Looking Back

Reflections of a Retired Professor

Prabuddha De

When I was asked to prepare a profile of myself for Krannert Magazine as a recently retired professor, I considered it a daunting task. I did not know what to include in it or where to even begin. There was one other problem — I had no prior experience in writing anything of this sort. After pondering for some time, I realized that in this context, it might be a blessing in disguise that like many others at an advanced age, I too had become somewhat forgetful, which meant selecting what to cover might not be as difficult as I had suspected after all because there were now fewer choices for me to consider. I also decided to begin with my first exposure to business education. My lack of experience in this type of writing remained a problem, however. I am afraid that because of it, the narrative below may seem like a haphazard collection of thoughts to some, instead of a coherent and concise profile. 

Entering the world of business education and working toward my PhD

I was first exposed to business education in the fall of 1975, when I joined the PhD program of Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA), which is now the Tepper School of Business. Since I had never before taken any business course, I was naturally feeling a little apprehensive about the curriculum and could not even decide which courses I should take first. As I was passing through a hallway of GSIA, I noticed the door of a faculty office partly open and a professor, who looked distinguished but relatively young, sitting inside. I summoned enough courage to knock on the door and was asked to get in. When the professor asked me what he could do for me, I told him that I was a new graduate student and would like to get some help with course selection. He wanted to know if I was a master’s or PhD student, and when I told him PhD, he politely suggested that I should then figure this out myself. I learned subsequently that he was a famous accounting professor who had started as a promising operations research faculty, but switched to accounting after filling in for the professor in an accounting course at the dean’s request.

Primarily based on suggestions from other students, I began taking courses, but remained somewhat disillusioned about the PhD program and even unsure about the area to specialize in. When I had come to GSIA, I also had an offer from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I contacted them, and they were nice enough to let me join their program in the following year. One of my fellow PhD students at GSIA also decided to move to Wharton at the same time. In the end, however, I changed my mind and decided not to go, but my friend went. He told me later that the director of Wharton’s PhD program, another famous professor, got quite frustrated that I did not show up at the last minute and asked my friend if I was married. When he said I was not, the director apparently told him that I should get married soon because there should be someone in the family to make decisions for me.

Things gradually started to fall into place for me at GSIA. I decided to do my dissertation in systems science, the term GSIA used for information systems at that time. My major advisor, Charlie Kriebel, was a long-standing departmental editor of IS for Management Science, and was very busy in this role as well as with other responsibilities. He also seemed a bit detached in the beginning. But with time, he and I became quite close, and he turned into a strong supporter of mine. A few of my friends in the PhD program used to tell me then that Charlie was inflating my ego and that because of it, I would not accomplish much in life. In retrospect, it appears that their forecast was accurate, though their reasoning might not be.

I was somehow able to complete my PhD work in three years, well before all my cohorts in the program. I was elated by this turn of events at the time. However, often in my later life I regretted finishing quickly and felt that I would have been considerably better prepared for research if I had stayed over one more year and taken additional courses from many wonderful professors in various departments of CMU.

When I was on the job market, I visited one top business school, in addition to several other good schools. Normally, during campus visits, the faculty candidate is treated nicely by all schools, but I noticed something unusual in this top school — the department chair insisted on carrying my briefcase whenever I was walking with him, something I have never experienced anywhere else before or after. A few days later, he called to tell me that they thought I was the best candidate available, but that the position unfortunately was canceled. When I mentioned this outcome to Charlie, he just said that it was their loss. In the end, I decided to accept an offer from Ohio State University. I was told initially that mine would be a joint offer from accounting and management science departments — it was the early days of IS, and many business schools were not sure where it should be housed. Subsequently, the chair of the accounting department told me that it was not a good idea to have multiple bosses and that I would be paid significantly more if I accepted an offer from accounting alone. I found his argument convincing and joined the accounting department of OSU in the fall of 1978 as an assistant professor.

At that time, OSU had a policy that if the incoming faculty did not successfully defend the dissertation by October 1 of the year they joined, their salary was reduced by 20%. I mentioned this to Charlie, and my dissertation defense was scheduled on September 29. I had already moved to Columbus, Ohio, by then. I returned to Pittsburgh a day earlier and packed the rest of my belongings for mailing them to Columbus. The defense took place in the morning of the 29th, and I thought it had gone reasonably well. As it is customary for any dissertation defense, all other students and I were then asked to leave the room so that my dissertation committee members and the other professors present could deliberate on my case. I waited near the room and was hoping that I would be called in soon for the result. Almost an hour passed, however, and the door of the room still remained closed. I started getting worried and finally decided to knock on the door. As I entered the room, Charlie said, “Oh, we forgot about you and have been discussing other matters for a while. You passed, of course.” When I reminded him that I needed a letter from him stating I successfully defended, he said the letter was ready with his administrative assistant, Eleanor. I went up to Eleanor’s office, and she handed over the letter to me and told me that it had been written and signed by Charlie on the previous day. The letter mentioned my successful defense and a few nice things about me. I have often wondered whether I would have received the same letter had I performed terribly at the defense.

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