Ralph M. James: Behind the Scenes and on the Scene

Photo by Susan YoungPhoto by Susan Young
By Pat Harrison

Ralph M. James MBA ’82 is truly a University citizen. For 25 years, he has worked in senior positions at Harvard Business School, but his commitments reach far beyond HBS to other parts of the University. Not only is he a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council and the Schlesinger Library Council at the Radcliffe Institute—the only person who serves on both—but he also cochairs the Campaign for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a member of the Dean’s Council at Harvard Divinity School, and serves on the Harvard Campaign Executive Committee.

James has been involved with Radcliffe since the early days of the Institute, when his friend and colleague Tamara Elliott Rogers ’74, now Harvard’s vice president for alumni affairs and development, was the associate dean for advancement and planning at the Radcliffe Institute. “She is extraordinary,” James says. “I asked her if there was anything I could do to help Radcliffe, and she said the Schlesinger Library is a gem and that somebody with a business background might be able to help them think about the digital future and what libraries are going to become. That was 15 years ago.”

The James family’s support of the Schlesinger began with a gift in honor of Ardis Butler James, Ralph’s mother, whom he describes as “an amateur historian, very gender conscious because she grew up during the Depression at a time when women didn’t have the opportunities they have now.” She and Ralph’s father, Robert James MBA ’48, PhD ’53, an oil company executive and real estate developer, both grew up in Nebraska and collected quilts from around the world. In 1997, they established the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where their gift of more than 1,000 quilts forms the centerpiece of the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection.

Ardis James died in 2011, and since then, the family—including Ralph, his sister Catherine Paglia MBA ’76, and their father—have made gifts to the Schlesinger in Ardis’s memory. Today, the James family is supporting the library’s program for diversifying its collections. Ralph James explains that when his family considers supporting an institution, they ask what its highest priority is. “If you have smart people running good institutions,” he says, “you should understand what their priorities are and support them.” He and his family believe that the Radcliffe Institute and its Schlesinger Library have talented leaders, so they listen to them and direct their support accordingly. Plus, diversifying the Schlesinger’s collections is something he strongly believes in. “Scholars can’t understand the past and present if they don’t have a full picture of it, so the library’s collections must help provide that full picture,” he says.

As one might expect, the James family’s philanthropy at Radcliffe has not been limited to the library or to honoring Ardis James. Ralph James honored his father by establishing the Robert G. James Scholar at Risk Fellowship Fund and created a fund to support Radcliffe’s Academic Ventures program.

This past September, James began a new job at the business school in which—not surprisingly—his focus is promoting One Harvard, a University priority guided by a belief that Harvard is at its best when its schools are coordinating for maximum impact and collective efforts. He is passionate about that goal and is confident that the Harvard Campaign, in which the Radcliffe Institute is participating, has unquestionably moved the University closer to One Harvard, with schools in various disciplines increasingly working together to address problems such as poverty, health care, climate change, and education reform.

Ardis James was able to visit the Schlesinger Library only once, but her son stops by frequently and sometimes encounters students who are using the library’s collections to conduct research. “They talk about finding source documents that enlighten them in ways that couldn’t possibly have happened if they hadn’t had access to these materials,” he says. “Like the best programs at the University, the Schlesinger inspires students and helps them realize that they can do amazing things.”

While his preference is to “play a behind-the-scenes role,” James is able to strengthen the library and other programs of the Radcliffe Institute by serving as a visible and vital leader on both the Schlesinger Library Council and the Dean’s Advisory Council.

A quilt from the Ardis and Robert James collection at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; object # 1997.007.0840. This quilt, possibly made in Kentucky, is dated 1932.A quilt from the Ardis and Robert James collection at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; object # 1997.007.0840. This quilt, possibly made in Kentucky, is dated 1932.

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2016