MAE Spring 2021: A Word from the Department Head

As I was growing up in Korea, I remember my parents writing letters home.  Dad typed his letters, with carbon copies (anyone remember carbon paper in between the sheets of white typing paper?) and Mom hand-wrote hers.  At a time when phone calls were impossibly expensive, letters were a way to stay connected. 

I mention this because I’ve enjoyed – and learned from -- the correspondence I’ve had with some of you through this newsletter.  Dennis Keefe (MS, 1964) took the time to write to me, recalling his days at the U and lessons learned.  He remembers “morning and afternoon coffee hours in the library where we could mingle with the faculty … or hear about their most recent trips to Washington and, e.g., working with President Kennedy (Willard Cochrane).  It made economics come alive, something real, not just an abstraction.”  Keefe writes about being recruited by Woody Berg, who “took a chance on giving an assistantship to a student with a liberal arts background.” John Reeder (BS, Applied Economics, 1985) wrote about how the faculty in our department opened his eyes to the possibility of a career in public policy. We include Reeder’s reflections about his time in the department in this newsletter.

Bill Tomek (PhD, 1961) wrote to me with a memory of Willard Cochrane after reading about Arlene Learn’s gift to the Cochrane Fund.  Cochrane had sent Tomek a personal note at the critical moment when he (Tomek) was deciding among Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Chicago for his PhD.  That personal note tipped the scales in our favor, and Tomek chose Minnesota.  Tomek went on to a long and influential career at Cornell, one in which he collaborated with many, including alumni of our department (Bud Stanton, Rich Sexton, Harry Kaiser, Robert Myers), and mentored many graduate students including our own Hikaru Hanawa Peterson. 

Speaking of typewriters and carbon paper, we have a library where we can find dissertations and theses written over the history of the department.  I came across a thesis by Mordecai Ezekiel, written in 1923.  That name rang a bell, so I looked him up and learned that he was a true superstar, both in the policy realm and in academic circles.  His CV is studded with articles in the major economics and statistics journals, and his contributions stand the test of time.  He wrote a book in 1936 (“2,500 a year—from scarcity to abundance,”) suggesting the use of a minimum income guarantee for all families.  Ezekiel also wrote a study for the Food and Agriculture Organization that supplied the theoretical basis for the World Food Program.  This discovery had me jumping out of my chair, seeing the thread from a MS student in 1923 all the way to the 2020 recognition of the World Food Programme with the Nobel Peace Prize.  The chief economist of the World Food Programme?  That would be Arif Husain, an alum of our MS (1996) and PhD (1997) programs.  More on Husain elsewhere in our newsletter. 

Economics does, indeed, come alive in the careers of those like Ezekiel, Cochrane, Tomek, Husain and so many more whose economic research is motivated by the biggest policy questions. 

Central to our history is our graduate program, enlivened by the best and most curious graduate students.  Why do they come to Minnesota?  That lively intellectual environment, sustained over our history by the best and most grounded applied economists, and warm personal welcomes from our faculty—now by email and over Zoom rather than with a letter sent by first-class mail.  We welcome your participation in building the graduate fellowships created in memory of Willard Cochrane, Ed Schuh, Willis Peterson, and Dale Dahl and in honor of Jean Kinsey and Frances Antonovitz.  These are ways to connect our history to our future.

One unexpected source of joy for me in 2020 was the incoming class of students in our Applied Economics and Agricultural and Food Business Management programs.  Teaching the orientation class gave me the chance to get acquainted with a phenomenally talented group of students and to catch up with alumni.  Hailey Clausen is one of those students—see her piece for a peek into the life of an undergraduate coming to the University in the midst of the pandemic.

I’d love to correspond with you, too.  Please drop me a line and fill me in on your experiences in the department and your hopes for the future.