Arjay Miller, the school’s fourth dean (1969-1979), who described himself as “just an old bookkeeper,” led Stanford Graduate School of Business into the top ranks of management education institutions, expanded its endowment, and created the often copied Public Management Program.
He was such a respected figure at Stanford GSB that each year the top 10 percent of the graduating MBA class are designated Arjay Miller Scholars. Miller, who still lives just a few miles from the campus, is a frequent participant in activities and still meets with students.
Born on a farm in Shelby, Nebraska, on March 4, 1916, to Rawley John and Mary Gertrude Miller his unusual first name was based on a combination of his father’s first and middle names.
Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1937 and then worked part-time as a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley before becoming an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
He then served for three years in the U.S. Air Force before joining Ford Motor Co. in 1946 as part of a group of young military veterans who became known as the Whiz Kids for their role in retooling the auto giant’s business operations following World War II.
Miller worked with the automobile giant for 23 years, serving as president in the early 1960. He was lured away to become dean of Stanford GSB, arriving on July 1, 1969.
When he accepted the deanship in late 1968, at the close of one of the most politically turbulent years on U.S. campuses in history, Miller was quoted as saying, “Anyone who joins a university administration today has to be either an optimist or a fool — and I can’t quite admit that I am a fool.”
In 1965, Ralph Nader published his scathing critique of the safety record of the auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. A group of auto execs including Miller traveled to Washington to account for themselves. Watching his colleagues in those tense meetings, Miller was struck by how ineptly they handled negotiations with the government regulators. And vice versa. “We blew it,” he recalled in a 2000 interview.
Then in 1967, Detroit was ravaged by urban riots. As chairman of the city’s Economic Development Committee, Miller was charged with bringing jobs to the inner city. It was a huge, daunting project, and he didn’t have a clue how to do it. “We failed miserably,” he said later.
When offered the Stanford GSB deanship, Miller agreed on condition that the school begin a program that would educate business in the concerns of government and society, and government in the needs of business. Essentially, he envisioned a program that would produce managers better able to anticipate and deal with the two disturbing and unexpected crises he had just encountered in his job as a high-ranking corporate executive.
He created the innovative Public Management Program, which was later emulated by other business schools across the country. Miller also helped complete the revolution in management education at Stanford by recruiting outstanding professors from a variety of disciplines including psychology and political science, and spearheaded efforts to recruit women and ethnic minorities both as students and faculty members.
“Private business has been able to satisfy quite well the private demand for goods such as automobiles and television sets,” he said during his first visit to the school in 1969. “The problems facing our society today are what I call public goods.”
“The first year, the first day I was on campus I said I wanted to talk to all the black students — there were five in the school,” Miller recalled in an interview with a Stanford GSB staff member on his tenure. “At the time I left, the number had gone up to 24. Spanish surnames went from zero to 34, Asian Americans from four to 27.“
On his deanship, Miller also said, “I consider myself very lucky. I arrived at the GSB at just the right time. Dean [Ernie] Arbuckle had built a solid foundation for the continued progress of the school. Under the leadership of faculty he recruited, within five years, the GSB was voted the number one business school in the country.”
Everyone has a favorite Arjay story — some incident in which he exhibited his startling candor, blunt good sense, dry sense of humor, or a sweetness that often came as a surprise. Never a chummy backslapper, Miller was a serious, practical, and goal-oriented dean, but he was far from stiff. He was genuinely interested in people. He showed up at casual spaghetti dinners in student houses. He loved to meet with young MBAs. And they with him.
One group of students started a beer-drinking club they dubbed the Friends of Arjay Miller — FOAM, that still exists today. Another group founded a 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll band and named themselves the Arjays. When it came time for a publicity-photo shoot in 1979, one of the Arjays’ band members, Blake Winchell, knocked on Miller’s door. Would the dean be willing to pose with them in the conference room, he asked. Arjay did, grinning, his thumbs up. Someone later hung an enlarged print of this photo in a cabin at the Bohemian Grove.
In January 1979, he stunned the school by announcing that he planned to step down July 1, exactly 10 years since taking over the deanship. An avid gardener and orchardist, Miller echoed the words of his predecessor, Ernie Arbuckle — it was “time to repot.”
Then Stanford President Richard Lyman praised Miller’s tenure, telling the Stanford Daily in January 1979, “The entire university is indebted to Arjay Miller for his leadership in that rise to greatness that can so easily be made to appear inexorable part of some natural process, but which of course could have happened only with inspired direction from the top.”
Story Behind the Book in Arjay’s PortraitIn the official oil portrait commemorating his years as Stanford GSB’s dean, Arjay Miller sits with his hand resting on a book titled Marriner S. Eccles, Private Entrepreneur and Public Servant. It well may be the only book ever published by the school but — as with most things Miller created during his tenure — it has an interesting story. Eccles, a banker and industrialist from Utah, served as governor of the Federal Reserve Board under President Franklin Roosevelt and was an author of some of the major banking reform bills of the 1930s. Miller was president of Ford Motor Co. when he first met Eccles at a conference in the 1960s, and the two became good friends. Miller eventually accepted Eccles’ invitation to serve on the board of his firm, Utah International.
After becoming dean, Miller, always a man of direct action, was trying to recruit Alain Enthoven to the business school faculty and thought an endowed chair might help close the deal. “They told me I was wasting my time because Eccles had said he would only give money to Utah,” Miller recalled. He prevailed and Eccles established an endowed chair. Miller then decided it would be good for Stanford to publish a biography of Eccles but grew frustrated at the slow process as Stanford University Press debated how to move forward. “I decided, well, the business school can publish a book, and we did.” Enthoven became the first Marriner S. Eccles Professor of Public and Private Management in 1973.
- Speech to the American Finance and American Economic Associations, December 29, 1968
- Featured article in Stanford Business magazine, May 2000