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It All Adds Up

Good-natured Wasserstein in 14th year leading national statistics organization

Ron Wasserstein

From The Ichabod - Spring 2020

From raising funds to advocating for better practices in the statistics arena – for Ron Wasserstein, the numbers always add up.

For 23 years, from 1984 to 2007, Wasserstein, ba ’78, was a mathematics and statistics department faculty member at Washburn University. During those last seven years, he served as the University’s vice president for academic affairs.

“When attending Washburn, I experienced what is still the main calling card all these years later – great teachers who were excellent mentors,” Wasserstein said. “It was fun for me to become a colleague of those mentors just a few years later.”

Wasserstein left Washburn in 2007 to serve as the executive director of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia. As executive director, he provides leadership and management for the association and is responsible for ensuring the ASA fulfills its mission to promote the practice and profession of statistics.

“During my years here, we have become much more active as an advocate for the statistics profession and for the sound use of statistics in government and business,” Wasserstein said. “We’re very engaged with the U.S. Congress and with various federal agencies like the census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Another area in which Wasserstein is making strides is in a special project to improve how science is practiced specifically with the use of p-values and statistical significance – or in layman’s terms, how statistics are used in science and business to gain insights.

“It was an area where a lot of fundamental mistakes were being made,” Wasserstein said. “We wanted to see if we could change that. We started by issuing a statement in 2016, and I continue to work on that project today.”

Putting the FUN in Fundraising

One of the things Wasserstein is remembered for at Washburn is his ability to have fun while raising funds for the school. In 1996, he made a challenge to faculty and staff for their annual fundraiser campaign: If half the faculty contributed at least a dollar, he would belly flop into the White Concert Hall fountain. Staff and faculty rose to the challenge, and that fall he had to pay up on his end of the deal.

“They decided that the fountain wasn’t safe for that, so I belly flopped into a horse tank instead,” Wasserstein said. “It snowed like crazy that day. Ordinarily, not many people outside of Washburn would have cared, but because it was snowing, the newspapers and tv stations came out and it became a big deal.”

The goofy challenges to keep people engaged didn’t stop there. One year, he rode a mechanical bull after more than 60 percent of the staff donated. Another year’s challenge led to him standing in front of a hockey net in goaltender gear while faculty and staff shot pucks at him.

“My favorite by far was the year President Farley and I agreed to perform as the Blues Brothers,” Wasserstein said. “Jerry was Elwood and I was Jake Blues. A student even choreographed a dance for us
to ‘Soul man.’”

His daughter, Izzy Wasserstein, ba ’03, remembers her father’s time and fundraising antics at Washburn fondly.

“He was always looking for something entertaining and lighthearted,” Izzy said. “He was happy to look foolish or silly if it brought the Washburn community together.”

Still Making a Difference

Due to his success at Washburn, when Wasserstein went to the ASA he was asked to build a fundraising program from scratch.

“We had no staff for it, and there was no culture of philanthropy,” Wasserstein said. “But what I learned at Washburn about talking to people about why their involvement makes a difference – those lessons carried over really well.”

All the effort he’s put in over the years has not gone unnoticed. In fact, he’s received multiple awards, including the Col. John Ritchie Award from the Washburn Alumni Association, the Muriel D. Clarke Achieving Excellence Award from Washburn University, the Manning Distinguished Service Award from the North American Association of Summer Sessions, and the George Mach Distinguished Service Award from Kappa Mu Epsilon national mathematics honor society. Last year, he was recognized as a Champion of Character by Fairfax County, Virginia, and the state legislature, for his volunteer work in the soccer program with Springfield/South County Youth Club.

Even though he’s now in his 14th year away from Washburn, the ties have not faded. Not only is his daughter, Izzy, a senior lecturer in the Washburn University English department, but four of his 11 children are Washburn graduates.

“He's frequently asking how things are going and how people are doing – he's still passionate about Washburn and about the people here,” Izzy said.

“I know as much as he likes what he is doing now, his heart and his enthusiasm are still with the Washburn community.”

The Ichabod Winter 2021 issue

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2021 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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