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Webb, pioneer in organizational behavior, dies at 61
STANFORD -- Eugene J. Webb, a Stanford Business School professor and one of the pioneers in development of research and teaching of organizational behavior in business schools, died Tuesday, March 14, at Stanford University Hospital of respiratory disease. He was 61.
During his more than 25 years at the Business School, Webb served in leadership roles as associate dean of the Graduate School of Business, chairman of the university's Faculty Senate, and as a faculty sponsor for Stanford's program in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a longtime friend, called Webb "an uncommonly civil man with great research skills and practical insight."
Webb played a pioneering role in bringing behavioral psychology into the mainstream curriculum of American business schools.
"He changed the way people thought about social science research and changed the way it was taught in American business schools," said Albert H. Hastorf, emeritus professor of psychology and human biology and a former Stanford provost.
Webb's best known book was Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences, published while he was teaching at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and co- authored by Donald Campbell, Richard Schwartz and Lee Sechrest. "If there were a Pulitzer Prize for originality of ideas, I would vote to award it to Unobtrusive Measures," said Gordon Allport, the distinguished Harvard professor who was one of the nation's leading figures in social psychology.
"In his life and work, Gene stood for basic human values and an unwavering commitment to his fellow human beings," said Business School Dean Michael Spence. "His commitment to achievement, his kindness, his courage, and his irrepressible humor will be terribly missed," Spence said.
Webb was a leader in developing many of the Business School's most innovative programs. He was the founding director of the Public Management Program, which introduced the study of the public sector and nonprofit agencies into the management curriculum. He created and taught an MBA course in crisis management as well as a course in philanthropy for MBA students that culminated in students weighing grant proposals before passing out $10,000 in charitable gifts. He also developed an executive education program for corporate board directors.
In addition to faculty colleagues, Webb forged lasting ties with doctoral students he advised, including management consultant and commentator Tom Peters; Michael Ray, a professor of marketing at the Business School who had been a student of Webb's at Northwestern; and Jeffrey Pfeffer, now a Stanford Business School professor.
Peters dedicated his 1982 bestseller In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies to Webb and noted his leadership in unconventional thinking about organizational effectiveness.
"His outstanding gift was the gift for friendship," said John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and former Johnson administration Cabinet member who credits Webb with being instrumental in his decision to come to Stanford.
"He was my mentor during my first years here, despite the fact that I'm considerably older than he," said Gardner, the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor of Public Service. "He taught me about the university, how it functions, and helped me with some crucial decisions. He was truly an adviser."
Gardner and Webb, along with Palo Alto physician Walter Bortz, founded the Experience Corps, an organization to take advantage of the skills and experience of older volunteers for educational programs and service within the community.
"As a new dean in 1969, I depended on his wise and candid advice in matters academic, while at the same time finding him a source of innovation and creative program ideas," said Arjay Miller, former president of Ford Motor Company, who served as dean of the Business School until 1979. "Asked to undertake new possibilities - teaching or administrative - he never failed to respond wholeheartedly. I shall miss the pleasure of his company."
"Gene was an institution builder," agreed Robert Jaedicke, who served as dean from 1983 to 1990. Jaedicke said he agreed to become dean in part because Webb was then serving as associate dean. "The term collegial was invented to describe him and I'm sure that his collegiality extended beyond the boundaries of the school itself. He was a friend whom we will all miss."
"Gene was always interested in the ethical aspects of work," said Hastorf. "He was trying to find ways to measure things honestly."
The kind of research Webb advocated might measure youngsters' level of activity by how fast their shoes wore out or track the popularity of individual exhibits in a museum by measuring the wear and tear on the floor in front of the displays.
At the time Unobtrusive Measures was published in 1966, American social psychologists used two primary methods of research: experimental work based on created situations, and questionnaires and public opinion surveys. Webb proposed a third method "that changed the way people look at measurement in social psychology and the way they did research and how they defined variables," said Michael Ray.
With his usual good humor, Webb joked that his "unobtrusive" measures could also be described as oddball. In the preface, he said he had toyed with the idea of calling the book The Bullfighter's Beard since some observers believed bullfighters¹ beards grew faster on days they fought. Webb cautioned: "No one seems to know if the torero's beard really grows faster on that day because of anxiety or if he simply stands further away from the blade, shaking razor in hand."
Webb was born in Albany, N.Y. A psychologist, he received his bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany and his doctorate from the University of Chicago. He worked for E.H. Weiss Advertising in Chicago and in 1957 moved to the Chicago Tribune's marketing group as a research psychologist.
In 1960 he began teaching at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism; he came to Stanford Business School in 1968. In 1977 Webb became the first holder of the School's Lane Family Professorship, an endowed professorship honoring the late Laurence W. Lane, founder of Lane Publishing Co., in Menlo Park, Ca., and publisher of Sunset magazine.
During his career, Webb ended up as chairman of most of the groups he was associated with, including the Committee on Technology Assessment and Exploratory Research for the National Science Foundation. He was an adviser to the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and a board member of the American Institutes for Research. He also was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Association.
At Stanford he was associate dean of the Business School, chairman of the Faculty Senate, and co-chair of the University Advisory Board, the elected panel of senior people who pass on all appointments and promotions at the university. He served on a variety of campus committees including the Panel on Human Subjects and Medical Research, and the Stanford Commission on Investment Responsibility that in the late 1970s debated whether the university should divest itself of stocks of firms that had holdings in South Africa and Chile, among other places.
He is survived by his wife, Mimi; his mother, Alice Webb Connors, of Albany, N.Y.; and three children: Leigh Geoffrey Webb, 38, of Washington, D.C.; Alison Webb Desmarais, 36, of Barrington, N.H.; and Gregory Paul Webb, 32, of Washington, D.C.
A memorial service will be held at the Stanford Memorial Church at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 21. A reception will follow at the Graduate School of Business. The family requests donations to programs that promote the healthy development of young people. In addition, a fund will be established in his name at the Graduate School of Business for the benefit of students in need of financial assistance.
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