When Costis Maglaras joined the Columbia Business School faculty in 1998, you couldn’t summon a Lyft, make adjustments to your investment portfolio, or order dinner from your smartphone. In fact, there were no smartphones. Back then, too, an engineer like Maglaras teaching at a business school was a relative rarity; business school was a new experience for him as well. He had graduated from Stanford University with a PhD not in economics but in electrical engineering. Yet he was interested in using engineering to solve practical business problems. The topics Maglaras was researching and publishing on—queueing systems—specifically, how to control and dynamically price the flow of work through networks of processing resources—were finding applications in the study of the internet and large-scale manufacturing systems. They have since been adopted in areas such as trading in electronic financial markets, matching riders to drivers, and providing driver incentives in ride-hailing firms such as Uber.
“Ten years ago, I might not have been the right person for this job. Ten years from now, it may be too late to name someone with my background as dean. But right now, I have an amazing opportunity to have a broad impact.” —Costis Maglaras
Since 1998, so much about business has changed, and those changes have been brought about largely by technology. With that comes the need for business leaders to be well versed in new subjects. Analytics, big data, artificial intelligence—once exclusively the domain of engineers—are now so closely intertwined with business that Maglaras assumes the dean’s role at exactly the right moment.
“Ten years ago, I might not have been the right person for this job,” says Maglaras, the David and Lyn Silfen Professor of Business, who on July 1 became the School’s 16th dean. “Ten years from now, it may be too late to name someone with my background as dean. But right now, I have an amazing opportunity to make a broad impact.”
The Digital Future of Business
Maglaras has already been making an impact. He estimates that as many as 2,500 students have passed through his classrooms over two decades of teaching and three years as chair of the Decision, Risk, and Operations Division (DRO). They’ve been mostly MBA students taking his Managerial Statistics class, a core course he has taught faithfully almost every year since 1998, or his Quantitative Pricing and Revenue Analytics course—classes that former students say make numbers come to life, thanks to his humor and lively passion for the subject. Separately, he has advised more than 20 doctoral students that have gone on to careers at companies like Uber and JPMorgan Chase and in academia. In addition, from 2011 through 2017 Maglaras served as director of the School’s PhD program.
Among the dean’s former doctoral advisees is Bar Ifrach, PhD ’12, now head of marketplace at Uber Freight. He calls himself “bullish” on his outlook for the new dean’s success. “He sees a problem and is able to look out into the future and identify things really early,” Ifrach says. “He was able to stay high-level but still go deep enough to help unblock me when I got stuck.” He adds, “I learned a ton from him, both on the research side and how to just be a productive person.”
Now Maglaras is ready for his work to make an even broader mark on the School—on alumni, faculty, students, staff, and the wider business community. Among his marquee initiatives is an effort to sharpen the curriculum. The sweeping curriculum overhaul includes introducing new courses that reflect today’s tech- and data-driven reality and emphasizing experiential learning. “The nature of the jobs our students are taking is changing,” he says. “We need to prepare our students to contribute, manage, and lead in the ever-changing business world.”
"He has a unique intuition about tremendously complex systems that involve all kinds of random phenomena and very complex interactions." — Omar Besbes PHD ’08
Several studies point to the notion that nontech skills will be even more crucial in the workplace of the future. “In most jobs, this interface between technology, data, and analytics and the function of the business, the products, and the services that they offer is becoming less distant,” Maglaras says. “We need to prepare our students to be effective leaders in that environment. We need to embrace and address how management and leadership are going to manifest themselves in this new business reality.”
The dean’s own research and scholarship are deeply intertwined with this new business reality. He is an expert in stochastic modeling and operations management, and his work holds highly practical applications. His studies, for instance, examine how online reviews might influence what a company charges for its product; what might make an equity trading system more efficient; and how a ride-sharing company can optimize its platform. This work, says colleague Angela Lee ’07, professor of practice and chief innovation officer, demonstrates that Maglaras is “very tapped into current and future business trends. He is aware of the latest and greatest innovations happening everywhere from McKinsey to Palantir.”
Colleagues say that the same skills that make him a talented operations researcher—the ability to perceive the big picture while homing in on salient details—will also make him an effective dean.
“He’s an incredible systems thinker,” says Omar Besbes, PhD ’08, an associate professor in DRO. “He has a unique intuition about tremendously complex systems that involve all kinds of random phenomena and very complex interactions.” Besbes, also an engineer, has gone from being the dean’s mentee to his colleague.
A Person of Action
Colleagues marvel at the dean’s productivity; Lee calls him “a person of action.” As chair of DRO, he spearheaded the creation of courses in the programming languages SQL and Python. These courses rank among the most popular at the School, with alumni convinced that the classes helped them land jobs at Google, Amazon, and other tech companies.
In 2017, Maglaras helped create a master of science program in business analytics, offered jointly with the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia. He is on the executive committee of Columbia University’s Data Science Institute and plans to forge an even more intensive partnership between the business and engineering schools.
“He does all these things because he genuinely thinks it’s good for the students and good for the School,” says Tano Santos, the David L. and Elsie M. Dodd Professor of Finance and co-director of the Heilbrunn Center for Graham and Dodd Investing. Santos says the faculty are especially enthusiastic about Maglaras as dean because he has a decades-long track record of accomplishments. “It’s the reason he elicits such loyalty and support from the faculty,” Santos says. “He has done all this. He can come to you and tell you, ‘I need you to do this,’ and because he has done it himself throughout his career, it’s difficult to say no to a dean who is leading by example.”
"He's an incredibly broad-minded person." — Tano Santos, the David L. and Elsie M. Dodd Professor of Finance and Co-Director of the Heilbrunn Center for Graham and Dodd Investing
Central to the dean’s vision of what is good for the School is increasing cross-University collaboration and partnerships. It’s something he stressed early on in the search process, says Santos, who sat on the committee that selected the new dean.
“He’s an incredibly broad-minded person,” Santos says. “He’s interested in politics, economics—all subjects. In our meetings he would say, ‘There are so many enormously intelligent people walking around campus who have a lot of interesting things to say about the world, and we have a lot of interesting things to say about the world as well from our particular vantage point.’”
The School already offers dual degree programs with Columbia’s other professional graduate schools. Among the most popular are the MBA/MIA (master of international affairs) with the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the MD/MBA with the medical school, and the JD/MBA with the law school.
Yet Maglaras says that the time is especially right for growing this cross-disciplinary collaboration, particularly when it comes to deploying research and scholarship to address sweeping social issues. “Business should play an increasing role in thinking about and addressing societal problems,” says the dean, who was recently named to the University’s climate change task force to help consider how Columbia can better address climate change.
He adds, “We need to bring our research leadership into a setting where we can collectively, with other people from across the University, try to attack big questions.”
Dean Gillian Lester of Columbia Law School calls Maglaras “uniquely prepared” to help strengthen the partnership between the two schools. “The law and business schools enjoy a strong bond, fortified by ties that include our JD/MBA program and the Richard Paul Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy,” she says. “We have remarkable opportunities ahead as we deepen our collaboration to confront some of society’s most challenging problems, such as the role and influence of technology, changing modes of private and public governance, and the structure and stability of markets.”
Generous and Approachable
Engineering dean Mary Boyce, the Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor of Engineering, says she is excited to partner closely with Maglaras, not only because of his engineering background and knowledge, but because of his immense generosity toward colleagues and students. “Costis has such a magnanimous way about him, both about his own self and about propelling others and propelling fields.”
“He’s someone who wants to build a broader community,” agrees Bruce Kogut, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division. “He has an inclusive orientation. Because he has this wider commitment to community, there’s a spot for everyone to be involved in his initiatives.”
Colleagues and former students say that the dean’s generosity—with his time, his expertise, his advice—is a hallmark of both his personal and professional life.
Lee saw this generosity firsthand when she emailed Maglaras from deep in a call center on an assignment for a McKinsey client to optimize claim-processing workflow. He had taught her statistics class, which turned out to be a surprise favorite because of how exciting and relevant Maglaras made it.
"He's someone who wants to build a broader community. He has an inclusive orientation. Because he has this wider commitment to community, there's a spot for everyone to be involved in his initiatives." — Bruce Kogut, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics
Lee wanted to use a calculation she had learned in class but wasn’t certain how to apply it in this new context. Two years out of business school, she emailed Maglaras. He responded right away. “It really speaks to his generosity of time,” she says.
Santos also points to the dean’s particular blend of dry wit and self-deprecating humor, which has made him popular among students and colleagues alike. “He is someone who always makes me laugh heartily, and he does it to all of us,” says Santos. “It’s a very human trait that we all connect to.”
Maglaras likes to say he’s “approachable.” He’s not sure where that character trait came from—he has always been like that, he says, while growing up in a suburb of Athens, Greece, and later as an undergraduate student at Imperial College London.
After London, Maglaras set off for California to earn his PhD in electrical engineering, which he did in 1998. It was at Stanford where he met fellow graduate student and now spouse Niki Kouri, who is vice president of marketing and digital customer experience at Prudential Financial. The two have three daughters, Christina, 14, and twins Cleo and Eleni, 12.
Outside of work, Maglaras loves to ski—the higher and steeper the mountain the better, despite the multiple skiing accidents he’s weathered over the years. “I love the mountains,” he says. “I love skiing and climbing them.” When Maglaras can’t make it to the slopes, he goes to the Columbia pool to swim laps, which clears his head and helps him think.
Manhattanville for the Future
When Costis Maglaras earned his PhD in engineering and joined the faculty of Columbia Business School in 1998, not only was the world a very different place, but Columbia was too. The creation of a new Manhattanville Campus north of the University was still just a seed of an idea; plans would not officially get underway for another five years.
Now, however, the School is poised to move from its longtime home in Uris Hall into the Henry R. Kravis Building and the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Business Innovation on the Manhattanville Campus. In just over two years, Maglaras will lead the School to the two new buildings, which total 492,000 square feet. The move, he says, “has transformational potential.”
"We have a real vision about what we need to be doing next, and we will have the optimal space to execute this vision. The congruence of these two will allow the school to really have an impact." — Dean Costis Maglaras
In a way, the time is right for transformation—of the building, the curriculum, business education, and even the very nature of business. Increasingly, the world is looking to the business community for solutions to the most pressing problems—global climate change, economic inequality, healthcare—and Maglaras says that in its new facilities with its transparent walls, flexible spaces for collaboration, and state-of-the-art technology, the School will be the perfect place to tackle them.
“We’ll be bringing our faculty and our research leadership into a setting where we can collectively, with other experts from across the University, attack the big questions,” the dean says. “We have a real vision about what we need to be doing next, and we will have the optimal space to execute this vision. The congruence of these two will allow the School to really have an impact.”
As he takes the helm of Columbia Business School, Dean Costis Maglaras says four key priorities will drive his agenda.
Sharpen the Curriculum: Technology, the abundance of data, and powerful analytics have infused all aspects of business, and the School must reshape its curriculum to address this new reality. This will continue with a rollout of courses in analytics, programming, and data visualization, to name just a few, across all application areas. The next step is to introduce courses and experiential learning opportunities that will provide students with the frameworks for management and leadership in this cross-functional business setting. Faculty committees have already been formed to design these courses.
Enhance Lifelong Learning: In 2020, the School will begin offering new core and elective courses based on the School’s new curriculum to alumni who want to continuously sharpen their skills. The courses will be available at a steeply discounted rate. Among them will be classes in analytics, programming, and value investing.
Grow Research Leadership: We need to use our research leadership to address the biggest questions that our society is grappling with. This means increasing interdisciplinary collaborations across the campus and making an even more orchestrated effort to bring that research leadership to students, alumni, and the world.
Create a Hub for Entrepreneurial Activity: The School offers significant resources for those looking to be entrepreneurs and has produced numerous successful entrepreneurs. Partnering with other Columbia schools, such as the medical and engineering schools, and working more closely with New York City’s tech community will push the School’s profile as a center for entrepreneurship even further.
Want to hear more? Listen to Dean Maglaras on the Columbia Bizcast podcast. LISTEN bit.ly/BizcastMaglaras