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ASA Leaders Reminisce at JSM Breakfast

1 October 2014 No Comment
James J. Cochran
ASA leaders (foreground from left) Bob Rodriguez, Bill Smith, (middleground from left) Ray Waller, Jon Kettenring, Sastry Pantula, (background from left) Judith O'Fallon, Lynne Billard, and Michael O'Fallon reminisce at a JSM breakfast.

ASA leaders (foreground from left) Bob Rodriguez, Bill Smith, (middleground from left) Ray Waller, Jon Kettenring, Sastry Pantula, (background from left) Judith O’Fallon, Lynne Billard, and Michael O’Fallon reminisce at a JSM breakfast.

One of the many events held to commemorate the ASA’s 175th Anniversary at the recent Joint Statistical Meetings in Boston was the roundtable breakfast “Past Presidents and Executive Directors Reminisce.” As the title implies, this was a unique opportunity for past and current presidents/presidents-elect and executive directors to gather, share a meal, and reflect on their terms in office. On August 4, it was my privilege and honor to chair this roundtable and observe the event first-hand.

This was likely the largest gathering of ASA past presidents and executive directors ever held, though I am not sure how I could document this statement! Sixteen ASA presidents and three ASA executive directors whose terms ranged over more than two decades participated.

Several weeks prior to the roundtable, I asked the participants to consider the following questions in preparation for the discussion:

  • What was your first thought when you were asked to run for president/be a candidate for executive director? What was your first thought when you learned you had won the election for president/been selected as executive director?
  • What was the high point of your time as president/executive director of the ASA? What accomplishment as president/executive director of the ASA did you find most gratifying?
  • What surprised you most about being president/executive director of the ASA?
  • What particularly humorous or unusual incident happened to you while you were president/executive director of the ASA?
  • What advice would you share with future candidates for president or executive director of the ASA?
  • What are your feelings about the future of the ASA? What makes you particularly optimistic about the ASA’s future? What would you like to see addressed?

The discussion was not limited to these questions, but the questions did provide a basis for opening the conversation.

The room was filled with people who are not demure about their passion for statistics and the American Statistical Association, so the conversation flowed freely. At times, the exchange was inspiring; at times, it was funny (often, it was both). Participants discussed events occurring during their terms in office that were important to both the ASA and our discipline. I was reminded of the ASA’s role in several important recent events and made aware of several others that had somehow escaped me when they occurred.

The conversation was wide ranging, and at various times turned to an attempt by the U.S. House of Representatives to forbid the use of statistics in designing, executing, analyzing, and reporting on the 2000 Decennial Census; technical issues of early uses of PowerPoint in keynote talks at JSM; strategic planning efforts; and issues with the building that housed the former ASA headquarters (which was struck and damaged by lightning at least once). Other topics included the following:

  • Establishment of the Conference on Statistical Practice and expanding the “big tent”
  • Approval of professional statistician accreditation
  • Hosting Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York
  • Proactively reaching out to student members
  • ASA presidents representing at statistics conferences around the globe
  • The shock of being asked to run or serve
  • The shock of being elected and slowly realizing the magnitude of the commitment of serving as ASA president
  • Developing a strategic plan
  • The surprise many members express when they learn the ASA president and executive director have no say over the schedule of sessions at JSM
    Appreciation for the very capable ASA staff
  • The abundance of energetic and enthusiastic ASA volunteers
The ASA presidents who participated (in order of their term of service) are:

J. Stuart Hunter (President, 1993)
Lynne Billard (President, 1996)
Jon R. Kettenring (President, 1997)
Jonas H. Ellenberg (President, 1999)
W. Michael O’Fallon (President, 2000)
Miron L. Straf (President, 2002)
Robert L. Mason (President, 2003)
Fritz J. Scheuren (President, 2005)
Sally C. Morton (President, 2009)
Sastry G. Pantula (President, 2010)
Nancy Geller (President, 2011)
Robert N. Rodriguez (President, 2012)
Marie Davidian (President, 2013)
Nathaniel Schenker (President, 2014)
David R. Morganstein (President, 2015)
Jessica M. Utts (President, 2016)

And the ASA executive directors who participated (also in order of their term of service) are:

Ray A. Waller (Executive Director, 1995–2001)
William B. Smith (Executive Director, 2001–2007)
Ronald L. Wasserstein (Executive Director, 2007–present)

Although this was a diverse group with diverse interests, I was struck by what they have in common. They are extremely thoughtful people who are dedicated to our profession and the ASA. They are accomplished professionals, but they have great humility and a strong desire to learn about and foster the professional efforts of others. They are supremely optimistic about the future of statistics. They are funny, like to laugh, and excel at making others laugh.

When we read the words of the ASA president or executive director in Amstat News or other publications, it is easy to think of these individuals in terms of the offices they hold, rather than the people they are. It is important to realize every president and executive director of the ASA is a unique person who makes sacrifices during her/his term to deal with issues and problems both mundane and critical, many of which cannot be anticipated.

During this breakfast, it also struck me that these people share a bond that must, in some ways, be similar to the bond shared by the Beatles. One of the Beatles (I believe it was George Harrison) said that one reason the members of the band remained close was that nobody other than the four of them could truly understand what it was like to be a Beatle. While the experience of serving as president or executive director of the ASA is certainly not “Beatlesque,” one cannot help but suspect that only those who have served as ASA president or executive director can fully appreciate the demands and surprises these offices present.

Although I am confident the dialogue at this roundtable is of great interest to the readers of Amstat News, space does not permit more than a cursory review here. Fortunately, a detailed article will appear in a May 2015 special issue of The American Statistician devoted to the events held in observance of the 175th anniversary. Also, Amstat News will publish a series of extended one-on-one interviews with past presidents and executive directors on a monthly basis throughout the next three to four years. Read more about the stories they told during the breakfast and learn about others, such as how one president’s son thought his dad was a 2008 presidential hopeful for Hilary Clinton. This series of articles is scheduled to begin in the January 2015 issue.

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