Faculty Feature: Rady Professor Thomas Roemer

Professor Roemer advising student

Thomas Roemer joined the Rady School’s operations faculty from MIT in July 2006. In just three years Professor Roemer has won several teaching awards, from the Rady Full-Time and FlexMBA students, as well as the Graduate Student Association at UC San Diego. Below is an interview with Professor Roemer.

What motivated you to become a professor?

I wish I could say I always had this grand vision of becoming a professor. Instead, growing up, I wanted to be a manager. Driving by large factories, occasionally visiting one, I imagined what it would be like to be responsible for what goes on in there – people in hard hats, lab coats, suits; materials arriving in trucks, boats and trains; pallets of finished goods on conveyor belts, forklifts and automated storage systems. Managers, I thought, would control all these movements as I would move chess pieces on a board. On the less idealistic side, I quite fancied the cars in the executive parking lots.

Consequently, I studied business and engineering (this was Germany after all) and initially turned down several opportunities to earn a Ph.D. I wanted to experience more of the world, moved to the U.S. and, somewhat serendipitously, was soon offered a research position at UC Irvine. Taken by the liveliness of U.S. academia, I eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. program and never looked back.

In retrospect, I think the signs were apparent much earlier. Since early childhood, I have been called “absentminded professor.” I always had an inclination for abstract thought, admired rigorous reasoning and showed little patience for simplistic answers and world views. I started tutoring when I was 12 and have enjoyed teaching ever since. In the end, with this background, it is not surprising that I became a business school professor.

“ Innovation and the creation of socially responsible products and services are where true value is created in an economy. ”

Why did you choose Operations Management?

Obviously, my engineering background, as well as my interest in designing, building, transforming and shipping “things” directly relate to the field of operations. More importantly though, from idea generation through execution and distribution to end of life cycle, operations management focuses on adding value. As a society, we cannot merely be concerned with creating mirages or value perceptions, nor can we limit ourselves to packaging wealth into marketable investment vehicles. I hope that the current economic crisis will help us remember that value creation is at the heart of all economic activity and appreciate the crucial role of operations management in the creation and preservation of value.

How does your research and teaching contribute to the Rady School's mission of educating leaders for innovation-driven organizations?

The Rady School’s mission is crucial for the school. We are embedded in a local economy that is largely driven by innovation, perhaps more so than any other in the country. This means responsibilities, as well as tremendous opportunities. I personally was very attracted to the school’s mission statement and it was one of the reasons I joined the Rady School.

Innovation and the creation of socially responsible products and services are where true value is created in an economy. We cannot simply rely on highly or perhaps �ber-efficient financial markets to create value, but must continuously improve the process of innovation itself. This is one of the key tenets of my research, which has helped companies streamline their product development processes, manage their information flows and reduce time to market.

Students at the Rady School embrace leadership in innovation. For example, I recently worked with a Lab to Market team, trying to develop a new breast cancer drug based on research conducted at UC San Diego. Building on their impressive backgrounds including science and law, the students skillfully applied their Rady toolkit to drive this innovation forward and bring it closer to the patient.

However, perhaps the key adjective in our mission statement is ethical. It is not sufficient to merely include this in the mission statement; instead we must actively meet the challenge and address ethics in the classroom and beyond. To that end, I initiated an “ethics study group” that meets monthly to discuss the works of the world’s great thinkers such as Aristotle, Confucius, Hume, Kant and Sartre. I am confident that this experience helps us better frame ethical questions, discover and articulate our own moral positions and act accordingly and consistently. Personally, this has been a tremendously rewarding experience, which has further increased my respect and trust in our students’ future as thoughtful and effective leaders.

What can students expect in your class(es)?

Rigor. I think many students are initially surprised to see how fast paced and rigorous my classes are. But they are perhaps even more surprised when they realize that I consider rigorous thinking simply as a necessary building block and not as a means to its own end. I am more interested in how rigorous analysis is used to derive at decisions and emphasize effective communication. As a result of this combination, I believe most students leave my class with a sense of accomplishment and the confidence to apply the concepts outside the classroom.