When Hal Stern was playing Little League in Queens, N.Y., he wasn’t very good at baseball. But he was the go-to guy for teammates’ batting averages, which he computed effortlessly in his head.
“My interest in statistics largely grew out of an interest in sports and numbers,” says Stern, a highly regarded statistician who this summer was appointed dean of UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences.
These days, Stern, 50, is reprising his childhood role. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to the oft-criticized math used by the Bowl Championship Series to determine contenders for college football’s top spot. In a new book called “Death to the BCS,” the authors open a chapter titled “Nonsense Math” with Stern’s 2006 call for a boycott of the selection process.
“From a statistical point of view, the BCS is a bit of a sham,” says Stern, in his office on the top floor of Bren Hall. Many are annoyed that year after year, the power football programs with lucrative TV contracts – such as those in the Pac-10, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences – are picked to vie for the national championship, often leaving out teams with perfect regular-season records.
For example, Texas Christian University – which competes in the less-heralded Mountain West Conference – has been undefeated for the past two years, but has yet to play for the title. The BCS’s final 2010 rankings come out Dec. 5.
A widely published author himself on more traditional academic subjects, Stern co-wrote a leading textbook for grad students on Bayesian statistical methods. He and UCI colleagues in earth system science and computer science recently completed a pair of papers about storm patterns over the Pacific Ocean – work that could prove useful to climate change modelers.
Stern plans to use the same collaborative approach in presiding over the University of California’s only school of information and computer sciences. “I think being a good dean is about listening to professors and staff and students and working together for the greater good. I’m a big fan of that,” he says.
ICS enrollment is on the rise, thanks to new and already popular majors like computer game science and business information management, and grad students often conduct cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research in such fields as genetics and biomedical informatics.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stern earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at Stanford University and taught at Harvard University and Iowa State University before coming to UCI in 2002 to start a statistics department. He lives with his wife, son and daughter in University Park.
Stern (who was named after a grandparent, not Hal the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as he’s often asked) is a major proponent of Bayesian statistics, in which prior knowledge and accumulated experience – as well as current data – are factored into probability calculations.
He became the second dean of ICS – replacing Debra Richardson – on July 1 and has decorated his office with his favorite games of chance and luck, including a dartboard and dice with as many as 100 sides.
Chances are good that Stern will be watching the final games of the college football season and scrutinizing the ensuing BCS rankings.
“I really enjoy the uncertainty, which is one of the guiding principles of statistics,” he says. “Uncertainty and randomness and the ability to look for patterns and results have always been of great interest to me.”