“Innovation is an art,” says Steve Shulman ’62 M.S. ’63 Hon. D.Eng. ’02. “We see a lot of it at Stevens.”
Shulman has studied innovation throughout his six-decade career in investment banking and private equity. He paired this interest with a devotion to his alma mater by endowing a faculty chair. Chairs are among the most prestigious honors faculty can receive in their careers, providing professors with additional resources for their teaching and research.
In 2020, Jeff Nickerson became the inaugural Steven Shulman ’62 Chair for Business Leadership and Professor of Digital Innovation. Nickerson has taught at Stevens since 2001, currently within the School of Business. He designed some of the first program trading systems on Wall Street, and he is now principal investigator in a project funded by the National Science Foundation that seeks to understand how AI affects work. The team is seeking to understand how machine learning technologies are affecting the journalism profession.
“Jeff exemplifies innovation,” Shulman says. “He’s been on Wall Street, he’s been active in cutting-edge research. He exemplifies a lot of what I see happening at Stevens and in society.”
Importance of Innovation
The professor and the philanthropist agree on the importance of innovation, the power of faculty chairs and their potential at Stevens. Nickerson is interested in how artificial intelligence and machine learning are changing workplaces, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Companies are looking for particular skills as people come back to work, and they’re not finding those skills,” Nickerson says. “Companies have pushed forward their automation plans out of necessity. Now they’re looking for people to help them design the next stage of automation.”
“You don’t have to look very far to see innovation,” says Shulman, who has invested in medical devices, auto parts, restaurants and other industries. “Wall Street moves quickly. In a marketplace where trades move at milliseconds, you must have the latest in technology. Take the example of electric vehicles and how major automobile manufacturers are moving in that direction. Look at the COVID-19 vaccines, developed in less than a year. Scientists are saving lives and moving society out of its complete funk into where it can flourish again.”
Nickerson says the Shulman Chair has provided immediate benefits for teaching and research. “Right after the chair was announced, I got invited by the Society of Automotive Engineers to look at problems with developing autonomous vehicles,” he says. “A chair sends a signal that can summon some interesting work.”
Nickerson also got invited to a discussion group with industry practitioners. “We meet every week and talk to someone who’s using artificial intelligence and machine learning to design products,” he says.
“Chairs are effective at building bridges to industry and drawing insights into what’s happening in the economy and job market.”
A third benefit brings resources, such as to purchase advanced data sets. “One of my Ph.D. students presented a paper at a conference on the future of work,” Nickerson says. “A colleague from MIT told the student about a new data set she should examine. This presented a challenge because the set is expensive. I gnawed on this over the last year and a half, and when the chair came around, I realized we had a solution. We now have access that allows us to play in the same league as the best business schools.”
Shulman is happy to help. “Stevens has always prepared students to go into the world, now really dominated by technology, and find their place and emerge as leaders in various industries. Our graduates have excelled at moving beyond a narrow world.”
The Power of Chairs
Nickerson believes campaign gifts like the Shulman Chair will position the School of Business for growth. “Chairs are important for a school like ours that has been rising rapidly,” he says. “We’ve been hiring lots of faculty who can compete with the best schools. One small difference is resources. We can use as many chairs as we can get because we have many rising faculty who are ready.”
Nickerson intends to apply the Shulman Chair toward two additional initiatives. “Undergraduate research is important,” he says. “These students add vibrancy to the whole research effort. I want to use the chair to create a research scholarship for undergrads who are interested in the topics of the chair and give them research experience for their resumes.”
His second plan involves mini-residencies for campus visitors. “Valuable connections when someone comes for a couple of days and meets faculty and students at all levels,” Nickerson says. “I want to bring in scholars and people with business experience. I want Steve Shulman to be one of the early invitees, and he’s agreed.”
“I think Jeff and the people he’s going to assemble, and the kind of students we’re going to attract, will be consistent with what I would like to see Stevens graduates look like,” Shulman says. “They’re going to continue to be leaders in a rapidly changing world driven by innovation.”
“If you look around campus right now,” Nickerson says, “You’ll see students designing robots, algorithms, portfolios and policies across all four schools. The common theme is that students at Stevens design things that are going to be in great demand. I think we can feel good about our role in fostering the growth we all seek.”