The Constant Statistician
By Daniel Gross
Ernest Kurnow circa 1974, the year he received
the NYU Great Teacher Award.
This fall, when 94-year-young Ernest Kurnow (PhD ’51), professor emeritus of business statistics, enters the classroom to teach Statistics for Business Control and Regression and Forecasting Models, it will mark his 62nd year introducing Stern students to the wonders of regression analysis and probability.
Born in Brooklyn in 1912, Kurnow received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from New York City College in 1932 and 1933, respectively. In the depths of the depression, the best he could do was a job pushing a hand-truck in the garment center. But in 1935, he got a Works Progress Administration job teaching remedial reading and arithmetic. Five years later, he went to work as a statistician. He spent a year at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, the military base in Maryland that was to be the locus of important war-time innovations in computing and the application of statistical quality control, and then joined the New York City Board of Education.
In 1945, Kurnow’s wife, Joyce, encouraged him to enroll at New York University to take more courses in statistics. And here, he found a home – and a calling. In 1948, he became a full-time instructor in statistics, and the rest is history. When he started, there were 10,000 students in the undergraduate school. The goal was to train students to take entry-level positions at companies. “The walls at the old graduate school at 90 Trinity Place were paper thin, and I remember overhearing a professor teaching an international trade course next door,” Kurnow recalls. “He was teaching graduate students how to fill out a bill of lading.”
Kurnow became chairman of the statistics department in 1963. “I asked Deming” – W. Edwards Deming, the NYU professor who pioneered total quality management – “if he wanted to be chair. But he said he was too busy.” Kurnow headed the department through 1975, a period in which Stern changed its curriculum and focused on building full-time, research-based MBA and PhD programs.
Many of his most prominent students have retired, among them former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (BS ’48, MA ’50, PhD ’77), “a very bright guy,” and former head of Toyota Motors Tatsuro Toyoda (MBA ’58). When NYU gave Toyoda an honorary degree in 2004, Kurnow, who had saved his grade sheets over the years, presented him with the original. “He was tickled pink.” But Kurnow continues to teach as an adjunct professor. “I finally took a semester off during the spring 2006 semester, and I’m going crazy,” he said.
A great deal has changed – inside and outside the classroom since Kurnow started teaching. The computer has replaced the slide rule, for example. But Kurnow still gets the same thrill from teaching. “I love to teach, I love the contact with the students, and it gives me a feeling of accomplishment.” Students evidently agree – Kurnow received the NYU Great Teacher Award in 1974. And, today, as Stern students rank their professors on a seven-point scale, the statistics expert proudly notes that his scores are consistently above six.
Daniel Gross is editor of Sternbusiness.