I have known Will my entire academic career – indeed without him I would likely not have been an academic. I had the good fortune to know and observe Will as a teacher in class, as a presence in the department, as a doctoral program head, as a dissertation advisor, as a career mentor, as a department head and as a co-author. In every role Will left an incredible mark and a set of learnings and lessons, not just by what he said, but also by what he did; and also by what he did not say and what he did not do. Will was both a consummate educator and a wonderful human being.
It would be futile to try and capture all those lessons in any single remembrance. So I pick only a handful. As a teacher his seminar served as my foundation for not just an understanding of strategy but also how to ask “interesting and doable” questions. As a towering presence in the department his own behavior set the norms for how faculty were supposed to behave – which in his case meant – with complete dedication to the cause of learning and to the institution and the profession. He never preached these things – he just lived them every single day and you could not miss the lessons. A key topic did not have an interesting and current case available – he would write it himself. A key departmental course could not be offered – he would step in, prepare it and teach it – no drama, no protestations, just get the task done, well. He was oblivious to politics, small chit-chat and the dictates of professional networking. Even at conferences it was not unusual to catch him reading while eating dinner alone; yet if you needed advice from him– he always had time. Mentoring students and faculty across the globe; travelling to Africa and Asia pursuing research and improving the lot of others, he was here, there, everywhere. A limitless intellectual curiosity was a key part of his implicit definition of an academic; one of his legendary phrases – “pick up a rock to see what’s under it” –became the guiding principle of life for many of us fortunate enough to engage with him. His clear writing style was another academic gift and I remember a senior doctoral student telling me in my first few weeks in the program – “read Will’s papers”. I did, and decades later I’m still learning from them – some of the principles I have so far identified from them as attributes of good academic writing- simple, clear, direct, precise, concise.
Dean Joe White (then the Michigan Business School Dean) once said decades ago, a sentence that has stayed with me forever – our fear of passing on is nothing but a fear of tasks left incomplete. I always thought the sentence made complete sense – passing on is the only certainty shared by every sapient being and hence a surprise to no one. With the outcome itself known with certainty any fear must then come from things one needed to do but failed to accomplish. What Will’s standards were for himself are unknown to me, but by the standards of most lives it would be hard to imagine what if anything Will left undone. However, reflecting upon Will’s life made me realize that there is a crucial complement to Dean White’s original thought – when we live a life that imbues in many our skills and principles we leave behind no incomplete tasks – for the multitude will consummate our life’s work and much more. It is perhaps very fitting that in his passing Will left behind one more lesson. Rest in peace, dear guru, and thank you, for things too many to count, beginning with my academic career, but most importantly for serving as a shining light, a lodestar to inspire and guide our behavior. Thank you Dilys, Mairi, Tamzin and Luc for sharing Will with us. He mattered deeply to many.
Ph. D. under Will’s supervision at the University of Michigan (1991-1996)