In memoriam: George P. Shultz PhD ’49 (1920–2021)

Emily Dahl MITEI

George P. Shultz PhD ’49, former U.S. secretary of labor, state, and of the treasury, died peacefully at his home in Stanford, California, on February 6, 2021, at the age of 100. A champion of bipartisanship who for decades urged action on climate change, he leaves a rich legacy forged during more than 70 years of leadership in government, academia, and business.

“A beloved teacher, a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader, a public servant of the highest integrity, and a relentless champion for the breakthrough energy technologies on which the future of our society depends, George Shultz represented the very best of MIT and of our nation,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We will remember Secretary Shultz for the boundless energy, piercing clarity, and innovative ideas he brought to every role and every conversation. And we are profoundly grateful for the eloquence of his example: a life lived in service to the common good.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz PhD ’49 (left) and MIT President L. Rafael Reif at the 2019 meeting of the MIT Energy Initiative External Advisory Board. Credit: Eric Haynes

Born in New York City on December 13, 1920, Shultz grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton University in 1942. He was admitted to MIT for a master’s degree program and planned to enroll in 1943, but he paused his academic pursuits to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. He served from 1942 to 1945, rising to the rank of captain.

Following his military service, Shultz began what would become more than a decade of scholarship and teaching at MIT. After earning his PhD in industrial economics, he taught economics at the Institute in the Department of Economics and at the Sloan School of Management, first as an assistant professor, then as an associate professor.

“George and I were assistant professors together. That was seventy years ago,” says Robert M. Solow, a professor emeritus of economics. “We remained friends ever after. Even once he got used to being in high office, there was always a bit of that young researcher in him. I can remember his going door to door in Nashua, New Hampshire, learning about the lives of the unemployed. Everyone will miss him.”

In 1955, he took a leave of absence from MIT to serve as a senior staff economist on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers. From 1957 to 1968, he served at University of Chicago Graduate School of Business as a professor of industrial relations and then as the school’s dean.

He was appointed U.S. secretary of labor under President Richard Nixon in 1969; in this role, he prioritized poverty reduction and equal employment opportunities, among other initiatives. In 1970, he became the first director of the Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level office, where he worked to advance school desegregation efforts. He then served as U.S. secretary of the treasury, where he co-founded the international organization that later became known as the Group of Seven (G7) nations, formed to pursue shared economic objectives. Shultz served as chairman of the President’s Economic Policy Advisory Board from 1981 to 1982. In the private sector, he held executive roles at Bechtel Group, Inc., from 1974 to 1982.

He is perhaps best known for his tenure as U.S. secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, from 1982 to 1989. Shultz was a key figure in facilitating the de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, helping to draft agreements that led to the end of the Cold War. In 1989, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. From 1989 until his death, he was a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Shultz’s affiliation with MIT remained strong over the years. When accepting the Robert A. Muh Award for note-worthy achievement in the humanities, arts, and social sciences at MIT in 2003, Shultz gave a talk on national security. He asserted that “as a country, we need to do things that are broadly beneficial to the world.”

This philosophy extended to topics including climate change and the transition to low-carbon energy. In recent decades, Shultz became an outspoken advocate for farsighted action to address climate change. He urged the U.S. to cut its dependence on oil in favor of clean energy production, championed sustained federal support for basic research, and built bipartisan support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax proposal—ideas he advocated publicly and discussed over the years with the MIT community.

In 2007, as the Institute was launching the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), he became the inaugural chair of its External Advisory Board, a leadership role he held until 2019, when he chose to step down as chair. He remained a member of the board until his death, working closely with his successor and longtime friend Norman Augustine.

“George inspired those of us working on clean energy and climate change. It was a pleasant surprise when he agreed to be the inaugural chair of the MIT Energy Initiative’s External Advisory Board and, because of his enthusiasm, we didn’t need a second chair for a dozen years!” says Ernest J. Moniz, professor emeritus of physics post-tenure, thirteenth U.S. secretary of energy, and the founding director of MITEI. “I am deeply saddened by the loss of this remarkable statesman and friend.”

“Secretary Shultz was generous with his time, his wisdom, and his friendships, creating critically needed communities of shared concern—which he recognized was the way to get things done, and to have lots of fun doing so,” says MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield. “As founding chair of the External Advisory Board of MIT’s Energy Initiative, Secretary Shultz integrated the insights of industry with the ambitions of the academy, to apply lab-based discoveries to the pressing problem of climate change. He made MITEI and MIT better, and we all enjoyed every minute of the time he shared with us.”

“George taught us much about the importance of a principled vision coupled with persistence in engaging with government on the energy and climate challenge,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong. “He also reminded us to focus on the hard problems like energy in the developing world—which led to our launch of the Tata Center for Technology and Design and other initiatives since then. We will miss him and his guidance greatly here at MITEI.”

“George Shultz is the iconic example of the contributions MIT individuals make to the country. We should honor his memory by producing many more,” says John Deutch, Institute Professor Emeritus and former U.S. director of Central Intelligence who held numerous leadership positions in the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy.

Christopher Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Applied Economics at the Sloan School, says, “It is a tremendous honor to hold the George P. Shultz chair, and I feel privileged to have known George, whose wit, wisdom, and statesmanship were unmatched and irreplaceable. I will miss our conversations spanning climate policy to mainstream economics research. Rest in peace, Secretary Shultz.”

Shultz authored numerous articles and books, including Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993), Learning from Experience (2016), and Thinking about the Future (2019). He was an editor of Beyond Disruption: Technology’s Challenge to Governance (2018). His most recent book, Hinge of History: Governance in an Emerging New World, was published in November 2020.

Shultz’s remarkable life was built on the foundation of two long marriages. He and his first wife, Lieutenant Helena “O’Bie” O’Brien, a military nurse, met while stationed in Hawaii during the war. The couple raised five children together and were married until her death in 1995. He later married Charlotte Mailliard Swig, the City of San Francisco’s chief of protocol; they were married for 23 years until his death. In addition to Swig, his survivors include his children, 11 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

He will be deeply missed by his family, colleagues, students, and friends around the world, many of whom shared warm wishes virtually for his 100th birthday celebration in December 2020. To mark the occasion, Shultz wrote in The Washington Post about 10 things he’d learned about trust in his 100 years, underscoring the importance of develop- ing, maintaining, and rebuilding our trust in each other. “Trust is fundamental, reciprocal and, ideally, pervasive. If it is present, anything is possible. If it is absent, nothing is possible,” he wrote.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

Press inquiries:

We're hiring! Learn more and apply