keith murnighan, rip
Keith Murnighan, a dear friend and colleague, passed away yesterday after a hard fought battle with cancer. It was a sad day for those of us who knew him. Keith was a vibrant member of the Northwestern community, but his influence extended well beyond Evanston, which is evident from the outpouring of support and sentiment I’ve witnessed over the last couple of days. People loved Keith, and his influence as a scholar was deep and broad.
Keith came into organizational behavior during its “golden era,” just as organizational sociologists and social psychologists began bringing their perspectives into this interdisciplinary field. Keith got his PhD in social psychology in 1974 and then joined the organizational behavior department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign at a time when the younger members of the department included Jeff Pfeffer, Jerry Salancik, Barry Staw, Dave Whetten, and Greg Oldham. Keith, along with this venerable cast of characters, would make Illinois one of the top organizations departments in the world and help bring social psychology into the mainstream of organizational behavior. Keith’s tastes and interests were diverse. Much of his early research infused experimental methods into game theory. At the time this type of experimental, psychology-inflected decision theory was a bit strange, but it has since become foundational to what we know as behavioral economics. One of Keith’s frequent coauthors during this time, Al Roth, went on to win a Nobel in economics. Al credited Keith for introducing him to experiments.
Keith’s influence on organizational behavior extends well beyond his forays into behavioral economics. OB scholars might know him most for his work on group behavior inside organizations or for his research on the psychological foundations of trust and cooperation. One of his most highly cited pieces – and the paper of his that I first read – looks at the inherent paradoxes of cooperation in intense work groups and examines how groups deal with these paradoxes without ever completely resolving them. The empirical setting was British string quartets. The paper cleverly recognizes that conflict and tension between members of a work group are actually productive and that the key to successful group interaction is to facilitate constructive conflict while avoiding disruptive conflict. I teach lessons from this paper in my classes all the time.
It was easy to see how influential Keith became by observing him at a conference, where he was always a rock star. In my first year at Northwestern, I saw Keith at an Academy of Management conference, and I started walking towards him to say hello. But I never got the chance because he was quickly surrounded by a crowd of people – friends, former students, admirers. Keith mentored many people and was a coauthor to many. Since joining Kellogg in 1996, Keith has served on the dissertation committees – either as a member or as the primary advisor – of dozens of PhD students. I imagine that most Kellogg PhD students who have passed through our department have taken at least one class from class Keith. The grad students at Kellogg loved Keith and many credited him for their success. But Keith was always willing to mentor and help young people outside of Kellogg as well. He was a community builder, and he was generous in his time and energy in making young people feel included in that community. (Keith had breakfast with nearly every job candidate we’ve interviewed in the past decade or so. It was important to give candidates the best first impression possible). It’s also the case that Keith was passionate about his beliefs and ideas. If he disagreed with you, he let you know it. He cared greatly, which was evident in every meeting or chat I had with him. He was also extremely warm, and as one colleague commented to me yesterday, he was capable of leaving you feeling good after every conversation you had with him.
It was my pleasure to co-teach a class with Keith this year. It was a class that neither of us had taught before, but we were both eager to try it out and learn together. I was grateful for the chance to work closely with Keith and see how he organized his ideas and lectures. Keith was actually going through cancer treatment at the time, and I worried that he wouldn’t be able to finish the class. I asked him at one point if he wanted me to take over. Anyone who knows Keith will not be surprised by his reaction. There was no way he wasn’t going to finish that class. He loved every minute of it and he brought a passion and energy to the classroom that exceeded his actual physical strength. I was delighted when I learned that Keith won two teaching awards in the last year of his life. It meant so much to him. He loved being an educator as much as he enjoyed the intensity of research.
Keith was a great person, a wonderful scholar, a deep thinker, and an enthusiastic colleague. I miss him already.