Remembering the life and legacy of Professor Stephen Fienberg

Stephen E. Fienberg, Carnegie Mellon Professor of Statistics and Social Science, passed away on Dec. 14 at the age of 74.

Fienberg was a world-renowned statistician famous for creating certain statistical applications as a way to impact public policy and science. Some of the areas his work targeted were elements of human rights, forensics, survey procedures, census polling, and privacy standards. Additionally, Fienberg was voted into the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1999 and developed methodological and theoretical progressions in both multivariate and algebraic statistics. Fienberg also pursued his interests in other academic areas and spearheaded machine learning at Carnegie Mellon.

“It was an incredible fortune to know and work with Steve Fienberg. He was the consummate academic who did it all — from administrative work to teaching and advising all while working to solve many of society’s grand challenges,” Richard Scheines, Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences said in a university press release. “Steve had preternatural energy, and he made everything he took on better, including the Statistics Department, the National Academy of Sciences, the Machine Learning Department, you name it. He was rightfully regarded by his CMU colleagues and his collaborators around the world as a world-class talent. He will be sorely missed.”

After coming to Carnegie Mellon in 1980 as a member of the Statistics Department, Fienberg was also appointed positions in Heinz College, CyLab, and the Machine Learning Department. Fienberg was appointed head of the Statistics Department from 1981 to 1984 and was a key player in incorporating the Statistics Department with the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He was known for enlisting world-class professors and held the position of dean of the college from 1987 to 1991. During his time as the Dean of Dietrich College, Fienberg founded the Modern Languages Department, which resulted in improving the college’s standing.

“For 36 years, Steve was one of Carnegie Mellon’s most valued citizens,” Provost Farnam Jahanian said. “A brilliant, nationally renowned statistician and a thought leader on data-sharing, he made a transformative impact on the fields of social and behavioral science and machine learning. As a teacher and leader, he was collaborative, thoughtful and remarkably generous — a truly rare find. Steve has left an indelible mark on the institution and on the countless students, faculty and staff who were fortunate to work alongside him.”

For the National Academy of Sciences, over a course of more than 40 years, Fienberg was on 35 committees and panels that tackled subjects ranging from bilingual education to census data. He also took part in the Standing Committee of the American Opportunity Study, whose goal is to examine data from the U.S. census to investigate individuals’ and families’ trends. Additionally, Fienberg, being an expert in forensics, served on the National Commission of Forensic Science as the only statistician.

Fienberg had many accomplishments and was recognized many times throughout his career. He oversaw 43 Ph.D. students and held numerous honors: the 1982 Committee of Presidents of Statistical Society President’s Award for Outstanding Statistician Under the Age of 40, the 2002 ASA Samuel S. Wilks Award for his distinguished career in statistics, the first Statistical Society of Canada’s Lise Manchester Award in 2008 to recognize excellence in state-of-the-art statistical work on problems of public interest, the 2015 National Institute of Statistical Sciences Jerome Sacks Award for Cross-Disciplinary Research, the 2015 R.A. Fisher Lecture Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies, and the ISBA 2016 Zellner Medal.

Fienberg also held many fellowships, including fellow positions at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Royal Society of Canada, American Statistical Association (ASA), Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the International Society for Bayesian Analysis (ISBA).

Throughout his career, Fienberg was extremely prolific, publishing over 500 technical papers, editorials, brief papers, and discussions. He also co-authored seven books including 1999’s Who Counts? The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America, which he referred to as “one of his proudest achievements.”

“Steve was a clear role model for how statisticians can make a difference,” Christopher R. Genovese, Head of the Statistics Department said in a university press release. “He had an abiding passion for statistics and its role as a force for good in the world. He was intensely dedicated to his work and focused on doing things the right way. Steve was also incredibly invested in guiding and supporting students, from those in his freshman seminars to the doctoral students he advised. [Carnegie Mellon] Statistics would not be what it is today without him.”