ISU statistics department names Max Morris new chairman


Courtesy of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Max Morris is the new chair of the Department of Statistics at Iowa State University. He succeeds Kenneth Koehler, university professor, who served as chair since 2003 and remains on the faculty.

Kelly Schiro

Max Morris is booked solid from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. these days. It never used to be like that, he said.

On Nov. 1, Morris’ appointment as the department chair of statistics officially began. He jokes that the chair has to work weekends because his first day on the job was a Saturday.

The search for a new chair for the department of statistics has been going on for two years. The former chair, Ken Koehler, decided he wanted to return to step down a department chair two years ago, but has remained in that position until it was filled by Morris.

“I think it was time for a younger person, maybe with a better vision for the future of statistics to take over and provide new leadership to the department,” Koehler said.

Koehler said the hardest parts of being chair was balancing the budget, dealing with personnel issues and covering all of the teaching needs. 

Morris said some parts of the job were unexpected, but is ready to help the Department of Statistics move forward in the coming years.

“Being able to quickly and efficiently deal with all kinds of communication streams is a useful skill I’m going to have to develop some,” Morris said.

He didn’t realize how many e-mails department chairs receive in one day. He also continues to be coached by Koehler on the financial systems of the department, as well as the space issues.

“This is a smaller building than we wish it were,” Morris said. “The business of trying to make everybody happy and having a little space allocated in a good way is a constant challenge.”

Part of Morris’ job is to accommodate graduate students looking for available space to work on their thesis while also balancing room space for student groups and faculty.

In the next year, Morris hopes to address the space issue as well as some of the issues that were brought up in a report from an external review of the Department of Statistics as a whole.

“It could have to do with the curriculum. It could have to do with modernizing our course catalog and focusing it more on what the needs of the university and society are today,” Morris said.

In the time he has been a faculty member at Iowa State, the department hasn’t gone through the process of coming up with a new mission for the future as a part of the external review process.

During his interview process, Morris met with deans, statistics faculty and students. He also talked with deans from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Science.

The deans wanted the Department of Statistics to collaboratively work with other departments in their colleges.

“One of the things about statistics is that it’s most useful when it’s interacting with other disciplines,” Morris said.

Morris had experience in collaborating as a statistician in other disciplines with his other appointment in industrial engineering, which made him a strong candidate for the chair position.

The search committee for the statistics chair was lead by interim chair of economics, John Schroeter, one other faculty member outside of statistics as well as several faculty members within the statistics department.

“Over the course of those two years, [we] made offers to two external applicants,” Schroeter said,”In each case, the selected applicant decided to turn it down.”

As a result, the deans asked Schroeter and the search committee to look for a candidate within the university. They wanted to make sure they had the right person for the job.

They were looking for someone with an accomplished research record, who understood and appreciated all aspects of the department and had good vision for the department’s future, Schroeter said.

“He [Morris] had all of the above,” Schroeter said. “He has a distinguished research record, he’s been a member of the department for a long time and has a good understanding of the elements of the department.”

It also helped that Morris had prior experience in administrative positions both in his time at Iowa State and earlier in his career.

Morris has been a faculty member at Iowa State for about 15 years and during that time has been appointed a joint position in the department of statistics and department of industrial engineering.

Morris also served as an interim chair of the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department for a period of time.

Prior to coming to Iowa State, Morris worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for 18 years. He worked as the statistics group leader for about a year.

“He comes from an applied background and he’s very good at having an applied sense of sense of statistics,” said Cory Lanker, statistics graduate student. “It’s good if you’re doing a methodological research like I’m doing.”

One thing that Morris will miss is interacting with students one-on-one and in the classroom. Lanker said Morris takes time with his students and is good at providing guidance.

“He’s given me good ideas on how to set up my own research experiments,” Lanker said.

Although Morris will miss doing as much teaching and research, he said he is excited to work with faculty to help them develop their careers further as well as be a bridge between the department and the university.

As the new chair, Morris said he will make sure the statistics department maintains and improves the degree programs so students who come through here get the best education they can get.

Koehler said he thinks Morris will be an excellent chair.