by Anne Krueger
Remembering the legacy of Jim Simler : 1921-2008
Jim became chair of the department only eight years after he arrived; at that time, it was customary for the economics chair to serve one or at most two terms and then return to teaching and research. Jim was reelected until he decided to stop in 1991! A frequent problem for other economics departments was that no one wanted to be chair and turnover in the job was too high. Almost always came the plaintive conclusion: "I wish we had a Jim Simler. How does Minnesota do it?"
There were several keys to Jim's successful leadership. He sought consensus, consulting with most members of the faculty before decisions were made in formal department meetings. Relations among the members of the department were generally excellent. There were none of the serious tensions or lasting antagonisms that plagued many economics departments.
Jim and his wife, Lucy, created a feeling of inclusiveness in the department. There was always a picnic during Memorial Day weekend that included not only faculty from the department, but also friends of the department from related disciplines, the Federal Reserve Bank of] Minneapolis, and elsewhere.
The number of faculty members in the department expanded somewhat in the early 1960s, but enrollments in economics courses increased even more. Increasing tensions, a large number of faculty members were sought by other universities. Jim managed to find ways to retain most of those who had outside offers, and to recruit other key figures. The department's ranking moved up dramatically, and it gained a nationwide reputation as a place from which people seldom moved.
Potential recruits were almost always taken to dinner by a group of faculty members, after which there would be a reception in a faculty member's home. The procedure would in any event have been effective, but the cordial relations among faculty members were evident and played a significant role in recruiting.
Most of the recruits coming from other universities (during January, the recruiting season) were concerned about the weather. There was usually an assistant professor on the faculty who had recently come from the University of Chicago. Jim would tell the candidate that he wanted him to be able to find out what life was like for assistant professors, and the candidate would meet with the Chicagoan. In the course of the conversation, the Chicagoan inevitably expressed satisfaction with Minnesota's weather in contrast to Chicago's!
Jim's wonderful sense of humor could usually mollify even the most disgruntled student or faculty member. Humor came out in a variety of ways. One of them was a series of department "memos." None of the rest of us knew (or, as far as I know, knows) who actually wrote which of them, but they often appeared in times of stress. [See a series of memos and responses online at www.econ.umn.edu/magazine]
I consider myself fortunate to have been at Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s (I left in 1982). The friendships and environment for intellectual interchange resulted in a harmonious, highly productive, and successful department. It was in significant part due to Jim's chairmanship, interpersonal skills, and leadership.