Lakshmi Mohan: Massry School of Business Remembers its ITM Maestro

A small woman stands between two taller menm both in black jackets
Lakshmi Mohan is pictured with Gary Duncan '84 (left) and Tony McCarthy '84 at the dedication of the MBA Lab, which is named for The Alumni of Professor Lakshmi Mohan. (UAlbany Magazine photo)

By Jane Gottlieb

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 5, 2024) — When Eliot Rich left the information technology industry in the mid-1990s to join the University at Albany’s unique PhD program in information science, he was quickly intrigued by Professor Lakshmi Mohan’s call for “actionable data.”  

“To have value, the information had to present a problem and a solution, a so-called action,” recalled Rich, who earned his doctorate, joined the faculty and now chairs Information Systems and Business Analytics at the Massry School of Business. “This was what you learned from a true practitioner, not a typical MIS instructor.”

Mohan, 86, who mentored a long list of UAlbany students who went on to lead companies, died March 23 at home in Ballston Lake after a long illness. In close to 40 years on the business faculty, former students and colleagues say she stood out for her groundbreaking beliefs and ability to communicate them.  

Direct and decisive, Mohan was a diminutive and powerful lecturer in a sari working alongside male colleagues in business suits. She championed the study of information technology before computer science was a big draw on college campuses. And, before there was an internet, she imagined the possibilities and pitfalls of harnessing so much information so quickly.    

Above all, those who spoke of Mohan agreed her work with students was her crowning achievement. She’d arrive for an 8 a.m. class fresh and prepared, even when the previous night’s class had stretched an hour or two past its 8 p.m. scheduled end. (At one early-morning class, Rich saw Mohan remind a sleepy student of her own marathon schedule as she handed him a dollar to buy coffee.)    

A researcher who had her share of publications, Mohan’s joy was in engaging undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students in discussion and in projects that used technology to help government and business tackle practical problems.  

Hany Shawky, a professor of finance who has been with UAlbany for 45 years, called Mohan the “maestro” of the ITM department.  

“She was a passionate and prolific teacher. She was an excellent teacher. She impressed everyone with her teaching,” said Shawky. “For 25 or 30 years she was also the most important person in the department. Her presence is the reason the department is so strong.”  

He was no stranger to her tenacity.  

“We had a strong and interesting relationship, but Lakshmi was also my fiercest competitor,” he said. “When MBA students chose concentrations, of course I wanted them to come to finance and she wanted them in IT. Most of the time I’d say she was the winner.”

Mohan’s son, Ravi, noted that his mother’s impact was felt far and wide.  Born in Andhra Pradesh, India, she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Bombay in the late 1950s, and her PhD in statistics from Columbia University in 1961.

She taught at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai, The Sloan School of Management at MIT, and lectured around the world. Among her projects after retiring from UAlbany around 2015, Mohan researched microfinance.   

The principles she promoted have stood the test of time, her son believes.  

“All of what I learned about how information resides in a company and how it needs to be transformed into something that could lead to a decision I learned while I worked for her,” said Ravi Mohan, a venture capitalist who invests in software companies. “The same ideas hold today. We just have better technology to use them.”  

He said his mother was recruited to UAlbany by the late Warren Haynes, then dean of the business school. She started as visiting faculty in 1970 — after her plane to New York was hijacked by a Palestinian terrorist group and diverted to Jordan.  She and the other passengers were held for several days in a hotel until their safe release was negotiated.  

“I don’t think she was traumatized. But, of course, she was scared,” Ravi Mohan said. “She could hear gunfire from the hotel. Her mother was this amazing person who pulled strings to get a call through to her, during a hostage situation. My mom had this arc of stories she would tell, and obviously this was the most dramatic.” 

Over time, the international story faded from headlines and fewer people at UAlbany knew about the harrowing events preceding her arrival. She built a legacy centered on using technology to solve problems, not merely automate.  

Pfizer and Pepsi were among the corporations that awarded grants to support the projects she conducted with students, sometimes four or more at a time.  

“Lakshmi changed my career by changing how I viewed data for decision making because of those projects,” said Mark R. Nelson, who earned his PhD in information science under Mohan in 1998. 

Among his projects was helping Simmons Bedding Company figure out why customers returned its mattresses.  

“Lakshmi and her students built a decision support system from scratch that demonstrated the power of what we now call data analytics,” said Nelson, an executive with an extensive background in helping associations use emerging technologies to transform. “They could see top reasons mattresses were getting returned every month, the pattern, like abnormally high flaws at a facility. That was then used to improve production quality and identify problems earlier.”  

Her students also included Anthony McCarthy ’84, now chief information officer at the London Stock Exchange. McCarthy, who earned his MBA with an information technology concentration, felt her contributions were so important that in 2008 he established the Professor Lakshmi Mohan Endowed Scholarship. The program supports an undergraduate or graduate student with an ITM concentration who demonstrates academic achievement and financial need. 

Eliot Rich noted that Mohan co-founded the distinguished information science PhD program that continues today. The degree program integrates business and computer science with sociology, psychology and other disciplines that make students look beyond the machines.   

“Lakshmi knew we could build the slickest, fastest thing but if it’s overwhelming you with information, it’s no longer actionable,” he added. “Thirty years later I can hear her words, and we’re still dealing with the same thing.”  

A celebration of Dr. Mohan’s life will be held at the Massry School of Business on Saturday, Sept. 7, at 11 a.m. More details to follow. Make a gift to the Professor Lakshmi Mohan Endowed Scholarship in her memory.