Expanding the path of a pioneer

Runhuan Feng named State Farm Companies Foundation® Professor in Actuarial Science.
Runhuan Feng
Runhuan Feng was named State Farm Companies Foundation® Professor in Actuarial Science.

Maybe it’s because Runhuan Feng works so much in analyzing risk and uncertainty—in finance, insurance, retirement planning, healthcare, and otherwise—that soon after joining the University of Illinois as a professor in mathematics he began to wonder: “How did the study of these things begin at U of I?”

The answer turned out to be one of the biggest inspirations of his increasingly successful career. With the help of graduate students, the U of I Archives, and a colleague at the University of Iowa, Feng discovered Harry Lewis Rietz, an early pioneer in mathematical statistics and actuarial science who taught at Illinois from 1903-1918. Despite being an untenured assistant professor in 1906, Rietz took upon himself to develop coursework and conduct research in a completely uncharted territory of science at the time: actuarial science.

Rietz was largely responsible for founding the Institute for Mathematical Statistics and the American Institute of Actuaries, which was later folded under the Society of Actuaries, today’s largest actuarial professional organization in the world, and he served as president and vice president of many actuarial and statistical organizations. He wrote more than 150 papers and 11 books during his influential career. After serving 15 years as a professor at Illinois, he took a position at the University of Iowa, where he helped grow and flourish the study of actuarial science before he retired there in 1942.

Runhuan Feng and graduate students
Runhuan Feng, center, poses with some of his graduate students who attended the investiture ceremony.

The discovery of Rietz—few knew of the late professor’s contributions at U of I before Feng’s research—inspired Feng early in his tenure at Illinois, where he had arrived committed to further advance the excellence of actuarial science but with great uncertainty on how to build the research program.

“You cannot believe how proud I was at being in this league of giants,” Feng said, at a recent investiture ceremony where he was named the State Farm Companies Foundation® Professor in Actuarial Science. “It just reinforces that the University of Illinois is one of the leading institutions, and we would not be here today without (Rietz’s) courage and pioneering work… His story tells us that there is never a right time to do anything, just take the leap of faith and don’t be afraid of being the first, don’t be afraid of breaking boundaries.”

Feng, who joined the U of I in 2013 with joint appointments in mathematics, statistics, and industrial and enterprise systems engineering, has led much of U of I’s growth and development in actuarial science in recent years. Engaging in a wide spectrum of research in mathematics and the economics of risk uncertainty in the financial world, he is the director of actuarial science programs and the founding director of master’s program in predictive analytics and risk management and serves as the faculty lead for the finance and insurance theme at the University of Illinois System’s Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago.

A fellow of the Society of Actuaries, Feng co-founded the Illinois Risk Lab, which facilitates research that integrates experiential learning for Illinois students while addressing industrial problems. He has co-authored five books and monographs and has published more than 40 papers and has won multiple research prizes and awards, including the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries Geoffrey Heywood Prize in 2022. He is an editor or associate editor of multiple international actuarial science and applied probability journals, including Insurance: Mathematics and Economics, the North American Actuarial Journal, Methodology and Computing in Applied Probability, the Annals of Actuarial Science, and Quantitative Finance and Economics.

Sara (Reinmann) Frankowiak (BS, ’96, actuarial science), a representative of State Farm Companies Foundation, said that the organization is excited to provide the gift that endows Feng as the first State Farm Companies Foundation Professor in Actuarial Science.

“We are pleased that this endowment is benefiting the university, the Department of Mathematics, and the students in the actuarial science program,” Frankowiak said at the ceremony for Feng. “I am one of several (U of I) alumni of this actuarial science program that are working at State Farm in both the property casualty actuarial department and the life health actuarial department. We have leadership within those departments and who have gone on throughout the organization with their actuarial skills from the University of Illinois. The strong curriculum prepares students to succeed in the business world by tying together math,  statistical, and technology skills with business knowledge in the world of finance, economics and insurance. This really provides a deeper knowledge of the insurance business from the very start that allows your students to immediately contribute when they secure a professional position.”

Vera Mikyoung Hur, chair of the Department of Mathematics, praised Feng’s service.

“Professor Feng’s contributions in research, teaching, service, and leadership throughout his career are outstanding,” Hur said. “(He) has successfully advised the students at all levels, and his teaching is well regarded by students and peers.”

Feng thanked not only Henry Lewis Rietz but several current department heads and administrators, including Matthew Ando, associate dean for life and physical sciences, Venetria Patton, Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and Jeff Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business. He also thanked the State Farm Companies Foundation for decades of support to the U of I.

“What makes me really proud about the University of Illinois is that you can pursue a new path for your future if you truly believe in it, just like Henry Lewis Rietz did,” Feng said. “Today's celebration is not about my own achievement. I think it is a celebration of actuarial science at this great university for the past 117 years, although many of us here have only been here for a very small fraction of this history. We have made great strides.”

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Dave Evensen and Isabella Zarate