By Karen Guzman
Serendipity brought Arthur Swersey to the Yale School of Management in 1976.
“I was visiting the department at Columbia University, where I earned my doctorate, and just happened to see a posted letter announcing a job opening,” Swersey recalls. “It was for a visiting lecturer, a one-year appointment at Yale’s new management school. I applied and was offered the position, but when I asked if there was any chance it could last longer than a year, they said, ‘No, just one year.’”
Forty-one years later, Swersey is retiring from Yale SOM after teaching generations of business students how to unravel the most complex operations management problems facing organizations.
A beloved teacher, Swersey brought a colorful charisma, creativity, and passion to the classroom, which endeared him to his students even as he challenged them. SOM’s full-time students have honored him with the school’s Alumni Teaching Award three times, while students in the MBA for Executives program have presented him with their annual teaching award four times. At Yale SOM’s 25th anniversary celebration, Swersey was honored with a special Alumni Recognition Award. (In 2006, in a less formal but equally heartfelt gesture, students saluted him by arriving for the last class of the semester wearing “I heart Art” T-shirts.)
“Art has the capacity to teach quantitative material to students who love it, loathe it, and occupy every point in between,” says Roger Brown ’82, president of Berklee College of Music. “He’s passionate about his subject matter but understands that many students are not. He uses his dry wit and quirky humor to keep us all on our toes and to make the optimization of fire truck deployment seem like a Hollywood thriller. And for the occasional math all-star, he could fire a random warning shot across the bow to keep you humble.”
In the classroom, Swersey used props to enliven lessons, emphasize concepts, and make learning memorable. There was the toy ambulance with sirens blaring to introduce a hospital emergency room case that illustrated a probability problem; the realistic-looking “fake” fried eggs and real bacon to highlight the correlation concept that demands that bacon and eggs go together; and cranberries dumped from a toy truck onto a conveyor to depict the processing plant in an iconic case based on the fruit. To motivate students tackling a simulation assignment, Swersey once played the theme from the movie Superman, while wearing a Superman T-shirt and exhorting them to “soar.”
“It’s about keeping people engaged and excited and getting them to remember key concepts,” Swersey says. “It’s part of teaching, but I think it all backfires if you’re not clear. Being clear is the key, and I think I’ve always been good at translating mathematical concepts into everyday language and bringing it to life.”
Austin Ligon ’80, co-founder and retired CEO of Carmax, calls Art Swersey the best teacher he ever had at the university level. “He knew his stuff inside out, always made it interesting, and knew how to get us engaged,” Ligon says. “The thought processes he helped me develop stayed with me and became critical elements of every success I ever had in my business career. It was a true privilege to be his student and to stay engaged with him for the last 37 years.”
The operations field has changed since Swersey arrived at Yale SOM. While the basic subjects remain the same—including queuing, linear programming, and inventory models—he says that a very significant change began with the introduction of “lean” production, inspired by the Toyota Production System in the late 1970s. “It had a big effect on American manufacturing, and Americans began paying attention to what the Japanese were doing, and it spurred a renewed interest in supply chain management research,” Swersey explains.
Today, technology is streamlining the field’s processes. “When I first came to Yale, I created a simulation program which required the use of punch cards,” Swersey remembers. “There was a computer department and you’d give your punch cards to them, and they’d put it through a card reader. Now Excel spreadsheet modeling has made building and executing operations models so much easier for students and researchers and, of course, virtually everything is now done via personal computer.”
Yale SOM’s operations faculty has changed, too. “Our group is much larger,” Swersey says. “We have more faculty, young faculty, and we reintroduced the PhD program. We’re on a great trajectory.”
Swersey’s long tenure has mirrored the evolution of Yale SOM, a place, he says, that for all its growth and global reach today, has remained at its core the same. “Our students are a wonderful strength,” he says, “and they’re as great now as they were when I started. They’re smart, passionate, inquisitive, and they want to make a difference.”
Ed Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Operations Research, professor of public health, and professor of engineering, has co-taught probability with Swersey since 1987.
“His students simply adore him,” Kaplan says. “And I’ve come to really appreciate his sense of humor—the nutty stories around which he builds homework and exam problems: Killer, the recruiter; Geneva, the student who habitually oversleeps and is late for class; and the madcap adventures of Art’s idol, the late MIT professor Norbert Wiener.”
Kaplan recalls working once with Swersey to perfect a difficult exam question. “We had passed versions back and forth several times when I received an email from Art announcing that he had totally fixed the problem,” Kaplan says. “Upon inspection, I realized that he had left the problem completely unaltered, but had simply changed the title in a way that captured the inanity of the situation. I still crack up thinking about it.”
There are solid principles behind Swersey’s approach to operations management, the most important being maintaining a sense of perspective. “My work is quantitative, but in the end, you have to remember it’s not numbers, it’s people,” he says. “The organizational behavior aspect of problem solving is essential.”
Swersey has used this approach in consulting to numerous major firms in statistical process control and quality management over the years. He has written on quality management, urban homicide, school bus scheduling, and the siting of vehicle emissions testing stations.
He came to Yale from the Rand Corporation, where he directed fire and police studies in New York City, developing queuing models for the New York City Fire Department. Swersey conducted similar studies in New Haven; for his work with the New Haven Fire Department, he received the Elm and Ivy Award for Town-Gown Relations in 1991, and was a finalist for the Franz Edelman Award for Management Science Achievement in 1992. He is currently consulting to the St. Paul, Minnesota, Fire Department.
His research has also fueled numerous articles and two books, including the authoritative Testing 1-2-3: Experimental Design with Applications in Marketing and Service Operations (Stanford University Press, 2007), co-authored with Johannes Ledolter, the Robert Thomas Holmes Professor of Business at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business and Professor of Statistics Emeritus at Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria.
“I first met Art when I was a visiting professor at the Yale Department of Statistics in 1994-1995,” Ledolter says. “I remember well meeting him in his turret-like office in the old business school, where it was always difficult to find an empty chair among all his books and notes.”
Collaborations on papers followed, and then the book. “Neither of us could have done this project on our own,” Ledolter says. “Art, the more ‘non-linear thinker’ with great insights, and me, the one who pushed so that the book got done—it was a fun project, and we made a great pair!”
Being part of the larger Yale community has always been important to Swersey. “This university is amazing,” he says. “I remember my first time here, in 1976. I got off I-95 and saw all the brownstones lining Trumbull Street and I thought, ‘Wow, this place is wonderful.’ There’s a connectedness here. There’s always a sense of being part of this larger, great university.”
But for Swersey, the most important things happened when he stood at the front of classroom. “I just love to teach,” he says. “It’s been the greatest part of my time at Yale—my interactions in the classroom, and outside it, with our terrific students, and the unwavering support of the alumni. It will always be about my students. They have brought me the greatest joy.”
Interviewed on August 9, 2017