Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, May 19, 1999

Former Provost Lieberman dies

Gerald J. Lieberman, former Stanford provost and a pioneer in the fields of statistics and operations research, died at his campus home on Tuesday, May 18, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). He was 73.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, May 24, in Kresge Auditorium.

Lieberman served as provost or acting provost during the tenures of three Stanford presidents -- Richard Lyman, Donald Kennedy and Gerhard Casper -- including the transition from Kennedy to Casper.

"Jerry was a good and wise man who was an exemplary citizen of the university -- understanding every aspect of it in a way few people do," Casper said. "To me, he was not only an indispensable guide and adviser in my first year but became almost immediately a friend whom I trusted completely."

Lieberman also held a number of other administrative positions, including vice provost and dean of graduate studies and research and associate dean of humanities and sciences. He was a key architect of Stanford's operations research program, and was active in faculty governance. He also chaired the committee that planned Stanford's multi-year centennial celebration.

Friend and colleague Albert Hastorf noted that Lieberman was "Everyman" in the academic community, as a teacher, as a researcher, and as an administrator. "He was an extraordinary person. His spirit will be with us, but he will be missed," said Hastorf, professor emeritus of psychology.

"He was the archetypal faculty statesperson," said Lyman. "He was a person whom the faculty kept turning to in order to help solve the most difficult problems, because they knew that he was the soul of integrity and that he would represent their best interests, and their best side as well."

"Jerry Lieberman was not only a superb scholar, provost and dean; he was a consistent and thoughtful guardian of Stanford's values," added Kennedy. "As our research policies experienced new challenges during the 1980s -- both from growing efforts at federal control and from increasing incentives toward commercialization -- he was a principled voice for independence and restraint. Stanford was the fortunate beneficiary of his good sense and his good humor, and of his great influence in shaping what we are."

An illustration of Lieberman's indefatigable spirit was his relationship with the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI). In the last few years, as his illness began interfering with his ability to communicate, he volunteered his services as a subject for CSLI's Project Archimedes, a research effort designed to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind by the computer revolution.

Lieberman tested a variety of equipment, including a voice synthesizer that CSLI researchers outfitted with special word-prediction software. As a user enters a phrase, the software anticipates the user's next word, allowing him or her to select it with minimal effort. Lieberman's synthesizer was pre-programmed so that he could rattle off his trademark phrase -- "Take the rest of the day off!" -- with a single keystroke, something that he delighted in saying at the end of especially long or difficult days.

"CSLI's advanced technology helped Jerry to remain actively engaged in campus affairs for several years," said the center's director, John Perry. "But he was particularly proud of the fact that he was contributing to research that can benefit many other people."

Lieberman was born Dec. 31, 1925, in Brooklyn, N. Y. His parents, Joseph and Ida, were recent immigrants from Lithuania and his father worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Jerry Lieberman was an honor student in high school and gained admittance to the highly competitive Cooper Union, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. After getting a master's degree in statistics from Columbia University in 1949, he came to Stanford as a doctoral student in statistics, and he never left.

In 1953, the year he earned his doctorate, he joined the Stanford faculty in statistics and industrial engineering. At the time of his death, he was professor emeritus of operations research and statistics.

Lieberman's research focused on reliability theory and statistical quality control. He developed innovative methods for answering some of the key questions in the inspection of products: When and how should items be sampled? When should sampling be sequential? When should every 10th item by sampled? Which characteristics need to be sampled more often, and which can be checked less frequently?

With Albert Bowker, former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley, Lieberman wrote the Handbook of Industrial Statistics that set the stage for the widespread use of control charts in industry and for alternative methods of sampling inspection.

In the early 1960s, Lieberman was part of a task force appointed by then-Provost Fred Terman to consolidate faculty interest in operations research, a discipline that uses mathematical modeling to come up with optimal solutions for practical problems, based on the application of mathematical models and techniques, computer algorithms and systems analysis. Lieberman chaired the interdepartmental program on operations research that began in 1962; it became a full-fledged department in the School of Engineering three years later. He continued as chair until 1975, when he was named associate dean of humanities and sciences.

Lieberman co-authored an award-winning textbook, Introduction to Operations Research, with Frederick S. Hillier, professor emeritus of engineering-economic systems and operations research. It has become one of the most widely used textbooks in the field. In addition to the two books, he wrote more than 50 technical papers on these subjects.

"Jerry Lieberman was a very special role model for so many of his colleagues and students," said Hillier, who had Lieberman as his freshman adviser, undergraduate adviser, graduate adviser, dissertation adviser, mentor, friend and co-author. "Beyond being a fine scholar, he had tremendous wisdom, integrity and courage. He gave of himself so generously to others. He was such a special individual, a real prince of a man."

Lieberman was active in a number of professional societies, including the National Academy of Engineering, to which he was elected in 1987; the Institute of Management Science; the Operations Research Society of America; and the International Statistical Institute. He was a fellow of the American Statistical Association; the Institute of Mathematical Statistics; the American Society for Quality Control and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His contributions were recognized in 1997 when he received the George E. Kimball Medal from the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. "For tens of thousands of students, faculty and practitioners around the world, Jerry Lieberman is Operations Research," the citation read.

In addition to his research, Lieberman had a full career as a campus administrator. In 1977, he was tapped to serve as vice provost and dean of research. In that role, he spoke out nationally on science policy, including such issues as academic freedom, secrecy in research, government efforts to restrict research by foreign students, indirect cost reimbursement and university-industry relations.

At the request of then-President Richard W. Lyman, Lieberman served as acting provost from January to August 1979, when Donald Kennedy returned from a stint in Washington, D.C., to take over the university's number two position.

In 1980, then-President Kennedy expanded Lieberman's duties as vice provost to include responsibility for graduate student issues.

"One thing I learned as an administrator," Lieberman said in an interview, "is that you never solve problems. You postpone them." What is decided one day can easily be undone the next day, he explained.

Lieberman decided to return to teaching in 1985.

At commencement that year he was presented the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for exceptional service to Stanford. He was cited for having "the wisdom and academic foresight . . . to recognize the potential of the new interdisciplinary field of operations research, and for the skills of persuasion he used to turn that orphan into the ranking department of its kind in the world."

He also was recognized for his "tireless efforts on behalf of Stanford's graduate students" and for "dedication to the defense of this faculty's first principles of research -- freedom, openness, accessibility -- in the councils of government as well as of his university."

The party thrown in his honor when he left the vice provost position played to his love of sports and became a model used for later social events. Telling Lieberman she was taking him to a small gathering at the Lou Henry Hoover House, Marlene Wine, assistant to the president, blindfolded the retiring administrator and drove him and his family to the 50-yard-line of Stanford Stadium's football field.

Tables had been set up for a party, with several members of the football team recruited as waiters. Then-Athletics Director Andy Geiger presented Lieberman with a "good-anywhere pass" to the stadium, which prompted Lieberman to comment, "If I had known I was getting this, I would have stepped down years ago."

Later, as centennial celebration chairman, Lieberman helped plan a May 1987 dinner for 2,000 guests under tents on the football field at which then-Secretary of State George Shultz hosted his counterparts from Canada and Mexico.

In an interview after accepting the centennial post, Lieberman joked that he accepted the job "in a weak moment" as he spent five hours sitting next to Kennedy on an airplane heading for Washington, D.C.

Turning serious, he said he viewed the centennial as an opportunity to show off what Stanford had accomplished.

"When I first came here, Stanford was not a great university," he said. "It was a private school in the West; it was OK, but nothing sensational. I watched it grow to be one of the leading research universities in this country.

"This is an accomplishment and I think that somehow we ought to bring forth some of the things that we have done and show the world, the public, just what a university can do, and what it can contribute to society."

While chairing the centennial, Lieberman became more active in faculty governance, serving as chair of the Faculty Senate in 1987-88 and chair of the Advisory Board in 1989-90. In June 1991, he was one of five faculty who proposed that the Faculty Senate undertake a broad study of education at Stanford in the context of severe budget cuts that were on the horizon. This led to creation of the ad hoc Senate Committee on Education and Scholarship -- also known as the Zare committee -- which worked closely with the university's leaders to provide faculty input on budget decisions.

In February 1992, Kennedy again leaned on Lieberman to serve the institution -- this time as the provost who later would spend long hours teaching Gerhard Casper, a veteran of the University of Chicago, about Stanford University. At the time, Kennedy said that "Jerry has played all the provostial positions and played them well. Most important of all, he has the confidence and regard of the faculty."

In 1994 Casper announced the creation of nine fellowships in Lieberman's name that are awarded to graduate students with leadership potential who intend to pursue careers in university teaching and research. Casper told the assembled crowd that Lieberman "is truly a remarkable citizen of the university with the strongest academic and institutional values."

Upon his retirement in 1995, 130 colleagues, friends and family members, including four college presidents and a Nobel Prize winner, gathered to mark the event. They presented Lieberman with two volumes written by colleagues and friends to reflect his lifelong interests: a collection of scholarly papers for a special issue of the journal Probability in the Engineering and Informational Sciences, plus a book of essays titled Education in a Research University. In his remarks at the event, Kennedy praised Lieberman's blunt, honest manner and his habit of thoughtfully injecting principles into discussions. "Great institutions are built on people who care about quality, as well as people who care about people. Jerry has both of these characteristics in abundance and we are lucky to have had him with us," he said.

Lieberman is survived by his wife, Helen, of Stanford; daughter, Janet Lieberman Argyres, son-in-law, Steve and their two sons, Brian and Scottie, of Castro Valley; daughters, Joanne and Diana Lieberman, of Palo Alto; son, Michael Lieberman, and daughter-in-law, Susan Hanson, of Palo Alto; and his sister, Shirley Ross, of Great Neck, N.Y.

The family prefers that donations be made to the Gerald Lieberman Memorial Fund, c/o The Office of Development, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. SR

Staff writer David Salisbury and former News Service writer Karen Bartholomew contributed to this story.