Department of Statistics Unitmark
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

In honor of the Department of Statistics' 50th Anniversary, we are highlighting our outstanding faculty and alumni of the past half-century.

Morrie DeGroot

In 1957, before there was a Department of Statistics and Carnegie Mellon University – it was then known as Carnegie Institute of Technology – Morris "Morrie" H. DeGroot, who had just earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, joined Carnegie Tech's Department of Mathematics.

A statistician, his interests gradually began diverging from his colleagues, leading him to yearn for a group with whom to share his enthusiasm for research in decision making and other statistical interests.

To that end, he and lifelong collaborator Richard M. Cyert, then Dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, now the Tepper School of Business, developed a plan for a Dept. of Statistics with Morrie as its head.

In 1966 the department was created. A year later, Carnegie Tech became Carnegie-Mellon University, with the hyphen removed decades later.

Morrie led an unusually active and productive academic life. He wrote three books, edited four volumes, and authored well over 100 technical papers.

He was just as passionate about nurturing young faculty.

Prof. Joseph B. Kadane, who arrived in the dept. in 1971, and who later succeeded Morrie as head, recalled the many roles the latter played in his early career.

"One of them was as a collaborator and a partner in building the department. I found that Morrie was somebody with a great deal of wisdom, who had sensible things to say, who had a sense of humor and who could see a larger picture.

"He certainly played a big role in my maturing as a statistician, an administrator, and as a person," he said.

"Morrie was a person of great warmth, charm, courage, and intellectual breadth," Prof. Joel B. Greenhouse recalled.

"As a junior faculty member encountering a new professional situation, he knew the right thing to say to encourage and to reassure me," he said.

Most of Morrie's research was on the theory of rational decision-making under uncertainty.

His 1970 Optimal Statistical Decisions, subsequently translated in Russian and Polish, provided an elegant and comprehensive treatment of a topic that has become universally recognized as an essential part of statistics and science as a whole.

His undergraduate text, Probability and Statistics, published in 1975, with a second edition in 1986, has played an important role in mathematical statistics curricula nationwide.

In the late 1970s he led a major National Institute of Mental Health-sponsored training grant in psychiatric statistics which brought a number of post-doctoral fellows into the department, including two who are currently faculty members in the department.

"All of his activities no doubt led to the ever-increasing reputation of the Carnegie Mellon Statistics Department nationally and internationally," former Statistics Dept. head, college dean, and interim executive vice president John P. Lehoczky said.

Former Statistics Dept. head and college dean Stephen E. Fienberg said Morrie, a very good friend distinguished by his creativity, rigor, and sense of humor, played a large role in his coming to Carnegie Mellon in 1980.

"He was a major figure in the Bayesian revival beginning in the 1960s. He often complained that the frequentists had usurped all of the good terms in statistics: sufficiency, confidence, power, unbiasedness, consistency.

"These lent the frequentist approach a sense of legitimacy that he thought it did not deserve. When we developed the criterion for comparing well-calibrated forecasters in our joint research, the choice of the term to describe it: 'refinement', was as important as some of the theorems," he said.

Besides participation on national panels, association committees, and journal editorial boards, Morrie was instrumental in the creation of Statistical Science, serving as its first executive editor from 1984 to 1988.

In the inaugural issue, he wrote: "A central purpose of Statistical Science is to convey the richness, breadth, and unity of the field by presenting the full range of contemporary statistical thought at a modest technical level accessible to the wide community of practitioners, teachers, researchers, and students of statistics and probability."

"These words must have come easily to Morrie," Prof. Greenhouse said, "because they captured so well his personal commitment and love for his work and his desire for others to appreciate and enjoy statistics as much as he did."

In recognition of all of his accomplishments and contributions, he was elected Fellow of the American Statistical Association, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the International Statistical Institute, the Econometric Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1984, Morrie was named University Professor, the highest honor Carnegie Mellon bestows on a faculty member.

Five years later, on Nov. 2, 1989, he died at age 58.

Prof. Lehoczky said Morrie's influence continues nearly three decades later.

"Many of the values Morrie ingrained in the department from its start are represented in the department today, especially interdisciplinarity, the importance of statistical research both within the core of statistics and other disciplines, and good teaching.

"He built a department that was both collegial and collaborative, one in which faculty would specialize in some focused area of statistics but also have research engagements both with their statistical colleagues as well as researchers in other disciplines," he said.

Or, as former student and collaborator Prem Goel remarked at Morrie's memorial service, echoing the department's sentiment: "... [that] Morrie has not gone anywhere, that he has merely changed his body which was worn out, that memories of all the good times with Morrie are still with me, and that his ideas and advice will keep on showing me the right path."