Professor Erhan Çinlar

By Wendy Plump for The Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering

Just three minutes of conversation with Erhan Çinlar is enough to provide a clear picture of his teaching philosophy, and of the gestalt that has sustained the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) since its founding 15 years ago.

Expressed in the simplest possible terms, it goes something like this: If you want to be trained in facts and performance, then there are plenty of other places for that. If you want to learn how to use your brain, then this is the department for you.

Çinlar, the Norman J. Sollenberger Professor of Engineering, minces no words as he outlines his attitude toward the tools that impart the lessons – he takes issue with an overreliance on computation -- and the ORFE department that he says is the very embodiment of a liberal arts approach to education.

“Undergraduates do not want to concentrate on methods for solving statistical problems. I think in that way, students feel that the field of probability and statistics is dead,” said Çinlar during an interview at his Sherrerd Hall office earlier this month. “If you are not going to solve anything real, what is the point?

“I believe that this is a department where the students are taught to look at reality, at the real world, and see mathematics in it. You see a real problem out there – telecommunications, traffic theory, the running of organizations – and you create a mathematical system that solves it.

“We pay attention to the intellectual quality of what we do,” Çinlar continued. “So students learn how to use their brains. This is important. We’re not talking about teaching people facts that they can memorize. Just the opposite; my students learn how to think.”

Anyone can bandy words, of course, but there is plenty of evidence to back him up. The number of declared ORFE majors keeps growing, having 80 sophomores, 84 juniors, and 66 seniors currently enrolled. On February 24, 2013, Professor Çinlar received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Engineering Council in recognition of excellence in teaching. This award is presented once a professor receives over five Excellence in Teaching Awards from the E-Council, a group that represents all engineering students at Princeton. He was made an honorary member of the Class of 2013, and students have repeatedly ranked his undergraduate probability course, also known as ORF 309, as one the university’s most challenging.

Then there are the career achievements. Çinlar initiated the Seminar on Stochastic Processes back in 1981, retaining control of this world-leading professional conclave for 30 years. He has been a member of the Council of the Bernoulli Society, one of the field’s most prestigious international societies. He has authored numerous books that are the foundation of the probability field, including “Introduction to Stochastic Processes,” which was recently re-issued by Dover Publications.

Following teaching positions at Northwestern University, Çinlar came to Princeton in 1985 as a Professor of Civil Engineering. At that early point, the statistics department at Princeton was in free fall, attracting fewer and fewer students until the university closed it down altogether, he said. Çinlar served as a go-between, connecting engineering and statistics in ways that served both sciences.

Once enrollment in his classes began increasing and marquee Ph.D. students followed, the university gave the go-ahead for the founding of ORFE. It was one of the only departments of its kind in the world.

Çinlar shrugs this achievement off, saying that ORFE is successful because it deals in real-world scenarios. When hiring for ORFE, for example, Çinlar said he focused not on backgrounds and credentials so much as creativity and problem-solving skills. ORFE’s focus on problem-solving capabilities means its graduates are better prepared for careers on Wall Street, with financial institutions, insurance companies, hedge funds, consulting firms and major corporations, he said.

“It’s not just learning mathematics and using it to solve some other problem, but the opposite. We teach students to look at the real world, see the problem, and then create the mathematics for it,” he explained. “Then, when they go and look for jobs, they realize that is exactly what is going on in the real world. We’ve educated them for that.”

Çinlar will officially retire in July of 2015. During the next academic year, he will be on sabbatical, working on his next book. But ORFE, he said, is in good hands, particularly if it remains true to the founding principles and transmits them to the department’s students.

“They are often admitted to these great engineering schools at MIT and Cal-Tech. Why does a student come to Princeton? My answer is that they come to Princeton because they want the sort of education that they can get here. They want more humanities, more economics, more mathematics, and less of doing the lab work.

“What is liberal arts? We don’t try to train people for any one job. We try to educate, to create intelligence through looking at general problems, “ Çinlar concluded. “We do that here. Anyway, that’s my spiel.”