James E. Howell, economist who reenvisioned business-school curricula, dies at 91


James E. Howell, a noted economist and formerly the longest-serving faculty member of the Graduate School of Business (GSB), died on March 29 at his home in Palo Alto. He was 91.

Howell, the Theodore J. Kreps professor emeritus of economics, began his tenure 60 years ago. He previously directed the GSB Executive Education Program, served as a GSB associate dean and won the inaugural Robert T. Davis award in 1966.

Howell may be best known for his work on a 1959 report he produced with Robert A. Gordon, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. The Gordon-Howell report called for more rigorous attention in business schools to knowledge, research and theory. The large-scale changes it suggested were widely adopted, including at the GSB. Howell’s faculty page recognizes him as “one the faculty members most responsible for the GSB’s rise to national prominence.”  

His death brought an outpouring of praise for his work in the GSB’s School News.

“It’s hard to imagine where Stanford Graduate School of Business would be today if not for the vision and work of Jim Howell,” GSB Dean Jonathan Levin said. “He is considered one of a handful of catalysts responsible for the management revolution of the 1960s. As the school’s academic dean, Jim ensured that Stanford GSB was at the vanguard of that revolution.”

His daughter Caitlyn Howell also described her father’s origins. Howell, whose parents did not attend college, fought forest fires as a teenager and served in the army.

“His grandfather was best friends with ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and spent some time in Cody, Wyoming, and his aunts and uncles were ranchers, farmers and small-business owners throughout Colorado and Wyoming,” Caitlyn said.

Howell earned a bachelor’s degree from Fresno State College, a master’s degree from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in economics from Yale. After his retirement in 1997, Howell, a passionate salmon fisher, served as a volunteer docent at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Penny Howell; four children, Caitlyn Howell, and Kenneth, William and Jan Langmuir; and seven grandchildren.

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Charlie Curnin '22 is the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. Contact him at eic 'at' stanforddaily.com.