Q+A: Dan Epstein, namesake of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

USC Viterbi magazine: Your $10 million department naming gift in 2002 was, at the time, the largest gift to any USC academic department. In subsequent years, major gifts to name the school and three other engineering departments followed. Did you start something of a trend?     

Dan Epstein: Well, the dean of the school at that time was [now USC President C. L.] Max Nikias, and I can still remember him inviting me to dinner at a restaurant in downtown LA. He presented me the opportunity to recognize and thank the school for the education I had received, and he thought a fitting way was to name the industrial systems engineering department. And with Max, “no” really isn’t part of the discussion, and he was able to describe the benefits that this kind of investment would have in the department. He said it would be the first named department at USC, and hopefully that might be a springboard to others wanting to help support other departments of Viterbi. Where I could be a catalyst to really worthwhile endeavors and the naming of the other departments, I was really pleased to have played a role.

USC Viterbi:  B.S. students in ISE have grown from 85 in 2001 to 260 in 2015 (of which 45 percent are women). M.S. students have grown from 183 to 360 during the same span. The dept. rankings have gone from #19 to #12. What’s the story here?

Epstein: I think one of the underlying things that’s quite interesting is that a lot of it is the result of attracting female students. In the early days, there was only a handful. In my graduating class, there were zero.

USC Viterbi:  If you could create a billboard in the heart of Los Angeles to express what’s at the core of industrial and systems engineering, what would it say?

Epstein: Let’s start with a question: “Would you like to find the best way of finding a solution to a problem?” It could be any problem. ISE will give you the background to be a problem solver.

USC Viterbi: As an industrial and systems engineer, in what ways do you organize and optimize your life that differs from most people?

Epstein: Well, first, if I have a problem or something I need to accomplish, I ask the question, why do it? Is it necessary? And if the answer is yes, then, what’s the best way to do it? What are the options? What are the costs? The ISE background gives you the ability — once you have determined you have a problem that needs solving — you have the skillsets to find an optimal way. So, a practical example is when I go into Starbucks. I’m sure to some extent they must have some industrial and systems engineering, but I see so many minor improvements that could be made that speeds up service and saves money that I was mind-boggled. And when you have 25,000 stores, you don’t have to save much money per store when you make that amount of money. So in general, whenever I see a situation, I think of ISE.

USC Viterbi: What do you see as the future of industrial and systems engineering?

Epstein: Increasingly, health care, I think, is where the business will be … 42 percent of our U.S. budget. So initial steps are underway to deal with health care, from patient scheduling to hospital layout to material handling to everything that they do, every interaction that they have with a customer to how they deliver their services. All this from an ISE approach.