Baruch’s Master’s of Financial Engineering (MFE) program, housed in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences’ graduate programs, is on something of a winning streak. For the third year in a row, QuantNet, whose MFE program rankings are eagerly awaited by the quantitative finance community at large, has rated Baruch’s MFE No. 1 in the United States. The College, which charges in-state students only around $29,000 for the entire program, regularly beats out schools like Princeton, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, which typically charge twice as much. Alums of Baruch’s program report the highest compensation among the Top 10 programs, after having paid the lowest tuition. It doesn’t take the kinds of mathematical models that MFE students study to understand the value proposition.

The innovative leadership of Dan Stefanica and Warren B. Gordon have been instrumental in achieving this unprecedented run, but the MFE’s real secret weapon is its Curriculum Coordinator: Andrew Lesniewski.

“A lot of people wouldn’t understand the complex models of probability that we work with,” Lesniewski says “but the whole economy, the fate of finance, countless jobs, all rest on mathematics.” Lesniewski’s grasp of such models and his ability to explain them to a layman like me shows nothing short of mastery, but this pioneering mathematician who spent sixteen years in the financial industry, formulating a number of innovative methodologies for valuation and risk management widely used by investment banks and hedge funds the world over, can speak just as fluently about literature, opera, and philosophy. Our conversation veered towards the poems of T. S. Eliot, the relationship between Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism, and whether those widely debated crypto currencies will turn out to be financial market game-changers or the future of an illusion. For the record, he’s still 50-50 on that one.

Leaving his native Poland early in life, Lesniewski found his way to Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “It’s a famous school in Europe. Einstein went there, you know, so everybody knows about it. It’s quite unique,” he says. “It’s funny. Zurich is no New York City. It’s a very boring place, but not far from the Institute there’s a plaque saying that James Joyce wrote Ulysses here, and Wagner composed all his major operas over there, and quantum mechanics was developed in Zurich of all places.” Lesniewski left his own small mark on Zurich, earning a PhD in Mathematics and amassing a dossier of influential work on quantum field theory.

After spending ten years on the faculty at Harvard University, Lesniewski moved to New York and transitioned into the financial industry. Over the course of his career in finance, he headed up quantitative research at the investment bank BNP Paribas, Ellington Management Group, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, and the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, the world’s largest clearing house. So, after all this success, why the switch back to full-time teaching? And why Baruch?

“I started my career as a university professor, and the whole time I worked in the private sector I also taught as an adjunct at NYU, so I never really gave it up,” Lesniewski admits. “And, you know, at the end of the day I thought to myself: a PhD degree in math, what is it worth, you know? It just provides you with just so many variable skills. I wanted to share that. And, of course, all my education was earned in public schools. I never went to any private institution.” He estimates his tuition at about 250 Swiss Francs per year. “And that was waived,” he laughs.

For these reasons, he felt an immediate affinity for Baruch and its mission. “In our program, we have students from four continents: Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. It’s a good mix, you know, because you just get those different characters in there, different ways of thinking, very smart people. It feels like something that’s also good for the country as a whole, you know? Absolutely.”

Lesniewski’s broad range of experience in the private sector led him to suggest broadening Baruch’s MFE curriculum. “I took the approach that we should really be able to present our graduates to the entire industry, not just one sector,” he says. The financial industry can be roughly broken into two parts, the buy side, and the sell side. The buy side refers to entities such as investment managers, pension funds, college endowments, insurance companies, and hedge funds. The sell side is comprised of firms such as investment banks and market makers that provide brokerage services to the buy side. Both sides need people with advanced mathematics skills to work out the complex probabilities involved. “Most programs, including the one at Baruch, which was already very well established when I got here, are really more oriented to the sell side. After working in the industry, I had a feeling that it was really a little bit too oriented towards the sell side, catering to the banks and so on. That began a long discussion of how to begin to move the curriculum – tilt it a little bit towards the buy side.” It is partially this holistic view of the industry that distinguishes Baruch’s MFE program and makes it the best in the nation.

“So, we’re giving them more than just one set of skills,” Lesniewski says. “I had a recent discussion with the director of another well know MFE program, and they still believe that you have to base the entire curriculum on only stochastic calculus to set students up to get jobs on the sell side. Of course, we do stochastic calculus too, but the skills that we give them are much more transferable. They might decide to move to a different industry, and they’ll have the skill set to make that move. Because ultimately, what is our job here? To give our students marketable skills so that they can get themselves a good life, right?”

Now in his tenth year at Baruch, Lesniewski says he still feels new to the job, and is still surprised by the quality of the students. And he loves Baruch’s location. “I mean, come on,” he smiles, “you can’t have a location like this anywhere else in the word.” He looks like he’s about to share a secret. “You know, I never in my life applied for a job at Columbia,” he says in a low voice. Andrew Lesniewski, it seems, still feels more at home downtown.