J. Frank Yates, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, passed away November 19, 2020 at the age of seventy-five.
Frank Yates was a beloved colleague, mentor, and friend. He arrived on campus in 1967 after receiving his A.B., Maxima Cum Laude, from Notre Dame. He was funded as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and an NSF Fellow during his graduate program in Experimental and Mathematical Psychology, where he earned a Master of Arts in 1969 and a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology in 1971. He joined the Psychology faculty as a lecturer in 1969 and as an Assistant Professor in 1971. He remained at Michigan for the entirety of his outstanding career, turning down outside offers from places such as Wharton Business School, until his retirement in May 2020. During more than 50 years as a member of the Michigan community, Professor Yates’ contributions reflect his excellence in every arena.
His ground-breaking scholarship addressed the cognitive processes in judgments and decisions, how to manage decisions and aid good decisions, and how decisions are affected by culture, exploring real-life contexts including managerial, marketing, marriage, legal, medical, and risk-taking settings. At mid-career, Frank literally wrote the book on Judgment and Decision Making, and later co-authored multiple entries in the Encyclopedia of Medical Decision Making. His research findings illuminated how decision makers respond to contrasting biases, focusing on uncertainty avoidance, over-confidence, risk taking propensity, and indecisiveness. Frank’s body of work includes remarkable scientific contributions detailed in over 100 publications. Very few articles are sole authored; instead, his publication history records of Frank’s history of close collaborations with his students and cross-disciplinary researchers.
With his theory outlining the “cardinal issues” in decision making, Decision Management (published in 2003) drew upon thirty years of research in psychology, economics, statistics, strategy, medicine, and other fields to explain the fundamental nature of real-world decisions in business, health care, and cultural contexts. This model, known as the Cardinal Issue Perspective, splits decision making into processing elements that universally occur in a well-made decision. “There is a collection of issues that always come up, and are always resolved, even if it is by default,” Frank said. Issues like identifying a decision or choosing a mode of decision making, or accepting and implementing a decision have largely been ignored in decision research. The inclusiveness of Yates’ perspective on decision making is what makes his work so remarkable: “Frank’s work is distinguished by realizing the full promise of decision-making research,” said Baruch Fischhoff, Professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon. Frank continued to foster decision making research by collaborating on many medical and transportation research projects at Michigan.
Frank’s research was known for its high quality and definitive conclusions. He was recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science in 2011, and his election to the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2017. Frank regularly contributed to meetings of professional societies for Mathematical Psychology, Medical Decision Making, Operations Research, Management Sciences, Experimental Psychology, Psychonomics, and Personality and Social Psychology. Frank co-founded the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (in 1987) and served as associate editor for almost 30 years, and also served in editorial roles for Journal of Applied Psychology, Medical Decision Making, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Psychological Review. He served on professional boards for organizations including the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Education, American Institute for Decision Sciences, American Psychological Society, National Research Council Committee on Human Factors, Council of Scientific Advisors of the American Psychological Association, Center for Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, National Alliance for Expertise Studies, Committee on the Effects of Commuting on Pilot Fatigue, and the Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences, of the National Academies. He served on the Executive Board and as President for the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. In 2016, the Psychonomics Society established an annual award in his name, the J. Frank Yates Student Travel Awards, to support diversity & inclusion in psychological science.
Frank was also active in sharing his research with the international community. He enjoyed sabbaticals at Beijing University (twice), University of Tokyo, and the University of Leiden in the
Netherlands. He travelled frequently (30 times) to give invited talks internationally (Singapore, Hong Kong, Vancouver, London, Istanbul, Brussels, London), and gave over 150 talks domestically. He only complained once, when the volcano explosion over Iceland in 2010, when he was “stranded” for six days in London. These outreach efforts included advising professional societies in other countries, such as the newly established 2nd International Symposium on Behavioral Decision Making and Brain Research (DMBR) taking place in China (pictured below).
As Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology, Frank was recognized for his engaged and innovative teaching excellence in the classroom and as an outstanding and generous mentor who fostered the successful careers of many students across the decades. Frank’s core teaching included graduate and undergraduate courses on Decision Processes, and seats were in demand. Early in his career, Frank created a year-long research methods and statistics course in the honors program, and he regularly offered a lab course on Decision Making. But perhaps the most compelling examples of his teaching impact come from his stories about his students. In one, a student approached him for help with applying decision theory to her own real-life conundrum: Should she have an Indian marriage or an American marriage? At the time, Frank was perplexed: Decision theory was all but silent on the topic of love. Frank took this on as a topic in his in first year seminar: Decisions about Marriage. There, students made claims such as, “I want to marry someone from my own religion, but I will date anybody.” Frank would shake his head, as if to shake off the logic he was hearing, but these real-life dilemmas stayed on his mind and became fodder for his exhaustive exploration of the highs and lows of the decision-making spectrum in both teaching and research.
In his graduate teaching, Frank established a seminar program as part of a University-wide distributed center for scholarship on decision making. His University of Michigan Decision Consortium offered weekly seminars with vigorous discussion of new ideas and raised problems with current theories of decision making. The typical session was led by one of the 140 U-M faculty who joined the consortium community who presented recent developments in his or her research program. Frank also arranged for readings each week and invited discussants who offered their views and suggestions. As host, Frank often asked the 30-40 attendees to introduce themselves by describing, “What is keeping you up at night?” Graduate students from over 15 programs gained exposure to decision research in varied problem settings, broadening perspectives and scholarship. The Consortium also met for annual May Conferences, and collaborations and dissertation committee invitations often arose. In so many ways, Frank embodied Decision Sciences at Michigan, serving as the host, organizer, instigator, and collaborator for many faculty and students; and, it is believed, the originator of the phrase, “A gentle reminder of the upcoming talk on….”
Professor Yates was also (quite famously) a generous and devoted mentor who fostered the successful careers of many students across multiple disciplines and decades. His daily life was “in the lab” where he worked alongside his students and built a supportive and productive research group. Frank was a frequent host of events at his home, and lab activities included many discussions of decisions both large and small. Frank’s students were happy and fulfilled in their work, and share many wonderful memories of Frank. In May 2018, over forty former students gathered at Michigan or a final one-day Decision Consortium (“FrankFest”) sponsored by our department. They shared Famous Frank Quotes (“What keeps you up at night?” “Let me be the Devil’s advocate … if not the Devil himself!” “Can we use words that normal people use?” “Anything is possible, but is that plausible?” And, “If we are always making inaccurate judgments, why aren’t we dead already?”). Students from every generation shared their current research along with much laughter. In this picture, his students echo Frank’s characteristic gesture when thinking aloud.
To commemorate Frank's outstanding teaching, in 2020, the U-M Department of Psychology established the J. Frank Yates Award for Excellence in Seminar-based Teaching.
Frank’s care for others and his careful decision making were valued not only within our Department, but also across the university. Frank served on advisory boards and executive committees for the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at the Medical School; the Risk Science Center in Public Health; The Nursing School's Child/Adolescent Health Behavior Research Center; The Business School’s Deanship Search; Transportation Research Institute; LSA’s Grievance Hearing Panel, College Admissions, and College Nomination; Rackham Graduate School Executive, Divisional, and Appeals Board; the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching; Combined Program in Education and Psychology; Michigan Society of Fellows; Provost’s Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; University Board for Student Publications; University Budget Priorities Committee; UM Press Board of Directors; University Classified Research Review.
Though an intellectual giant, Frank was unassuming with regard to his importance to the University of Michigan. Though many in our community are unaware of his history, Frank’s contributions to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusivity began in 1967; within four years, Frank transformed our university’ future. Arriving as a graduate student, Frank found just 229 Black students on Michigan‘s campus. As a graduate of Notre Dame, Frank understood the experience of living as a Black student in an overwhelmingly white space. He felt that rather than emphasizing selection, the UM could support Black students by creating an environment to help them succeed in academics. He envisioned a campus that supported black students through relevant course topics, advising, and community with other Black students at Michigan.
Frank joined the Black Student Union, and he drafted two proposals. Both were included as student demands in the January, 1970 Black Action Movement (BAM) strike. In its wake, the university funded both of Frank’s proposals. The first laid out plans for an interdisciplinary program of research, instruction, and community outreach focused on Black Americans. Established by the University in 1970, Frank served for a year as its first director. This Black Studies Program became the Center for Afro-American and African Studies, and then the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) in the College of LSA. Its intellectual focus and mission is to reflect on and participate in determining emerging directions in the study and representation of the diverse cultures, experiences, and societies of Africans and peoples of African descent across the African continent and diaspora.
The second proposal was an academic success program for Black students; by Fall term 1969,
Frank was working as an assistant to the Dean to introduce his envisioned support program. Frank created the Coalition for the Use of Learning Skills to address Black students’ experiences on campus, including an orientation to prepare them for potential emotional and academic obstacles. He structured course-specific study groups for first year students led by specially trained upperclassmen, graduate students, and faculty members. These “power sections” offered community to Black students in large introductory courses like calculus, English, and chemistry. Because many students arrived on campus from under-resourced schools or as first-generation students, Frank arranged for advising and coaching on how to succeed in college. The study sessions covered basic skills necessary for academic success, including analytical reading, writing skills and test preparation. Working with colleagues Nick Collins and Wade Boykin, Frank served as the director of the program until 1974. This program later became the current Comprehensive Studies Program, now serving a diverse group of 3100 students on the University of Michigan campus. What began as Frank’s mentoring concept has since transformed into a complete experiential learning program as part of the Michigan Learning Communities, drawing together groups of students and faculty, often from diverse backgrounds, through shared goals and common interests.
Frank was also busy building professional networks as a graduate student; for example, he was instrumental in forming the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) at the 1967 APA convention in San Francisco. ABPsi challenged the APA to develop a more inclusive institutional culture by increasing the recruiting, training and retaining Black students (undergraduate and graduate) and Black faculty, and to address social problems and injustices like racism that face marginalized communities. Along with other Michigan graduate students, Frank then founded the national Black Students Psychological Association (BSPA) in 1969, the longest standing association for Black graduate students in psychology, as well as the University of Michigan BPSA chapter. This group noted that only three African Americans received doctorates in psychology from the University of Michigan in the almost 50 years spanning 1920 to 1966, and they pressed the department and the university to do better. In 2017, Frank celebrated 50 years of the BPSA at the APA convention with current members (shown below).
If you are keeping score, please note that while earning his Ph.D. -- in four years – at Michigan, Frank had personally established three key programs supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion on the Michigan campus. Frank then joined the faculty in Psychology in 1971, and he continued to provide leadership by advocating for resources and self-direction for these two programs, as the Daily (4/10/1971) attests. In 2001, when Frank began teaching in the Marketing program, he recognized the need to support underrepresented students in the competitive programs at the Ross Business School. Frank created and directed the Preparation Initiative at Ross to provide a learning community for diverse groups of first year undergraduates interested in pursuing business degrees. The aim was to increase the diversity of business school enrollments and prepare students for Ross programs through summer programs and high school outreach. The four-week residential program Frank directed since 2005 until his retirement continues to provide students with a host of academic and social opportunities so that students are well prepared and confident in their ability to succeed at U-M and beyond (program members are pictured below on a field trip to the Stock Exchange).
Professor Yates worked tirelessly throughout his career to advance intellectual excellence and equality across diverse racial and ethnic groups. In recognition of these monumental contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Michigan, Professor Yates received Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award in 2019.
Beyond these and so many other achievements, Frank was a warm and generous person who cared deeply and genuinely about his colleagues, students, and friends. It’s difficult to recall an Area gathering, committee meeting, or celebration where Frank was not there, joining in the laughter, debates, and clean up (!). He often talked about his family members, and he was a loving, devoted, and proud family man to his wife, Halima Hassan, his daughter, Courtney, his son, Zachary, and his daughter-in-law, Jennifer. Frank was a competitor on the tennis court and a “rock” for the Cognition Area; when he spoke up, it was softly and with deliberation, and people listened. Those who knew Frank will recall his gentleness in spirit and person, permeating his interactions with all. Frank was a self-effacing person who shunned any form of self-promotion; consequently, it was easy to forget his great success as a significant and important figure in research; his fifty years as a dynamic, in demand, and engaging educator; and his towering presence as the originator of the foundation for equal access to education on our campus and in our profession. We are, each of us, so lucky not to miss knowing Frank.
p.s. If you are still reading, you can know Frank’s secret: The “J.” stands for Jacques!