Stuart A. Umpleby

Stuart A. Umpleby

Professor Emeritus Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning
Department of Management

Professor Stuart Umpleby was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He moved to Dallas, Texas, with his parents and sister when he was young and graduated from Highland Park High School. He then attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Professor Umpleby took advantage of the University’s 5-year program, which allowed students to earn two degrees, one in Engineering and one in Liberal Arts and Sciences. While an undergraduate Professor Umpleby served as editor of the student engineering magazine for two years. He also worked as a research assistant for Professor Branimir von Turkovich, an engineer from Croatia who took a European, philosophical approach to science and engineering.  He used summer jobs with Mobil Oil, Westinghouse Electric and a company in Germany to explore career options.

For graduate school he continued at UIUC earning a master’s in political science. As a graduate student he worked with Psychology Professor Charles E. Osgood, creating a computer-based game that enabled people to explore alternative futures.  That work was described in his Master’s Thesis.

Umpleby continued at UIUC in the doctoral program in Communications that gave students three options: a behavioral approach, a cultural approach, or a cybernetics approach. Professor Umpleby chose the cybernetics approach. Professor Umpleby’s master’s thesis had used the time-shared computer in the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory.  He came to view it as a new communications medium, similar to the printing press, radio or television. His dissertation, Some Applications of Cybernetics to Social Systems, was a study of the social impact of computer-based communications using ideas from cybernetics. As he said, “That new medium is now called the Internet.”

Even as an undergraduate Umpleby was influenced by the work of Ross Ashby and Heinz Von Foerster in the Biological Computer Laboratory.  Von Foerster was developing the idea that the observer should be included within the domain of science. Thomas Kuhn’s widely read book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was published around the time Umpleby arrived on campus. That text inspired him to write an article in 1974 on how an effort to include the observer in science could be viewed as a scientific revolution. This idea has guided his career.

Professor Umpleby formed a group of students who received a series of National Science Foundation grants to do research on computer-based communications media.  “When I was a student, every proposal I wrote was funded and every article I submitted was published without modification. This was possible because we were using a computer system that no one else had.”

Professor Umpleby brought his years of education and passion for research to the George Washington University School of Business, where he was hired to teach Systems and Cybernetics courses in 1975. He witnessed significant growth in the Business School during his tenure, from 1975-2014. As the School of Business grew, however, some programs, including Public Administration and Health Services Administration, became separate entities.  Business Administration was seen less as applied social science.

For example, when Professor Umpleby taught Philosophy of Science to doctoral students in the School of Business, they told him that there was no theory in their fields. Although surprised, he showed them how to see the theories in their fields. However, those students found that their major field advisors challenged this perspective.  Umpleby came to see that there was a fundamental difference between the professional business literature and applied social science. His work on expanding the Philosophy of Science to more successfully encompass the social sciences aimed to resolve this issue.

The Department of Management also changed when the Master of Science program, under which Cybernetics was taught, was closed as part of an effort to win accreditation for the Master of Business Administration degree.  According to Professor Umpleby, “most of the people in the School of Business have a professional orientation as opposed to an applied science orientation.” Over time, students no longer sought Systems and Cybernetics courses, and he began to teach Organizational Behavior and Human Resources Management while continuing to publish in the fields of Systems and Cybernetics. 

Professor Umpleby continues to live in Washington, DC, and to work on expanding the Philosophy of Science so that it more adequately encompasses social systems.  He believes philosophy of science provides “an instruction manual” for how to create knowledge and simultaneously opens doors to other fields of inquiry. When he lectures, he finds that Americans overwhelmingly evaluate theories based on their practical applications, while Europeans understand theories by looking for their origins in philosophy.

From 1975 until 2014, Professor Umpleby most enjoyed teaching Philosophy of Science and Systems and Cybernetics. He also taught classes in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Simulation. “Physics is the foundation of the engineering disciplines, because it provides a theory of matter and energy.  I believe that Cybernetics will one day be seen as the foundation of the social and design sciences because it provides a theory of communication and regulation.  Physics provides a theory of the material domain. Cybernetics provides a theory of the informational domain.” In addition to working to include the observer in science, Professor Umpleby’s career has focused on understanding the interaction between ideas and society.

He is now serving as president of the Executive Committee of the International Academy for Systems and Cybernetic Sciences, an honor society created by the International Federation for Systems Research.


B.A., M.A. and Ph.D., University of Illinois-Urbana