Chair of Honor

September 1, 2014
John Whitehead is the honorary HDS campaign chair
John Whitehead, honorary HDS campaign chair

When former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead looks around the world, he’s troubled by what he sees: unfortunate new aggressive actions by Russia; war in Iraq; ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israelis; tension between India and Pakistan; kidnappings and violence in Nigeria. Whether the unrest is in Africa, Asia, Europe, or America, however, Whitehead says there is often a common thread: religious differences.

"So many horrible things that go on in the world have to do with competition and disagreement between religions," says Whitehead. "We need an institution that can embrace religion as a subject—not just Western religions—to inform and assist leaders working to decrease the tensions that exist in the world."

The former diplomat, investment banker, and lifelong philanthropist does all he can to make Harvard Divinity School that institution, sharing his wisdom, experience, and resources to help the School advance understanding of religion. Capping two decades of service to HDS, Whitehead agreed in 2013 to serve as honorary chair of the HDS capital campaign just before celebrating his 92nd birthday.

"I thought I could help expand the reach of the Divinity School into training people with high moral values who maybe didn't take what I would call 'religious institutional jobs' when they graduated," he explains. "I also think that HDS differs from almost any other institution in its ability to speak on all of the world’s major religions. The knowledge we create here is critical to leaders everywhere."

Whitehead says that his interest in religion and morality stems from his own upbringing. He was born in 1922 to what he calls "a churchgoing Episcopalian family."

His father served on the vestry of their church in Montclair, New Jersey. His mother was president of the Episcopal women’s association. Whitehead joined the boys’ choir. "I was a boy soprano soloist," he still says with pride.

Religion was an important factor in Whitehead’s education as well. He attended Haverford College near Philadelphia, a school founded by Quakers and deeply rooted in the values of dignity, tolerance, respect, and intellectual rigor. He says his experience there and in his childhood church community molded his character.

"College was tremendous," he says. "A Quaker influence and Quaker principles added to my background. Together with my own religious experience, it led me to believe that the kind of person you became was very important. And so I tried my best to become a good person, and an honest person, with integrity in everything that I did. And I think that has followed me all my life."

Whitehead needed to call on every bit of his faith and fortitude after college, when he entered the navy during World War II. At the age of 22, he commanded a landing craft that took part in the first wave of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

"I guess I’d have to call it a distinguished navy career," he says. "It was a very meaningful thing, to serve my country at a very dramatic moment in history."

Whitehead's association with Harvard began after the war, when he attended the Business School. From there, he began a 38-year career at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, rising to chairman of the firm. When he retired, he thought he'd left his last paying job and started to write the book that was completed by others called The Social Responsibilities of Business. Then, 40 years after he helped end a hot war, Whitehead was asked to serve in a cold one.

"President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz asked me to be the Deputy Secretary of State," he says. "I spent four years in the State Department, and it was very exciting because the Cold War really ended at that time. I’m proud of the fact that diplomacy was able to end a 50-year war with the Soviet Union without a shot being fired."

When he left government service in 1989, Whitehead turned much of his attention and energy to philanthropy. The long list of charitable and civic organizations he has led or supported includes the United Nations Association, the International Rescue Committee, the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts, the Brookings Institution, the Mellon Foundation, the Harvard Board of Overseers, Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Program, Lincoln Center Theater, the National Humanities Center, and the Trustees Council of the National Gallery of Art. Whitehead says that he believes strongly that business people—and the organizations they run—have a responsibility to the society in which they operate.

"Companies must be good citizens," he says, "and serve the nonprofit organizations that exist in the communities where they operate. Business has to be more than just a profit-making machine."

The need for ethical business leaders with a strong sense of social responsibility has never been greater, Whitehead says. He points out that the global economy is still recovering from the worst recession in 70 years—a crisis precipitated in part by unprincipled behavior on Wall Street.

"One glance at the day's headlines will show you many, many examples of the damage that unethical behavior can do to a society if it becomes commonplace," he says. "We have to stamp it out, not only the financial field, but also in all walks of life."

In the years ahead, Whitehead hopes to address ethical lapses like those he saw in the financial sector in part through his commitment to the HDS mission and support of the School's campaign.

"One of the jobs of the Divinity School is to teach people to recognize unethical behavior when they see it, to wipe it out when they find it, and to live decent lives themselves in whatever field they’re in. Now more than ever, we need organizations like HDS that instill in leaders a sense of ethics and moral responsibility."