In memoriam: Robert Schulman, professor emeritus with the Department of Statistics
Robert “Bob” Schulman, a professor emeritus in the Department of Statistics and a member of the Virginia Tech community since 1974, died April 27, 2021, after a brave six-month journey with lung cancer. He was 74.
During his 30-plus year career at Virginia Tech, Schulman directed the Statistical Consulting Center and gave statistical advice to and aided the research of more than 300 faculty and graduate students, the latter as director of the department’s universitywide consulting program. He also led new teaching efforts in such courses as Statistics for Social Sciences, Statistics in Research, Measures of Association, and Inference Fundamentals with Applications to Categorical Data, and held offices in both local and national statistical organizations.
As a researcher, he authored or co-authored dozens of published papers, many involving topics outside of statistics, including accounting, agriculture, business administration, computer science, education, engineering, finance, forestry, human behavior, marketing, nutrition, operations research, political science, psychology, and sociology. One of his frequent collaborators was his wife, Deborah Hix, a retired senior research scientist with the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science, who focused her work on usability engineering and the user experience, especially for virtual and augmented reality.
But it was his teaching for which Schulman is best remembered by faculty, staff, students, and alumni. In a 2007 Virginia Tech News story, it was estimated that he taught more than 170 classes to approximately 8,300 students, continually holding a record of excellence. For this, he received multiple teaching awards and was elected to the Virginia Tech Academy of Teaching Excellence in 1980.
Schulman’s teaching experience impacted more than the Virginia Tech campus. For nearly 30 years he taught three-day “short courses” in applied statistics to more than 1,400 practicing professionals at private companies, government departments, and academic units, all in a variety of fields.
“Bob was a wonderful colleague and an active contributing member of our department for over 30 years,” said Jeffrey B. Birch, also a professor emeritus of statistics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. “Bob loved teaching statistics and helping clients with their statistical issues, especially in the areas of psychology and sociology. He was a great teacher — one of the department’s all-time best. He had a way of explaining the harder concepts of statistics to make the concepts more easily understood. He was especially helpful to me in my early years in the department. He was my 'go-to guy' when I needed advice on how to teach a difficult topic.”
Betty Higginbotham, an assistant to the department head and a treasured member of the Department of Statistics for 50 years, said of Schulman: “Bob was a great person to work with. He loved to teach and cared about all the students. He treated everyone with respect and was professional all the time.”
According to his obituary, Schulman was born in New York City in 1947, and moved at age 2 with his family to Washington, D.C. There, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1964, and he then attended Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1968. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in 1970,and a Ph.D. in psychology with a specialty in biometrics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974.
Schulman soon moved to Blacksburg, where he would work at Virginia Tech for his entire career. His dedication to the university continued after his retirement in 2007. In 2017, he endowed the Robert S. Schulman Enrichment Fund to support all aspects of the graduate program in the Department of Statistics, including the recruitment and recognition of outstanding graduate students. He was a member of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and the Pylon Society.
“Dr. Schulman’s support has been instrumental in aiding the department’s recruiting and graduate experiences during the past few years, enabling recruiting visits, social functions and team building, recognition and awards, as well as professional development experiences,” said David Higdon, head of the department.
In retirement, Schulman played bridge several times per week at Blacksburg’s Senior Center, read story books to children at local preschools, and played poker with the same group of friends every other Thursday evening, a tradition he enjoyed for almost 40 years. He also traveled frequently with Debby, visiting a total of six continents.
In addition to Hix, his wife of 32 years, Schulman is survived by a son, Kevin, and his wife, Michelle; a daughter, Julie, and her husband, Ben Hannam; and six grandchildren Trey, Finn, Keeley, Leighton, Ruby, and Beckett; a sister, Susan Kirschenbaum, and her husband, Louis; and a brother, Jeff Schulman, and his wife, Nancy.
In lieu of flowers, Schulman requested remembrances be made in the form of a donation to the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley, the Town of Blacksburg’s Department of Parks and Recreation, or a charity of one’s choice. He also requested, for those so inclined, that they perform a random act of kindness in his memory.
A celebration of life will be held at 2 p.m. on June 5, 2021, in the Hahn Horticulture Garden pavilion on the Virginia Tech campus.