“The ASA needs to speak up, and I hope we continue to do so”: An interview with Ron Wasserstein

Ronald L. (Ron) Wasserstein is the executive director of the American Statistical Association (ASA). Wasserstein assumed the ASA’s top staff leadership post in August 2007. In this role, Wasserstein provides executive leadership and management for the association and is responsible for ensuring that the ASA fulfills its mission to promote the practice and profession of statistics. He also is responsible for a staff of 35 at the ASA’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va. As executive director, Wasserstein also is an official ASA spokesperson.

Prior to joining the ASA, Wasserstein was a mathematics and statistics department faculty member and administrator at Washburn University from 1984–2007.

Wasserstein is a longtime member of the ASA, having joined the association in 1983, and has been active as a volunteer in the ASA for more than 20 years. He twice served as president of the Kansas-Western Missouri Chapter of the ASA. Wasserstein served as chair of two ASA sections—the ASA Section on Statistical Education and the ASA Section on Statistical Consulting. He also chaired the Council of Chapters Governing Board in 2006 and was a member of the ASA Board of Directors from 2001–2003.

Wasserstein is a Fellow of the ASA and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was presented the John Ritchie Alumni Award and Muriel Clarke Student Life Award from Washburn University and the Manning Distinguished Service Award from the North American Association of Summer Schools.

Alison Oliver talks to Ron about his early career, teaching statistics, his role as Executive Director and what has made the ASA what it is today.

thumbnail image:

1. You studied math at Washburn followed by statistics at Kansas State. What was it that first introduced you to statistics as a discipline and what was it that led you to focus on the subject as a career?

I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful mentors throughout my life. Heading into my senior year with a math major, I started thinking about graduate school. A couple of my undergraduate professors, Gary Schmidt and Al Riveland, took me to visit several departments at Kansas State, including the math department and the statistics department. I had no idea there was a degree in statistics. But when I met with the faculty at K-State, I heard the rich variety of disciplines they worked with and their passion for their work, and I fell in love. I’ve never regretted that decision, nor forgotten what I owe to my undergraduate and graduate faculty.

2. You returned to Washburn to teach. What led to this decision?

I wanted to teach at Washburn from the moment I graduated. Fortunately, I got a great K-State statistics education, and supported by my mentor (and now my close friend) John Boyer, I was able to obtain a tenure-track position at Washburn.

3. What were your main research interests as a lecturer? Do you still find time to keep up with your favourite subjects?

I immediately became immersed at Washburn in statistical consulting, providing statistical advice in several disciplines. I met great faculty colleagues and worked on interesting problems. During my formative years, the lottery came to Kansas, and from the questions of my students, I developed a research interest in state lotteries. I ended up speaking all over the country on the topic. From a consulting project with the state government, I developed some expertise in the statistics of property valuation, and that opened some stimulating opportunities as well. These days, my favorite subject is p-values, and it consumes a large amount of my time.

4. How do you feel the teaching of statistics has evolved and adapted to meet the changing needs of students? Do you miss teaching yourself?

Every former teacher might say the same thing: I miss teaching, I miss students, but I don’t miss grading. Over the course of my career, statistical education has changed extensively. Under the leadership of some tremendous statisticians (Dick Scheaffer being the first one I met, some 30 years ago), statistical education has been reconsidered and reformed. It became a subject of research. Stat ed is about to undergo another reformation, as major change is needed in the teaching of statistical inference. Fortunately, efforts in this direction have been underway for a while, so a good foundation has been laid.

5. What led to your role as an academic administrator at Washburn and what was it that you loved about Washburn that kept you there?

When I was way too young to be an administrator, there was a big shake up in the administration. The person selected to be the acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences agreed to the job only if she could have me – a statistician – as her assistant dean. She was tired of deans making decisions without data! I didn’t like administration at first, but then I began to see the opportunities to serve my colleagues in ways I could not as a faculty member. The result was 19 years in academic administration, the last seven as the chief academic officer.

I loved the university. I loved its people and its commitment to educating undergraduates. I loved the staff I worked with and the president I worked for. I never imagined leaving, but an amazing opportunity came along and changed my life.

For decades statisticians have been complaining that people don’t listen to us. But if we don’t speak up, how can we expect to be heard?

6. Which leads us nicely onto your next and current role as Executive Director of the American Statistical Association. What led to this role?

In 2006, Bill Smith, the previous executive director, announced his plan to retire. I heard from several friends and colleagues who encouraged me to apply. My wife, Sherry, and I had to think this through carefully, because most of our family was in the immediate area where we lived – Topeka, Kansas. However, I had been volunteering with the ASA since 1986, and had been on the Board of Directors from 2001-2003. I was a big fan of the association. We decided I should apply, and I was grateful the Board selected me for the position. I began in August 2007. It has been a fabulous experience!

7. What does a normal working day look like for you in the ASA?

A normal working day is a blur. I start first thing in the morning, and the next thing I know, the day is done. A working day can involve meeting with staff, meeting with members or a committee, hosting guests from other countries, travelling to meet with chapters, members, or to attend conferences, brainstorming with very smart people about the future of the ASA, writing articles, thanking donors for their generosity, solving problems, answering inquiries from members, and so on. I spend my time worrying about the association, dreaming of how to make it better, and hoping to leave the association in great shape for its next 180 years. Our 180th birthday is this November!

8. Could you please explain how the structure of the ASA works, some of the other roles within the association?

Briefly, the ASA structure involves staff and volunteers. Our 35 staff include only a very small number of statisticians. The rest of the staff are professionals at working in associations, in accounting and finance, IT, meetings, publications, communications, customer service, and more. Roughly, 2000 ASA members serve each year as volunteers, as committee members, chapter or section officers, board members, editors, associate editors, reviewers, and more. The Board of Directors governs the ASA and is chaired by the current president. The executive director is a non-voting member of the Board and is supervised by the three ASA presidents. The Executive Director in turn is the supervisor of the staff.

9. What have been the highlights so far, any low? Are there any particular achievements you are most proud of?

The highlight for me is working with the staff, the members, and particularly the ASA Board of Directors. Board members devote considerable time to the association. They support and encourage the staff. I have learned a ton from the 13 ASA Presidents I have worked for this far. It is a delight to go to the office each day knowing that a talented staff is hard at work for the association.

I’m proud that the ASA started an accreditation program, partnered with the Royal Statistical Society on Significancemagazine and has become an active advocate for the profession and speaks out on important issues. The Association has helped organize the International Year of Statistics, helped create and fund the International Prize in Statistics, developed the ASA Statement on p-values and Statistical Significance, and produces top notch new activities year after year through the presidential initiative programs. We reach out to young people to encourage them to consider statistics as a profession, produce high quality journals, host outstanding meetings, and champion statistical education at all levels. I’m proud that our members are leaders in our profession and beyond. Wow, I’m sure I’ve left out something here! We are an active, dynamic association.

Still, there is much to do. I’m convinced we should have many more members than we do. Accreditation has not taken off as much as I wish it would. We are still sorting out the relationship of statistics to data science, and what that means for the association. We’re changing with the times regarding publications, but change is afoot in journals and research dissemination in general, and we need to keep up. We must be more inclusive and make sure our meetings and other activities are welcoming to all. Those are a few of the things that keep me awake at night and make me eager to get to the office in the morning.

10. I have noticed that the ASA is not shy about making statements and an example is a thorough response to President Trump’s Executive Order on visas and migration. In my many interviews for Statistics Views, collaboration has always been maintained as one of the key principles for the statistical community to move forward, however some have said that the ASA should shy away from this kind of activity and concentrate on other releases like the p-value statement. Can you please offer your thoughts on this?

For decades statisticians have been complaining that people don’t listen to us. But if we don’t speak up, how can we expect to be heard? ASA leadership has a series of questions it asks itself when decided when to take up an issue: Does the issue have impact on the statistics profession or on the ASA itself? Does this issue have impact on the quality or integrity of science or on the ability to inform public policy? Is there an opportunity to educate about statistics or is there a statistical perspective on this issue that we should speak to? In our judgment, would our members expect us to be involved in the issue? And, does the issue relate to possible infringement on scientific freedom or human/civil rights?

I am well aware that sometimes we speak and some members think we shouldn’t. I respect that and pay attention to their comments. However, I think the cost of staying silent on issues is a much greater concern than the risk of stepping into issues that some think we should avoid.The ASA needs to speak up, and I hope we continue to do so.

11. If you had not got involved in the field of statistics, what do you think you would have done? (Is there another field that you could have seen yourself making an impact on?)

I wish I knew more about several fields of science. Physics and economics have interested more in recent years, and there is so much cool stuff going on everywhere in science. Engineers do amazing things. Cinema and theatre fascinate me, not the entertainment alone, but how they are made. So, on the one hand, I could imagine doing a lot of things. But I have had such a fulfilling career as a statistician that it is hard to imagine anything better!


Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Ron Wasserstein