In Memoriam: Howard Raiffa (Jan. 24, 1924-July 8, 2016)

Harvard professor a ‘giant’ of decision analysis

By Peter Horner

Photo courtesy of Harvard Kennedy School.

Photo courtesy of Harvard Kennedy School.

Howard Raiffa, a longtime professor at Harvard University whose research and publications in decision analysis, decision-making and other related fields went to the heart and soul of operations research, passed away July 8 at his home in Arizona. He was 92.

Professor Raiffa joined the Harvard faculty in 1957, and a decade later, he and a cohort of colleagues founded the modern Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was the Frank P. Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Managerial Economics (a joint chair by the Business School and the Kennedy School) at the time of his death.

“Howard was a giant in the history of the Kennedy School and a towering figure in the fields of decision analysis, negotiation analysis and game theory,” School Dean Douglas Elmendort said in a HKS release. “All of us who are associated with the Kennedy School are greatly in his debt.”

Added Harvard professor, colleague and friend Richard Zeckhauser: “Along with a handful of other brilliant and dedicated people, Howard figured out what a school of public policy and administration should be in the latter decades of the 20th century, and then he and they created that school. The work of that founding group is evident today in so many aspects of what we do and how we do it. ... Howard recognized that the methods of which he was a master and that he pioneered could be helpful tools for individuals at all levels of sophistication. He knew that it was important to speak to the world.”


INFORMS and its societies honored Professor Raiffa multiple times during his extensive and distinguished career, including awarding him the Lanchester Prize (1976), Ramsey Medal (1984), Decision Analysis Publication Award (2001) and Saul Gass Expository Writing Award (2002).

“Howard Raiffa had a profound influence on all aspects of the decision sciences and on the fields of operations research and systems analysis,” says Ralph Keeney, research professor emeritus at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “He wrote remarkable books on game theory, Bayesian decision theory, decision analysis, dealing with multiple objectives, and on negotiation analysis. He guided the introduction of the decision sciences into numerous fields such as business, medicine, public health and law.”

Raiffa and Keeney co-authored the book, “Decisions with Multiple Objectives,” which won the Lanchester Prize, as well as the book, “Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions” (with John S. Hammond), which won the Decision Analysis Publication Award from the Decision Analysis Society of INFORMS.

“Even with his remarkable academic accomplishments, Howard’s greatest interest was in individual people and our world,” Keeney says of his longtime friend, colleague and collaborator. “He was always focused on improving the world that we live in and our lives. He recognized that by helping individuals and organizations make better decisions and groups make better negotiated choices, this would make a positive difference. His ideas and work provided practical methods and procedures to indicate how better choices could be made. His kindness, generosity and warmth inspired others to do their best and take a broad perspective, including a consideration of the impacts on others in decisions and negotiations.”

Keeney notes that Professor Raiffa had approximately 100 doctoral students and “helped thousands of students through his dedicated teaching and guidance,” a thought seconded by Ron Howard, a founder, with Howard Raiffa, of the field of decision analysis.

“A great teacher has passed. It is said that a teacher is known by his students, and so will be Howard [Raiffa],” says Ron Howard, professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University and director of the university’s Decisions and Ethics Center. “I met him when he gave talks at the Operations Research Group of Arthur D. Little, where I worked during my doctoral study at MIT, guided by Philip Morse and George Kimball. When I had just become an assistant professor at MIT, Howard invited me to teach in his Institute of Basic Mathematics for Application to Business, a yearlong Ford Foundation project he designed to introduce business school faculty to mathematics. Many of the participants became deans of business schools. I was honored by his confidence in me.

“After I joined Stanford I enjoyed a sabbatical in his group at Harvard and met many of his colleagues. He was always gracious, congenial and patient in his teaching and personal relationships. The only way we can fully honor our teachers is to ‘pay it forward.’ ”

Born in the Bronx

According to The New York Times, Howard Raiffa was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Jan. 24, 1924, and graduated from Evander Childs High School, where he was captain of the basketball team. “Math was his best subject, but he dreamed of being a basketball player,” the Times notes.

After briefly studying at the City College of New York and a stint in the Army Corp, Raiffa went to the University of Michigan where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics (1946), a master’s degree in statistics (1947) and a Ph.D. in mathematics (1952). He taught at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957, when he joined the faculty at Harvard.

Shortly after moving to Harvard, Professor Raiffa published books on statistical decision theory with Robert Schlaifer and John Pratt that, according to a short biography on the INFORMS website, set out to prove (in Raiffa’s words) “that whatever the objectivists could do, we subjectivists could also do – only better.” The result was a paper that ultimately resulted in Raiff’s 1968 landmark book, “Decision Analysis,” the first book to widely present the subject’s foundation.

INFORMS Presidential Thoughts

Current INFORMS President Ed Kaplan and former INFORMS President Robin Keller both met Professor Raiffa many years ago as students, and both were asked to share their remembrances of an extraordinary researcher, teacher and mentor.

“I first encountered Howard Raiffa while a master’s student in O.R. at MIT when I opted to fulfill the decision analysis requirement by taking his course at Harvard, co-taught with David Bell,” recalls Kaplan, a professor of operations research, public health and engineering at Yale University’s schools of Management, Public Health, and Engineering and Applied Science, respectively. “Needless to say, his legendary command of the material was confirmed by his excellent teaching and patient, deep explanations of the concepts he had such a large part in developing in books like ‘Decision Analysis’ and ‘Decisions with Multiple Objectives.’ I later discovered his (much) earlier text, ‘Applied Statistical Decision Theory (co-authored with Robert Schlaifer),’ a book affectionately referred to as the ‘blue monster’ at the MIT OR Center, while working on a Bayesian mixture problem.

“So it was with both trepidation and delight when, in my first academic job post Ph.D., I was assigned to co-teach a course with him on methods of decision-making at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 1985. For a few short months, I had the learning experience of a lifetime. Howard was perhaps the most prepared lecturer I have ever met. For each session, he had at his disposal binders full of problems, mostly of his own design and often reflecting his own real-world experiences, from which he would select those most appropriate for the course as it was evolving.

“His was a towering presence at the Kennedy School, even though most of his time at Harvard had been spent at that business school across the river. Howard provided very helpful feedback to this green rookie, stressing the importance of properly sizing up and understanding a situation before rushing off to build a model. Howard was a gifted mathematician, but in his work it was his ability to structure decision situations – what are the objectives, preferences and options faced by decision-makers along with the role of chance – that stands out. More than this, I remember a kind and supportive scholar who was so influential when I was just getting started. “Though our paths crossed infrequently after I left Harvard, all of our subsequent correspondence and meetings were cheerful and upbeat. My sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues as we mark the passing of a great man.”

Adds Keller: “As an undergraduate, I became fascinated with decision analysis while reading Luce and Raiffa’s ‘Games and Decisions’ text. As a doctoral student, Keeney and Raiffa’s 1976 book on multiple objective decision models was our ‘bible.’ As a professor, it was my pleasure to visit Howard and Estelle Raiffa at their home and share a ride to the National Academy of Sciences in Woodshole, Mass., for a meeting of the National Member Organization of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Dr. Raiffa was the first director of IIASA, and it was great to hear their stories of the early days of the institute in the Cold War era, as scientists from the USSR and other countries met on neutral ground at IIASA in Austria to work on societal system problems.”

Lasting Legacy

Professor Raiffa is survived by his wife, Estelle (Schwartz) Raiffa, whom he married in 1945, along with his daughter, Judith, his son, Mark, and four grandchildren.

The number of additional people Professor Raiffa has impacted is countless.

“Personally, my life has been deeply and positively influenced by knowing Howard,” Keeney says. “Over 50 years he has held many roles in my life, including teacher, mentor, colleague, co-author and friend. For the last 25 years, with Estelle Raiffa, Howard’s wife, they have become part of my family and we have become a part of theirs.

“At a large celebration of Howard’s retirement from Harvard in 1994, I had the privilege to offer a few remarks about his career and contributions,” Keeney continues. “I concluded with, ‘Howard, you did not leave room to exaggerate so I will grossly understate. You are simply the best.’ Anyone who knew Howard well would agree.”

Peter Horner is the editor of OR/MS Today, as well as Analytics magazine.

Sources: Harvard Kennedy School, INFORMS, The New York Times