Operations research soldiers on

When David Paltiel SOM ’85, GRD ’92 arrived at Yale in the fall of 1987 to study operations research, the University’s graduate program in the field was flourishing and had a reputation as one of the top programs in the country, rivaling Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But by the time Paltiel had earned his doctorate five years later, the program was all but dead.

By the fall of 1992, the operations research Ph.D. program had stopped accepting applications, and the School of Management’s popular Administrative Sciences Department, where it had been partially housed, was dissolved. After Yale transferred operations research into a full department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1989, it suffered a swift death just two years after being christened as a department.

Paltiel, who has since returned to Yale as a public health and managerial sciences professor in the School of Management, bore witness to the rapid deterioration of a department that fell victim to strong personalities, conflicting pedagogical visions and a mounting budgetary crisis within the University.

“It felt sad,” he said. “We got ourselves a little space on Trumbull Street, and [we were] able to get it furnished.”

Operations research still maintains a small presence on campus. The department has a chair — professor Eric Denardo — but no faculty for him to lead. The only “O” entry in the Blue Book, the Operations Research Department is Denardo’s one-man show and has been for the last 13 years.

“I think of it as me on my own, not as a department,” said Denardo, who is teaching an undergraduate lecture course this semester.

Operations research is technically the science of decision-making. The field’s heyday can be traced back to former President Kingman Brewster’s tenure, when he saw operations research as part of a “different” brand of business school, which was to be grounded in organization and management rather than finance — the cornerstone of traditional business schools.

But what many perceived to be the school’s “esoteric, mathematical approach” to business quickly became a recipe for disaster, leading to divisions within the faculty ranks, Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said. In the fall of 1988, then-SOM dean Michael Levine eliminated organizational behavior from SOM and transferred the operations research program into the FAS, where it was to become an autonomous department. The decision likely was influenced by a growing belief among some that SOM should primarily focus on finance and economics, Vroom said.

“It was [former President Benno] Schmidt’s decision, I’m certain, that the Operations Research group had no place in the SOM,” Vroom said. “And so he formed a separate department, and my belief is this was done without the consultation of the FAS and the dean of the Graduate School.”

Neither Schmidt nor then-Yale Provost Frank Turner had spoken to the affected parties, Denardo said. He said he spent much of his time working with appointments committees to secure junior faculty appointments in FAS and eventually managed to secure an operations research faculty that consisted of three full and four junior professors. The department was officially set up in the summer of 1989 — but it was to be a troubled birth.

“There was never an understanding of why we were in FAS,” Denardo said. “I lost some faculty in the transition because they were furious about how they had been treated.”

A mounting budget crisis prompted a committee to propose eliminating the Linguistics and Operations Research departments, as well as 114 of 1,067 “junior-faculty equivalent” positions, creating an uproar among Yale faculty.

“There was a rebellion against Schmidt,” Smith said. “We were very close to a vote of no-confidence for President Schmidt.”

While linguistics ultimately was able to survive the committee’s proposals, the new Operations Research Department fell under the axe. Applications to the Ph.D. program were blocked, and the department was folded temporarily into the Applied Mathematics Department, where it would remain until its last majors had graduated.

“The problem with Operations Research was that it was an orphan,” Smith said. “It had been expelled from SOM, imposed on new foster parents who didn’t really want it, and it was very small.”

For Denardo, who had lingered at Yale since operations research was removed from SOM in the hopes that he could help build a strong undergraduate department in the field, the elimination of his department after just one year was especially bittersweet. While Denardo remained at the University as the sole professor with a primary appointment in operations research, the junior faculty he had convinced to remain at Yale found themselves without jobs.

“The associate professors were shocked and depressed and left, as did the assistant professors,” SOM professor Martin Shubik said. “The tenured full professors, except Denardo, had other appointments anyhow.”

Now 68, Denardo said he has remained at Yale not only because he has not received any offers lately, but also because his students are “a lot of fun.”

Denardo teaches two, sometimes three classes a year. The demand for his introductory-level course has grown from 35 just a few years ago to 75 this year, he said, suggesting that the University should consider re-investing in the field.

Princeton University initiated a Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering in its engineering school six years ago, which now accounts for about 30 percent of the school’s total enrollment, department chair Erhan Cinlar said. The field is growing on a national scale as well, as it becomes increasingly attuned to the financial-service industry and the problems it creates, he said.

“We create problems, and we have to solve them as well. That’s the job of this new field of operations research,” Cinlar said. “It has nothing to do with the usual sciences that underlie traditional engineering. This is engineering I think is going to grow in importance, and Yale is the right place for this.”

Yale has not yet discussed the possibility of rebuilding operations research, Deputy Provost Charles Long said.

“It’s not clear what will happen when [Denardo] retires,” Long said. “We’ll have to think about how to provide education in operations research, whether it will be as a major or a program again. Yale can’t cover everything, and some programs fade away. History of science faded away about 20 years ago and has now come back in a different form, so maybe operations research will experience the same thing.”

Professor Eric Denardo lectures for one of the few operations research classes available. A rise in course enrollment has raised the possibility of reviving the department.
Jie Zhou
Professor Eric Denardo lectures for one of the few operations research classes available. A rise in course enrollment has raised the possibility of reviving the department.