On March 20, 2008, Professor Egon Balas was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Liege, in Liege, Belgium. He was introduced by Yves Crama, Director General of the School of Management. (Crama's title is the equivalent of dean.) Dr. Balas received the award from the president of the university, Bernard Rentier, who presented it "in the name of His Majesty the King of Belgium." Crama delivered this introduction at the ceremony.
Introduction of Professor Egon Balas
Most of us are generally satisfied with living what we tend to call a “full life”. Egon Balas has this remarkable feature of having lived several lives, each of which would be enough to fill the life of an ordinary man, even if he happens to be a renowned scientist.
So, let me start by mentioning the most recent of these lives, quickly browsing through his titles of academic glory.
Egon Balas is a Professor at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, where he wears the titles of “University Professor of Industrial Administration and Applied Mathematics” and “Thomas Lord Professor of Operations Research”. He holds a Doctoral degree in Economics from the University of Brussels and a Doctoral degree in Mathematics from Paris. His works are at the crossroads of these two disciplines, in the field of operations research, more precisely in mathematical optimization and its applications to the economic world. For more than 40 years, Egon Balas has been one of the pioneers of all major theoretical developments and of the most innovative algorithmic approaches in optimization. His name is linked to numerous approaches with esoteric names – disjunctive programming, polyhedral methods, « lift-and-project », « shifting bottleneck heuristic », … I omit many of them, since his research has been the topic of over 200 scientific publications.
Beyond his theoretical and methodological contributions of highest importance, Egon Balas has broadly contributed to demonstrating the usefulness of mathematical models in the practice of management, by carrying out numerous studies relating to the optimization of production in the steel industry, in transportation, in telecommunications, in the oil industry or in finance. The algorithmic developments that he has initiated, or with which he was closely associated, are nowadays integrated in many corporate software packages which enable managers to optimize the efficiency of their production processes, most frequently without a full understanding of the complex algorithms upon which they rely.
His intellectual leadership in all these fields brought him, amongst many prestigious scientific distinctions, the John Von Neumann Theory Prize of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences and the Gold Medal of the European Association of Operational Research Societies.
Before starting this brilliant academic career, however, Egon Balas had already spent, and turned the page of several fascinating lives. He wrote about them in a captivating autobiography entitled: “Will to Freedom: A Perilous Journey Through Fascism and Communism”. I strongly recommend reading this book.
Born in Romania from a Hungarian family, Egon Balas has joined the ranks of the Hungarian communist party and of the anti-nazi resistance during World War II. His autobiography retraces his arrest by the nazis, his imprisonment, the sessions of torture he went through, and his escape shortly before the arrival of the Russian troops.
After the War, Egon Balas rapidly ascended through the ranks of the Romanian ministeries, and held a diplomatic position in London before being arrested once again, this time by the Romanian communist authorities inspired by the bad example of the Stalinist purges in USSR. Two years of solitary confinement and of barbaric treatments were not able to break down this personality made of hard steel, who stubbornly refused to cooperate in the staging of a fake trial. Freed after the death of Stalin, but disenchanted by the excesses of the communist regime, Egon Balas started his new life as an economist and self-made mathematician in Bucharest. After several unfruitful attempts, he was finally allowed to leave Romania in the 1960’s and to immigrate to the USA where he would develop his prolific scientific production in mathematical optimization.
Thus, today, we pay homage to a great scientist, but also to a man whose courage and deep humanity have elicited the most sincere respect of all those who, like me, were fortunate enough to meet him and to get to know him.
Dr. Balas, if the University of Liège honors you today with this honoris causa doctorate, it is also our whole community that you are honoring by your presence among us. Thank you.
March 20, 2008