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Joseph Henry Willits
Dean, Wharton School (1933-39)

Joseph H. Willits (1889-1979) was the maternal grandfather of Dean Michael A. Fitts. A lifetime of extraordinary service to the University culminated when he served as director of the Educational Survey of the University of Pennsylvania from 1954 to 1958. The findings that were reached in this first-of-its-kind self-study became the blueprint for the University's plans for expansion, funding, and curriculum development for the latter half of the 20th Century.

Willits was born into a Quaker family in Ward, Pennsylvania, Chester County, in 1889. After earning a bachelor's and a master's degree from Swarthmore College, in 1912 Dr. Willits joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty as an instructor in Geography and Industrial Economics at the Wharton School of Finance and Economics. In 1916 he earned a Ph.D. in Economics from Penn. Drafted into World War I, he served as an employment supervisor at the U.S. Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia where he earned a reputation as an innovative manager of labor talent and resources.

Returning to Wharton at the end of the War, in 1919 Dr. Willits was named Chairman of the Department of Geography and Industry to which he applied his expertise to the new field of labor management. As director of the Department of Industrial Economics he set up Wharton's Industrial Research Department and made it one of the leading personnel and labor research establishments in the nation.

In 1924, Dr. Willits' service on Wharton's Faculty Curriculum Committee enhanced his reputation as a curriculum reformer and resulted in a wide-ranging policy statement that called for the limitation of technical, specialized education at the school and the dedication to a broader business education program that would prepare students for general executive responsibilities.

He was called into public service to address the ailments delivered by the Great Depression. From 1930 to 1931 he served on President Herbert Hoover's Emergency Committee for Employment. Years before the New Deal, he called for a system of unemployment insurance, control over the expansion of credit, and greater controls over business and industry.

In 1933 he was named Dean of the Wharton School. His tenure was marked by a reaction to: the economic malaise of the Depression years. Willits actively applied the world class talent of Wharton to address the nation's economic troubles. He sought to make academic research in economics central to Wharton studies, and by raising the level of scholarship in all departments, he transformed the school into an institution of applied economics.

Also in 1933 Dr. Willits was named to the prestigious position of President of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and rose to become the agency's executive director from 1936 through 1939.

Dr. Willits left Penn in 1939 to become the Director of the Division of Social Sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation. Upon leaving Penn, the University conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the February convocation. He remained at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York until his retirement in 1954 when he returned to Philadelphia to direct a team of outside consultants and inside committees, comprised of faculty and students, to produce the Educational Survey of the University of Pennsylvania.

As he put it in the Forward to the first volume of reports, "The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting an experiment in self-examination. This experiment is based on an assumption. The assumption is that no human, social institution can be trusted to be in a healthy state if it does not receive informed, objective criticism.the criticism may not be competent or objective but it is vigorous and searching. Ignoring it spells peril." Reference: The Pragmatic Imagination: A History of the Wharton School 1881-1981 Steven A. Sass, University of Pennsylvania Press (1982).