MY WASHINGTON — Fall 2006
   

 
John and Penelope Biggs

Serving with Ethics and Integrity

John H. Biggs personifies the principles he urges all business leaders to embrace.

Shortly after John H. Biggs retired as chairman, chief executive officer, and president of TIAA-CREF, the nation's largest pension fund, in 2002, he was asked by the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to take on an important new government position: chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board of the SEC. The board was created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, with power to discipline and inspect accounting firms in the wake of several major auditing scandals.

The qualities that made John Biggs an ideal candidate for the job very likely kept him from getting it. A true reformer with many years of experience as a trustee overseeing professional aspects of accounting principles, setting and auditing standards, he favored limiting the cozy relationships between corporations and their auditing firms and requiring companies to change auditors periodically, to keep auditing firms independent and make audits more credible. Those aggressive steps likely also would have made the major accounting firms less profitable, so the industry lobbied fiercely against his appointment. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal wrote full editorials advocating the Biggs appointment. After giving in to the big accounting firms to appoint another candidate, the SEC chair and its chief accountant both lost their jobs for mishandling the appointment, but Biggs had simply gone on with his busy life.

Biggs' family has a long history in St. Louis. "My great-grandfather came to St. Louis when he was appointed judge of the Court of Appeals, then in the Old Courthouse downtown," he says. John grew up in Kirkwood. He won a scholarship to the Thomas Jefferson School, a small, academically rigorous St. Louis private school founded in 1946 by Charles Merrill (of Merrill Lynch), where he studied Greek, mathematics, science, and literature. He calls his time there "the most profound educational experience of my life." He went on to study classics and mathematics at Harvard University, where he read the works of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles, and Thucydides' funeral oration for Pericles. His senior essay was on Homer.

At that time, the men of Harvard shared classes with the women of Radcliffe College. "In the classics department," Biggs says, "the ratio of men to women was more balanced in the men's favor." So when he met a fellow classics major from Radcliffe named Penelope Parkman, he had a better chance of getting to know her. John graduated from Harvard in 1958 and Penelope from Radcliffe in 1959. They were married soon after, and still are 47 years later.

John's mathematics studies proved the key to getting a job in St. Louis after college. Beginning in 1958, he held various positions at General American Life Insurance Company. "While working, I studied on my own and became a Fellow in the Society of Actuaries in four years—a relatively short time," he says. During 18 years at General American, his initiative and knowledge led him up the corporate ladder to the position of chief financial officer, responsible for both financials and information technology.

Penelope and John Biggs have generously supported their shared intellectual passion--the study of the classics.

"I was appointed by then-Governor [Christopher] Bond to the Missouri Commission on Higher Education, which set appropriations for Missouri schools. That was when I got to know Bill Danforth," he says. In 1977, then-Chancellor Danforth asked Biggs to come to Washington University as vice chancellor for finance and administration, and later invited him to join the board of the Danforth Foundation.

While at the University, Biggs wanted to pursue his interest in economics. "I had to convince the faculty that I was not too busy and too old at 40 to handle the requirements," he says. He earned his Ph.D. in 1983, after six years of study, and then taught a few courses. "On average, I spent 15-20 hours a week on studies, and 45-50 on the job." One of his main accomplishments as vice chancellor was developing the Tuition Stabilization Plan, which allowed families to prepay tuition and lock it in at the current rate for the next four years. The plan—now expanded into Partners in Education with Parents (PEP)—was the first of its kind in the nation and still serves as a model for other schools.

Biggs has been an idea man everywhere he has worked. He left the University to become president and CEO of Centerre Trust, Inc., in 1985. Earlier, while still at Washington University, because of his interest in pensions, he wrote a paper proposing a new product for TIAA-CREF. "Incredibly, they adopted the idea, and I was asked to join the board. When Centerre merged with Boatmen's Bank in 1989, I left to become president and chief operating officer at TIAA-CREF," Biggs says. During his nearly 14 years there, he was chairman, chief executive officer, and president. He has written many other scholarly papers on corporate governance, variable annuities, social security, and pension plans.

Biggs continues to be involved with corporate, community, and professional organizations. He is a director of the Boeing Company, JPMorganChase, and the National Bureau of Economic Research (he was formerly its chair). He is a trustee of the Danforth Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he also has just been re-elected to Washington University's Board of Trustees. He chairs the board of Emeriti, a new not-for-profit company offering post-retirement medical benefits for faculty and staff in higher education. He also has served on the boards of a number of other arts, education, and professional organizations, in St. Louis and elsewhere.

After he and Penelope moved to St. Louis' Central West End in the 1960s, they helped establish the New City School, where three of their grandchildren are enrolled today. (Their son, Henry, also a Harvard graduate, is associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences and director of undergraduate research at Washington University.) After moving to New York in 1989, Biggs became chairman of the United Way of New York and treasurer of the New York Investment Fund.

Alumna Penelope Biggs, M.A. '68, Ph.D. '74 (both degrees in comparative literature), taught literature courses as an assistant professor at Lindenwood College (now University) and then Latin at Mary Institute. She and John have generously supported their shared intellectual passion—the study of the classics. Life members of the Danforth Circle, they have funded for 17 years a visiting lectureship in classics to bring a nationally distinguished scholar to campus each year to spark interest in Greek and Latin studies. They also established a distinguished professorship in classics during the Campaign for Washington University.

Biggs has great loyalty to Washington University and deep respect for the progress Bill Danforth and Mark Wrighton have brought about. Besides serving as a University trustee and chair of the Board's Investments Committee, he has held many other volunteer positions, including being the original chairman of the New York Regional Cabinet and now a member. Because of Bill Danforth's influence on his life and career, Biggs is happy to see the Hilltop being renamed the Danforth Campus. "Like many others, I often thought the name of Washington University ought to be changed to Danforth University, because Bill has been such a great builder of both the Hilltop and Medical campuses. But Bill would never have accepted that," he says.

A quiet retirement doesn't have much appeal for John Biggs. He is now an executive-in-residence at the Stern School of Business at New York University and is working on a broader research and teaching role in his favorite subject, "financing retirement in the 21st century."

-John W. Hansford