Joseph H. Willits was the director of the Division of the Social Sciences from 1939 until his retirement in 1954.
The son of a Quaker farmer, Willits was born in Ward, Pennsylvania, in 1889. He studied at Swarthmore College and continued his graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). He received his Ph.D. in economics from Penn in 1916, where he had served since 1910 as an instructor in geography and industrial economics. In 1915 he published a study of the unemployed in Philadelphia.
During World War I Willits was the employment manager for a U.S. Navy aircraft factory. There he gained practical insights into personnel management, a field that became his primary research interest. He returned to Penn in 1919, where he remained for two decades. From 1921 to 1939, he served as director of the Industrial Economics Research Department, and from 1933 to 1939 he also served as Dean of the Wharton School. Perhaps his most significant achievement came in 1921, when he and a colleague, Anne Bezanson, founded the Industrial Research Unit. The unit became a model for applied business research and helped to re-shape the business curriculum at Penn.
Willits was named director of the Division of the Social Sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 1939. He shepherded its programs through the war years and led the division toward greater support for work in international relations and area studies.
After his retirement from the Foundation, he returned to Penn, where he directed its Educational Survey until 1958. The survey was a comprehensive evaluation of the university’s educational practices.
Joseph Willits died in 1979 at the age of ninety; his papers can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC). His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the RAC's online collections.