By Chrisitne Cumming
I received three gifts through my experience as both an undergraduate and graduate student in economics at the University of Minnesota. As an undergraduate, I received my first instruction in how life is what you make it. Coming from a high school class of 31, I welcomed the opportunity to strike a new direction at the large urban university. My decision to become an economist came from studying the course catalogue.
With the career certainty that peaks around age eighteen, I chose economics because I knew nothing about it and I was intrigued by its use of mathematical models to explain the equally unknown business world.
The University’s size and bureaucracy created many rites of passage—for example, at Window 10 in Morrill Hall [graduate registration window] or in classes taught via closed-circuit TV.
The size, however, also was a gift. It meant being able as a freshman to hear Walter Heller teaching Econ 1-001 in Northrop Auditorium, replete with motivating stories about his association with Jack [Kennedy], Lyndon [Johnson], and Hubert [Humphrey].
The challenges of size were mitigated by the generosity of individual attention from advisers and professors in those undergraduate years, especially in economics. Ed Coen, director of undergraduate studies, and Jack Kareken looked out for me on many occasions. Throughout my career, I have crossed paths with two of my advisers, Bob Shiller, now at Yale, and Chuck Freedman, just retired from the Bank of Canada. Unlike today, economics was a relatively small undergraduate major, compared to English and history, and business majors dominated most of the economics courses. In a first stab at networking, the three of us invited the 75 declared majors to a picnic. The turnout was small, but the event memorable.
The second gift was the opportunity after my senior year to attend the Free University Berlin on a University reciprocal scholarship. That year abroad was a major broadening experience, but it also was pivotal to my career as an economist. The scholarship required me to return to the University and led me to the Ph.D. program in economics.
The third gift was the excellent training I received in the graduate economics program. Minnesota then had unusual strength in econometrics and was leading a revolution in macroeconomics. By coincidence, these were my two fields. In econometrics, we had access to a rich variety of approaches, including classical approaches from Clifford Hildreth and John Chipman, new time series econometrics from Chris Sims, and emerging techniques using panel data from Lung-Fei Lee. In macroeconomics, we used a looseleaf draft of Tom Sargent’s graduate macroeconomics text, enjoying an opportunity as first-year students to be participants in a major rethinking of the field.
A crucial moment for me was a course on income distribution. I admired John Chipman’s careful scholarship and elegant exposition; it was under his guidance that I really came to understand the essence of mathematical proof. The topic was also at the crossroads of positive and normative economics, perhaps foreshadowing my involvement in the public policy world. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on international patterns in income distribution for Professor Chipman.
The international dimension of that topic helped me start my career at the Federal Reserve of New York on the bank’s international side. While I did not follow the path of most of my contemporaries— teaching and academic research—I credit the training at Minnesota with allowing me to contribute at the Federal Reserve and in the international arena to public sector policy concerning financial derivatives and risk management, and following that, to serve as the bank’s director of research, the highpoints of my career to date.
As an alumna, I have been gratified to learn of the dramatic initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts to improve the undergraduate experience, and in the economics department to complement strong graduate training with a supportive environment. I cherish my amusing stories, but applaud the effort to continue to provide a first-rate education in the 21st century.