By Alexandra Hall, December 2012
Published Jan 18, 2013
The passing of James Brian Quinn on August 28, at age 84, has reminded all who knew him, worked with him, and learned from him of his deep influence on their lives.
Quinn was known widely as one of the great legends of Tuck in the last half century—a much-beloved teacher, and a much-lauded authority in the areas of strategic planning, entrepreneurial innovation, and the management of technological change. He created Tuck's Business Policy and Technology and Policy courses, as well as one of America's first-ever courses on entrepreneurship; served as chair of the Academic Committee for President Clinton's Domestic Policy Review on Innovation and Productivity; and was a three-time McKinsey Award recipient.
And yet, despite these and so many other accomplishments, to most all who worked with him, he insisted on being known simply as Brian.
"He was one of the warmest and most approachable people you could find," says Penny Paquette T'76, assistant dean for strategic initiatives at Tuck, who knew Quinn as her professor and, later, as a colleague at Tuck. "Even so," she says, "It took me six months to feel comfortable calling him Brian rather than Professor Quinn because I was in such awe of him and the breadth and depth of his knowledge and intellect. I will miss him and what he represented."
Students loved (and sometimes feared) him for his rigorous classes, while faculty admired him for bringing real-life business scenarios to his students—and vice versa. "He took what was in a textbook and made it real," says Brian Deevy D'77, T'78, now CEO and chairman of RBC Daniels. "And he balanced his pragmatic feedback with personal connection. He was always critical and always sharp. But also always a wonderful person."
"There was never a student willing to enter his Business Policy class unprepared," laughs Jack Tankersley T'74, founder of Meritage Funds. "For two reasons: the most obvious was that all exams were unannounced; the second was that no one wanted to disappoint him."
While both are certainly true, it's the surprise tests that still haunt the dreams of some of Quinn's students. In that very Business Policy course for second-year students, he practiced what he called the "Blue Eagle"—an unannounced test designed to keep every last student ready to deliver critical analysis on the spot. "I still have nightmares about it," laughs Deevy. "He never had scheduled exams. Instead, you'd show up at his classes and never knew on which day he'd pass out the blue books and you'd have a large part of your grade based on whether you were prepared to dissect a case study in them or not. We'd all try to spot him before class, to see whether he was carrying blue books with him, but I think he hid from us so we couldn't see. I'm getting sweats just thinking about them now."
But as Peter Volanakis D'77, T'82 points out, it was that class that first taught him to think like a senior-level businessman. One of the largest lessons, he said, was "the ability to sort and synthesize information from many sources, functions, and perspectives—often conflicting and confusing. He created classroom experiences that illustrated the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that surround major business decisions or strategic directions." And much of that ambiguity drove students to better define not just businesses, but themselves. "He helped me become comfortable with the untidiness of business," continues Volanakis. "He used his class as a call to action, to lead, to take risks personally, to be the person to define reality. I remember him once saying, ‘If it isn't you who leads, then who?'"
As Bill Hart T'67 has written to his classmates since Quinn's passing, "He taught us how to think—he had little tolerance for loose logic, zero tolerance for BS. He also had a way of instilling in us a sense of responsibility for our commitments—for being prepared.... He never gave you the answer—just made sure you were asking yourself the right questions."
Moreover, as much as Quinn brought the real world into his classroom, his teachings continued beyond those walls. "He maintained such an incredible network of alumni of the MBA and executive education programs that connected him to the corporate world," observes Paquette. "And with those connections, he could be very effective in his research. They made it possible for him to learn firsthand about management practices for case writing and qualitative research."
Tankersley, who worked for a time as Quinn's research assistant, heartily agrees. "There was no Google back then; we had to write in to get annual reports and check facts, and we did it all by hand," he says. "Watching Brian understand a business from publicly available materials and make case studies out of them, it just provided me with such insight into that process."
So strong was his personal and professional connection to his students that Tankersley and a group of fellow students actually made Quinn an honorary member of their class of 1974. At the ceremony, they all surprised Quinn by showing up wearing custom-made bowties, all in Dartmouth green, yet in the shields were the initials JBQ.
Then, years later at Quinn's retirement, roughly 50 of his former students from various classes joined together to announce the creation of the J. Brian Quinn Professorship in Technology and Strategy at Tuck. "We were going to offer to buy him a car," chuckles Tankersley. "But he very quickly convinced us to spend a lot more money on something longer lasting for him." According to Deevy, another member of that group of 50, the decision was an easy one. "What do you do to thank a guy who's put that kind of time and effort in for you?" Deevy says. "It was a no-brainer for any of us to do."
Quinn also helped guide countless students into—and often through—their careers. "I was having a hard time sorting through offers and directions," says Volanakis, who then went to Quinn to discuss his possibilities. "He explained that in his experience, people were most successful and happy when their personal values were aligned with their company's. So he helped me articulate and explore those in some detail. Nowadays, everyone has value and mission statements, but 30 years ago the notion of values alignment didn't exist."
A 1949 graduate of Yale, Quinn earned an MBA from Harvard in 1951 and a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1958. He began teaching at Tuck in 1957, and continued until his retirement in 1993. He was the William and Josephine Buchanan Professor of Management, Emeritus. Quinn's list of accomplishments (both academic and personal) is lengthy and venerable, from fellowships from the Ford Foundation (1963-64), the Alfred. P. Sloan Foundation (1967-68), and the Fulbright Exchange program (1973) to international assignments as dean of the MBA program at the International University of Japan. In 1979, he helped open trade with China as part of an American team under the Commerce Department. He advised the new Gorbachev government on establishing a market economy in the Soviet Union in 1989, as one of the representatives of the National Academy of Sciences.