Professor Emeritus Michael “Mike” Thomas passed away on November 23, 2018. Thomas had a profound influence on Georgia Tech during his more than 24-year tenure with the Institute. He served in various leadership roles that included chair of the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and provost and vice president of academic affairs.
Thomas’ academic career began when he accepted a position with the University of Florida after earning his Ph.D. in operations research from Johns Hopkins University in 1965. He eventually became chair of the industrial engineering department at the University of Florida and shifted his focus toward administration. In 1978, he packed his bags and moved to Georgia to serve as chair of ISyE and begin his career with Georgia Tech.
“When Mike was hired, ISyE was certainly worthy of being labeled a strong program, especially at the undergraduate level,” said R. Gary Parker, ISyE professor emeritus and former graduate chair. “However, in terms of graduate education, particularly at the doctoral level — though solid — there was room for improvement. Additionally, Georgia Tech, as an institution, was poised to make a move, because its administration — under President Joseph Pettit’s authority — was also looking to move up to a higher tier.”
Thomas helped achieve that goal with his exceptional faculty recruiting skills that ultimately elevated ISyE to a top-ranked program. According to his many friends and former colleagues, Thomas’ greatest strength was his unique ability to identify and attract the right academic talent at various stages in their careers to ISyE. This included numerous faculty members who became leaders in their respective fields, including Professor Emeritus Ellis Johnson, A. Russell Chandler III Chair and Institute Professor George Nemhauser (who had been Thomas’ Ph.D. advisor at Johns Hopkins), Regents' Professor Emeritus and Co-Executive Director of the Georgia Tech Panama Logistics Innovation & Research Center Donald Ratliff, and Professor Emeritus William Rouse, all of whom were eventually elected to the National Academy of Engineering — one of the highest distinctions an engineer can achieve.
“The most amazing thing about Mike was his ability to spot great talent,” said Nemhauser. “He was able to pursue and achieve excellence by identifying and hiring faculty, both young and senior, who were among the best in the field. He changed ISyE at the graduate/research level from pedestrian to among the top to the very top. While now almost all engineering schools at Tech are in the top ten, ISyE led the way.”
In 1985, Thomas worked with ISyE alumnus A. Russell Chandler III to create the School’s first endowed chair which was awarded to Nemhauser — one of the top operations research faculty in the U.S. — who left Cornell University to join ISyE. Nemhauser revamped the doctoral curriculum and recruiting strategy, making it one of the best in its class. In addition to the robust curriculum, the unmatched quality of ISyE’s faculty helped attract top Ph.D. students, which further strengthened the program. Both of these factors helped propel ISyE to the number one graduate program of its kind — a ranking it has maintained for 28 years. The undergraduate program followed and became number one shortly thereafter and has retained its place for 24 consecutive years.
“Mike Thomas made a significant impact on ISyE, Georgia Tech, and the fields of operations research and industrial engineering,” said current ISyE School Chair Edwin Romeijn. “He leaves behind a legacy of excellence.”
Thomas left ISyE in 1989 to join the President's Office as acting executive vice president, responsible for overseeing Georgia Tech's academic restructuring, which resulted in the formation of three new colleges — the College of Computing, the College of Sciences, and the Ivan Allen College of Management, Policy, and International Affairs — and numerous new degree programs. In addition, he administered the implementation of many of the new degree programs; created new promotion, tenure, and reappointment standards for the Institute; and managed the budgeting process. In 1996 he was named provost and vice president for academic affairs, where he oversaw all academic and most administrative areas for the Institute.
“As the first provost of Georgia Tech, Mike Thomas shepherded a transformation that would build the foundation on which the Georgia Tech of today has developed,” said Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. “I have been honored to follow in his steps. He was a kind and caring man who will be missed.”
Thomas retired in 2002 but came out of retirement soon thereafter to briefly serve as interim chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering while the search was underway for a new chair. He left retirement once again for Georgia Tech in 2010 when he served as interim chair of ISyE.
In addition to his many successes as an administrator, Thomas was also a leader in his field. He served as the 33rd president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) in 1984 (which later merged with The Institute of Management Science to become INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences). He received the George E. Kimball Medal for his contributions to the field.
In addition to his many leadership roles, Thomas also received numerous awards throughout his career. He was elected a fellow of both INFORMS and the Institute of Industrial Engineering; headed the Industrial Engineering Society; was made an Honorary Alumnus of Georgia Tech in 2000; and received the Dean's Appreciation Award from the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech in 2001.
Prior to earning his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, Thomas attended the University of Texas at Austin where he received B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering. He was a proud husband, father of five children, and grandfather of 22 grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that individuals consider contributing to a scholarship fund at Georgia Tech in Thomas’ honor.
“I had the pleasure of teaching with Mike at Georgia Tech-Lorraine (GTL) one summer after he retired; what an amazing opportunity for those students to take classes with a professor who had such an enormous breadth of experiences. It also gave me the chance to personally experience Mike’s sly sense of humor over many French dinners with him and Pat [Mike’s wife].”
“Mike possessed a steel-trap mind. Alice and I had a timeshare a few doors down from Mike and Pat during the same week for 25 years. We would each bring another golf couple and the ‘boys’ would play almost every day. Each night at dinner, Mike would replay for the group every shot of each player for the entire round. How he did it I will never know. Mike’s wit made him good at bantering, but beneath this facade he was one of the nicest individuals I will ever know.”
“Mike was a huge Texas football fan. In the 60s it was much harder to follow sports teams in different states, because the television coverage was not like it is now. During his time at Johns Hopkins, Mike found the one place in Baltimore — at the top of a hill — where the reception was good enough to listen to the Texas games. During football season, he would spend every Saturday on that hill sitting in his car and listing to the game.”
“Mike and I worked together since 1969, and although technically he was my boss for much of that time, I never really considered him a boss. I can’t remember any project that I wanted to undertake where he was not supportive. His mantra always seemed to be ‘do something and do it well.’ Mike was almost always in a good mood — I don’t recall ever seeing him really mad. It made him a pleasure to be around. He was an exceptional golfer and a huge Texas football fan. He was also a good friend, and we will miss him.”
Donald Ratliff, Regents' Professor Emeritus and co-executive director, Georgia Tech Panama Logistics Innovation & Research Center
“Mike never promised what he wasn't sure he could deliver. You could bank on his word, and sometimes he delivered more.”
"I was always struck by and appreciated Mike’s good sense of humor, his loyal and steadfast commitment to, as he called it, the ‘Georgia Tech family,’ and his leadership that led to many outstanding and impactful contributions to the Institute and more generally to the fields of IE and OR. Although I could never understand his fondness for the food at Jalisco’s, a favorite luncheon spot not far from campus, it was always a pleasure to join him and others there for friendly discussion I am one of many who will miss Mike at both a personal and a professional level and extend my deepest condolences to his family."