A Brief History of the Department and the Statistics Major

By Jim Daly, updated by Bob Smidt

Statistics as a major did not exist at Cal Poly until the early 1970’s.  Until 1969 all the faculty that taught statistics courses were members of the Mathematics Department, and the closest thing to a B.S. degree in Statistics was a B.S. in Mathematics with a Statistics Option.  In 1969 the university (at that time a college) decided that the Mathematics Department had too many faculty members.  The department included, in addition to the mathematics faculty, faculty teaching computer science courses, statistics courses, and philosophy courses.  During this year the faculty of the last three disciplines created the Computer Science and Statistics Department, where philosophy was considered a section within the new department.  Within one year the philosophy faculty were given their own department, and Computer Science and Statistics functioned as a joint department for the next 14 years (1970—1984).  Leon Maksoudian, John  Groves, Bob Butler, and Gary Fuller were members of the Mathematics Department teaching primarily statistics courses.  These individuals transferred across to the new department, while Sing Chou Wu, John Rogers and Jim DaIy were hired in the first four years of the new department.  Bob Butler and Gary Fuller retired in the early years of the new department, but all of the other individuals continued to teach statistics at Cal Poly for at least the next twenty years.

A B.S. degree in Statistics wasn’t created immediately, but first shows up in the 1973-1975 Catalog.  The first three graduates with a B.S. in Statistics (Pam Miley, Ken Ristow, and Ken Gerald) completed their degrees in the Spring and Summer of 1973.  There was only one graduate in 1974, but there were six graduates in 1975, and the major was off and running.

The department and faculty offices were located in the courtyards just off the second floor of the Computer Science Building (Building 14, now known as the Frank E. Pilling Computer Science Building).  Leon Maksoudian served as chair of the joint department in 1972 and 1973, but otherwise the chair was always a member of the computer science faculty (they had more people and more machines).  Dan Stubbs, the chair of the department in the mid-1970’s, created a position of Statistics Coordinator within the joint department, and let the statistics faculty make most decisions affecting its major, the hiring of new statistics faculty, and the developing of new statistics courses.  Jim Daly served in this position until the Statistics Department was created.  In the period from 1977 through 1981, four tenure-track faculty were hired—Roxy Peck, Bob Smidt, Jay Devore, and Kent Smith. 

In a reorganization of Cal Poly in 1984, the campus administrators decided that the computer science faculty and major belonged in the College of Engineering, and not in the College of Science and Mathematics, where the Computer Science and Statistics Department then resided.  Because the statistics faculty taught service courses in statistics to departments in all of the other colleges, it made very little sense to have the statistics faculty and the major go to the College of Engineering.  The university considered two possibilities with respect to the statistics faculty and the statistics major; putting the faculty and major back in the Mathematics Department, or creating a new Statistics Department.  We are forever grateful that they made the correct choice.

The new department had its first office in 14-240.  Jim Daly was elected the first chair of the Statistics Department, and Patricia Fleischauer was our first office manager.  Most faculty continued to have their offices in the courtyard off the second floor.

In the late 1980’s, the Statistics Department office and the offices of statistics faculty were relocated to building 47 (formerly Faculty Offices Building, now Faculty Offices North).  We were located on the second floor directly across from what was then the Cal Poly Fire Station (now part of the Cal Poly Police Station).  The faculty knew that any student who showed up at office hours was very dedicated, since people easily got lost in this maze that was called an office building.  The department stayed in this location for about four years (until the early 1990’s).   In 1990 Roxy Peck took over as chair of the department.  During her six years as chair, the department moved into its current location (Faculty Offices East), and hired our first full-time faculty member in more than a dozen years, Rick Rossi.  Unfortunately, the lure of the great trout streams in western Montana beckoned, and he stayed with us only a few years.  We also got a new office manager, Maria Burton.  Leon Maksoudian retired during this time (1994), but continued to teach part-time through the FERP (Faculty Early Retirement Program).

The move into the new Faculty Offices East (the department’s current location) had a number of benefits for the department faculty and majors.  The department now has its own conference room and a study/work area for the students.  Due to the great generosity of one of our alums, Mark Newland, we were able to make part of this area into the Newland Family Statistical Laboratory.   Since the creation of this Laboratory, the statistics majors (especially juniors and seniors), have spent numerous hours working on the lab computers, discussing and completing class assignments, and even socializing. 

Bob Smidt served as chair from 1996 to 1998.  Andrew Schaffner, a graduate of Cal Poly with a B.S. in Mathematics who then earned his Ph.D. in Statistics from the the University of Washington, joined our department in 1997.  Andrew was the first of sixteen new tenure-track individuals to join the department in the next 15 years.  Heather Smith, an outstanding lecturer in the statistics program, also joined our department during this time.

Jay Devore took over as chair in the fall of 1998, and would serve as chair until the fall of 2006.  Carol Erickson also started at this time as our department manager, and served in this position for nearly the entire time Jay was the chair.  The “old guard” was starting to retire, with Sing Chou Wu, John Rogers, and John Groves retiring in the next three years, but the loss was definitely made up by hiring six new faculty in that same period—Steve Rein, Matt Carlton, Beth Chance, Allan Rossman and John Walker.  Subsequently, Jimmy Doi, Karen McGaughey (both in 2003) and Jeff Sklar (2005) were also hired and Becky Ottesen, a graduate of Cal Poly with a B.S. in Statistics, also returned to teach part-time for us after receiving her M.S. from U.S.C. in Biostatistics.

We started to lose more of the old guard when Jim Daly retired in fall of 2005, Jay Devore in the fall of 2006, and Kent Smith in the fall of 2008.  The three continued to teach part-time by participating in the Faculty Early Retirement Program but now have all completed their “FERPing.”  Bob Smidt took over again as chair in 2006.  Carol Morris, our current office manager, started in that position shortly before Bob took over as chair.  Soon after he became chair, three more faculty members were hired—Samuel Frame, Lina Ignatova (both in 2007), and Soma Roy (2008).  Samuel is another graduate of our B.S. program, who then earned his Ph.D. in Statistics at University of California at Santa Barbara.  Lina has since departed, but last year we were able to add four faculty members—Kevin Ross, Gail Potter, Gary Hughes, and Peter Chi.  This expansion has caused us to occupy offices on two floors of Faculty Offices East.  Carol Morris retired as department manager in 2009 and we were lucky enough to have Melody Pietsch take over as office manager.  Bob Smidt retired in August 2013, starting to “FERP” the following fall quarter.  Allan Rossman took over as chair in September, 2013.

This brings us to the present where the department has twenty-one tenure track individuals, one individual on the FERP program, and a number of lecturers.

The department has employed many outstanding lecturers over the years, but for lack of space, I only mentioned two of them above—Heather Smith and Rebecca Ottesen.  Most of the lecturers in the Statistics Department teach only services courses in statistics.  That is, they teach statistics courses required by majors other than statistics.  However, Heather Smith and Rebecca Ottesen regularly teach a number of upper division courses to our majors, and have had a large impact on the statistics program.

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