing else to do. We circled and waited.”

As darkness fell, three aircraft carriers were positioned parallel to each other. Flares were placed in a line behind each one when the fog cleared slightly. While approaching for a landing, Dr. Pounds wrote, he flew so low “I could soon feel the effect of the waves under my wings.” Ultimately, all planes landed safely.

“Two hours later the fog descended again and it was like that for several days. Some called the brief clearing luck. Some called it a patch of warm water. Some called it a miracle,” he wrote. “I have considered every day of my life since that day as pure profit.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at