William Danforth, chancellor who guided transformation of WashU and Olin, dies at 94

  • September 16, 2020
  • By Kurt Greenbaum
  • 3 minute read

Dr. William Danforth, who guided Washington University as its chancellor for 24 years and is credited with transforming the university and its business school into world-class organizations, died on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, at age 94.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Dr. Danforth, who led the university from 1971 until 1995, died at his home in Ladue.

“He really laid the foundation for the rise of Olin Business School’s preeminence,” Olin Dean Mark P. Taylor said in 2018, when Dr. Danforth received the Olin Dean’s Medal.

“I will always be grateful for the warm welcome Chancellor Danforth gave me when I joined Washington University and the important counsel he provided over the past few years,” Taylor said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Rest in peace and thank you.”

In an Olin Business magazine article about the award, Taylor noted that then-Dean Robert L. Virgil partnered with Dr. Danforth to raise Olin’s endowment from $200,000 to $75 million, recruit outstanding faculty, build strong corporate relationships and turn Olin into an international powerhouse.

The university recognized Dr. Danforth’s passing and his 65 years of service to WashU in an obituary posted Thursday. The story acknowledged his contributions specifically to Olin, including shepherding the construction of Simon Hall as the headquarters of the business school—among 20 buildings constructed during his chancellorship. There is a WashU tribute website posted in Dr. Danforth’s honor.

“When I became dean, I didn’t do anything that was important without talking it through with Bill Danforth,” Virgil, MBA ’60/PhD ’67, said in the 2018 Olin Business Dean’s Medal story. Virgil served 16 years as dean, retiring from the post in 1993. “He was the best possible boss anyone could have. He was tremendously supportive every step along the way as we worked to transform the business school and to make it a more contributing part of Washington University.”

For the broader WashU community, Dr. Danforth was widely acknowledged for increasing the university’s prestige, guiding it from a local college to an international powerhouse. Dr. Danforth “oversaw an elevenfold increase in the university’s enrollment,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “During his tenure, faculty members won 11 Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes, and Washington U. consistently ranked among the top universities in the nation.”

Born in 1926, Dr. Danforth attended St. Louis Country Day School and then Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, before transferring to Princeton and graduating in 1947. After Harvard Medical School and an internship at Barnes Hospital, he served two years as a Navy doctor during the Korean War, after which he joined the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine.

Known as a self-effacing and humble leader in spite of his privileged upbringing, Dr. Danforth noted on the occasion of his receiving the Dean’s Medal, “I particularly think that a good part of leadership is just finding other people who can help you and do things better than you can do.”

When you search for the roots of the rise and relevance of Olin, you find fingerprints of Bill Danforth at every point. He believed in Olin, supported Olin and inspired Olin. He was a giant of a leader at Washington University, in St. Louis, and in the fellowship of top university leaders in the nation. Over my last 30-years at Washington University, I was blessed by his encouragement, guidance, leadership, care and friendship. He guided us to our purpose and steered us back when we got distracted. His memories will continue to warm our hearts and touch our souls. Rest in eternal peace, Bill.

—Mahendra Gupta (Dean, Olin Business School, 2005-2016)

2018 Olin Dean's Medal

Dr. William H. Danforth accepted the Olin Business School Dean's Medal, presented in honor of his 24 years of devoted and inspired leadership.

About the Author

Kurt Greenbaum

Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

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