Operations Research and Business Schools: The Good!

Way back in 1988, I was a fresh Ph.D. out of Georgia Tech doing a postdoc at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota.  While I had plans to spend another postdoc year, likely in Europe (and I ended up doing so, in Germany), I did decide it would be good to lock up an academic job before I left.   Email did exist at the time, but the norm was to send things out via “regular” mail.  So I went down to the copy center at the University and picked out a suitably heavy-weight paper for my vita.  I sent out a dozen or so responses to job ads and made a few phone calls (or asked my advisor to make a few calls) and was invited to visit a half-dozen or so places.  Perhaps it was  different era, or perhaps I was relaxed knowing that I had another year of postdoc funds if needed, but it certainly felt more relaxed that it appears to be these days.

One place that seemed eager to have me out was this “business school” at Carnegie Mellon:  The Graduate School of Industrial Administration.  Now, I came out of engineering and I certainly believed that my future lie in engineering.  Here is a sign of how little those of us in engineering knew about business schools:  the previous year, a fellow doctoral student went out on the market and interviewed at a number of places before finding a job at a business school.  At the time, we were all a bit surprised since he had a good dissertation and we (other doctoral students) thought that it was good enough to get a top engineering job.  Too bad he was stuck in a business school, we said:  must be a tough job market.  That school was the University of Chicago, then and now a preeminent business school that much of the field would kill to get a job at. Business schools were really not on our radar.

But I was polite, so I agreed to head out to Carnegie Mellon.  It was my first job interview, so I told myself the school would be a great place to practice my talk before moving on to the real contenders.

I hadn’t planned on liking CMU and GSIA as much as I did.  The people I talked to were much different than those at engineering schools.  Of course, there were some top-notch OR people (more on them later) but I also talked to economists and political scientists and even a psychologist or two.  They were involved in fascinating research that was a little less … transactional than much of engineering research (“Do this since the grant depends on it”).  And the Deputy Dean of the time, Tim McGuire (now at Management Science Associates) was very persuasive about how exciting things can be in business schools.

But even more persuasive was Egon Balas, an intellectual leader in the operations research since the 1960s.  While I did (and do) find him a bit intimidating, Egon had (and has) a tremendous love for integer programming, and amazing energy in research. He also had spend decades keeping up the tradition GSIA had of having a great OR group.  Founders such as Herb Simon, Bill Cooper, Al Blumstein, and Gerry Thompson had been (or in Gerry’s case, still were) part of GSIA, and the OR group was, in 1988, pretty amazing: Gerard Cornuejols and John Hooker joined Gerry and Egon to form the group.

I received an offer from GSIA and from some top engineering schools, and, to my surprise, I decided that my future lay in the business school.  And that is not a decision I have regretted.  GSIA (now Tepper) continues to have a top-notch OR group.  Gerry retired, then passed away, but we added R. Ravi, Javier Pena, Francois Margot, Willem van Hoeve, and Fatma Kilinc-Karzan.  Gerard Cornuejols continues to do amazing work, having recently won the von Neumann Theory Prize.

With the larger faculty size comes a stable and important role within the business school.  Operations research is seem as a key competitive advantage to our school.  While there are many aspects of this advantage, I’ll point to two:  the increased role of business analytics, and the role rankings play in business school success.  If you don’t believe me on the latter, I’ll point you to the list of journals Business Week uses for their intellectual capital ranking.  If you have people who can publish in Operations Research, you can be a more successful business school.  I recently heard my Dean, a hard-core finance researcher, say “We need more OR faculty”:  music to my ears!

And, the best part is, Egon Balas is still with us and still active.  He turns 90 this week, so we had a tea for him (we had a big conference when he turned 80;  we can do that again for his 100th).  A bunch of us did short video clips to wish Egon happy birthday.  Here is mine:

As you might guess, I am proud to be part of the operations research group here at the Tepper School. The school has been very good for operations research … and operations research has been very good for the school.

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