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LaValle a Decisive Choice for Award

January 1, 1997

Mark Miester

At its annual meeting in Atlanta in November, the Decision Analysis Society of the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) named Irving H. LaValle recipient of the Frank P. Ramsey Medal. The medal, one of the highest honors in the field of decision analysis, recognizes career-long, distinguished contributions to the theory and its application.

LaValle, one of the nation's foremost experts on decision theory and analysis, is the Francis Martin Professor of Decision Theory at the A. B. Freeman School of Business. The award is particularly meaningful, LaValle says, given its relevance to his discipline. Of all the accolades he's received, "The Ramsey Medal is most specifically for my work in decision analysis," he says. "It's closest to what I do."

LaValle, who has been battling emphysema, was notified of his selection on Sept. 23, two days after being released from Tulane Hospital. Although he no longer teaches and relies on a portable oxygen tank to assist his breathing, LaValle continues to conduct research and attend to administrative duties. Since 1978, LaValle has served as secretary of the University Senate.

LaValle was one of the second wave of scholars to study decision analysis. The field was born 30 years ago, an outgrowth of disciplines including microeconomics of individual choice, statistics and game theory. In its simplest explanation, decision analysis is a tool for sorting out the various factors that make hard decisions hard. According to LaValle, those factors can be divided into three general categories: structure, preferences and uncertainty.

Structure refers to the myriad of contingent choices and opportunities for reprise when making a decision, preferences deals with an individual's sometimes conflicted objectives, and uncertainty refers to the fundamental doubt that accompanies any major decision. LaValle says that it's not as esoteric a field as it may sound. The principles of decision analysis can be applied to any important decision--business or otherwise.

"Just think of investing in the stock market, for example," he suggests. "Think of undertaking a personal relationship, with another. "Whenever significant decisions are made, [the analysis] can be used," LaValle says. "Indeed, if the decision is well and carefully made, it most probably is being used, at least approximately."

LaValle has published more than 50 scholarly articles, written a book on decision theory and delivered countless presentations on the subject. In 1988, he became the first recipient of the Freeman School's Erich Sternberg Award for Faculty Research. In 1996 he won the award again for his groundbreaking work and was paid tribute by the business school with the establishment of the Irving H. LaValle Research Award. He earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Trinity College (Hartford) in 1960, an MBA from Harvard in 1963, and a DBA in managerial economics (decision theory) from Harvard in 1966.

LaValle's dissertation was "Strategic Situation Theory: A Bayesian Approach to an Individual Player's Selection of Strategies in Noncooperative Games." At Harvard, LaValle studied under Howard Raiffa, a pioneer in the study of decision theory and, in 1985, the inaugural recipient of the Ramsey Medal. In Atlanta, LaValle had a surprise reunion with his mentor. "He heard that I was getting the award and so he came down to the meeting," LaValle says.

LaValle joined the Freeman School in 1965 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1968 and professor in 1971. He has served as associate editor of Management Science and Operations Research Letters; in various positions with the Operations Research Society of America Special Interest Group on Decision Analysis, and, since 1980, as editor of Decision Analysis Newsletter.

In addition to his scholarly work, LaValle is an amateur musician, woodworker and computer software designer. Does LaValle analyze the decisions in his personal life? "You can simplify many situations that are not important to you by simply not thinking about them at all," he says. "If it's not an important situation, don't worry about it at all."

So picking a tie in the morning has never been a trauma? "No, I hardly ever had a problem with that," LaValle says. "And now I almost never have a problem with that because now I almost never wear a tie."

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