In Memoriam: Morton B. Friedman

Morton B. Friedman
Distinguished and Devoted SEAS Professor and Senior Vice Dean

Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Professor and Senior Vice Dean Emeritus Morton B. Friedman died June 3, 2014, in Canaan, CT. A longtime Columbia Engineering faculty member and dedicated senior administrator, Professor Friedman was 86 at the time of his death.

Professor Friedman, known as Mort to everyone at the School and at the University, joined the Engineering faculty in 1956 and spent the next seven decades becoming the heart, soul, and collective memory of the School. An aerospace engineer and mathematician, he received his BS, MS, and EngScD degrees from New York University. After a brief appointment at NYU as a research associate, he joined Columbia Engineering, where he advanced through the academic ranks in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, appointed as full professor in 1966. In 1995, he was appointed vice dean, senior vice dean in 2010, and senior vice dean emeritus in 2012.

George Deodatis, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, remembers Professor Friedman as the first person he met at Columbia when he arrived as a graduate student in August 1983. At that time, Professor Friedman was the chair of the Department. “I was pleasantly surprised that the chair would be willing to see a new graduate student without a formal appointment,” Professor Deodatis said. “He was spirited and jovial and, from the very first moment, he succeeded in making me feel comfortable and welcome. He continued to be exactly like this for the next 31 years! He was a brilliant mathematician, a very funny person, an endless source of knowledge for all things related to Columbia, but most important of all, always genuinely caring.”

During his career at Columbia, Professor Friedman founded the Division of Mathematical Methods, the precursor to the applied mathematics component of what is now the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, where he held a joint appointment. One of his earliest students in this program was Nobel laureate Robert C. Merton BS’66. A groundbreaking mathematician, Professor Friedman made major contributions in the development of accelerated quadrature methods of linear integral equations, accelerated spectral analysis of compact operators, accelerated projection methods, and uniform asymptotic solutions of differential equations with an almost periodic coefficient. He and his students were the earliest developers of the boundary element method that has since found widespread application in many engineering and applied science disciplines. His research was supported by the National Science Foundation in variational methods for fluids, by NASA in the SST sonic boom, and by DARPA in large scaled computations. He had been a consultant to North Star Construction, Hudson Institute, and Computer Usage Corp. for numerical analysis; Weidlinger Associates and Christensen Inc. for applied mechanics; and Inference Corporation for artificial intelligence software.

As vice dean, Professor Friedman was in the vanguard of engineering education leaders and helped shape the curriculum for many decades, from bringing engineering education into the first-year curriculum with project-based design and discipline-specific professional courses to creating a minors program at the School in more than 20 liberal arts subjects, and from encouraging service learning to providing research opportunities for undergraduates with junior and senior faculty. He also diligently served as mentor for a long line of faculty in various departments, a service of major importance to the School.

From 1981 to 1995, he served as chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and, from 1980 to 1991, also held the post of associate dean for instruction and research. In addition, he chaired the Executive Committee of the University Senate for several years. In carrying out this role and others at the University level, he gained wide respect for his insight, for his caring nature, and for providing wise counsel on navigating the many complexities of a university.

A former Fulbright Professor in applied mathematics and Field Instrumentation Scholar for the American Institute for Physics, he was recognized for his outstanding teaching by the Society of Columbia Graduates, which honored him with its Great Teacher Award in 1978. In 2012, Professor Friedman was honored for his lifelong devotion as a professor and senior vice dean at the School’s Annual Faculty Excellence Awards program, and the meeting space on the fifth floor of the S.W. Mudd Building, where he led so many meetings, was dedicated as the Morton B. Friedman Conference Room.

Professor Friedman is survived by his devoted and treasured wife of 58 years, Sandy; his loving children, Robert (Linda) and Lori (Jim Goldfinger); and three beloved grandchildren, Chason, Asher, and Daden Goldfinger.

The family has established the Morton B. Friedman Memorial Prize for Excellence, to be awarded periodically to an undergraduate or graduate student in The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science who best exhibits Professor Friedman’s characteristics of academic excellence, visionary leadership, and outstanding promise for the future. To contribute to the Prize, please contact Zachary Howell in the Columbia Engineering Office of Advancement at 212-851-4023 or zh2134@columbia.edu.