Colorado College Bulletin
Lauding Our First Laureate
By JULIE INGWERSEN '89
University of Chicago economist James Heckman recalled that as a Colorado College junior in the early 1960s, he had a professor who tried to talk him out of changing his major.
“Stay in physics,” the instructor said, “and you’ll win a Nobel Prize.”
The professor was half right.
Last October, Heckman’65 won the Nobel -- in economics. He is the first
Colorado College alumnus to become a Nobel laureate.
Heckman was cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which oversees the prize, for his work in microeconometrics, including his development of statistical tools for analyzing selective samples. His techniques, which are now widely used by social scientists, have helped adjust data for variables tied to individual choice, such as whether workers in a job training program earn more because of the training itself, or because of self-motivation or other invisible factors.
The Swedish academy also described Heckman as a leader in applied research. In putting his methods to work, Heckman has focused on evaluating social programs such as education and civil rights policies, as well as examining the roots of economic disparities between people of different races, sexes and educational backgrounds.
At 56, Heckman is one of the younger Nobel laureates. Gary Becker, a University of Chicago colleague who won the Nobel Prize in 1992, said of Heckman last fall, “He’s still going very strongly with almost unlimited energy, great vitality and enormous enthusiasm for using economics to solve important problems.”
As a teenager, Heckman had a knack for mathematics and aimed to become a scientist. In a recent interview at his home in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood, Heckman said it was during his undergraduate years at Colorado College that he discovered and fell in love with philosophy and the social sciences, and eventually found in economics a home for his wide-ranging interests.
Heckman was born in Chicago, but his family later moved to Colorado. He graduated in 1961 from Lakewood High School outside Denver with a plan to study physics at Cornell University. But he applied for and was awarded a lucrative Boettcher scholarship, which stipulates that winners must attend college in Colorado. So Heckman turned his attention to the physics department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“I had actually enrolled there, and I even had a room in a dorm picked out,” he says.
Then a high school English teacher happened to ask whether he had considered Colorado College. On her recommendation, he decided to visit the campus. Making the trip in mid-summer, he met an assistant admissions director, Nick Nichols, who made a big impression.
“He was the perfect person for me to meet. He really stimulated my intellectual and social curiosity. He made the remark, ‘Here at Colorado College, we will ask the question and you will decide for yourself whether you are your brother’s keeper.’ I was very inspired.”
Although it was only weeks before the fall semester was to begin, Heckman’s Boettcher scholarship opened doors, and he was soon accepted and enrolled at CC.
It turned out to be a good fit. In his first term, Heckman was tapped for a special program for promising students that involved a joint English and history course taught by Neale Reinitz, Tom Ross and Bill Hochman. The students in it formed a close intellectual bond, Heckman says.
“The Selected Students program created an incredible sense of camaraderie because we were challenged, and we liked each other,” he says.
During a 1998 speech to mark his retirement, Hochman recalled the same program in a slightly different light.
“I had a spasm of nervous anticipation going into class with that crew each morning -- a room full of students all brighter than I,” Hochman said in his remarks. “I used to say I taught them everything I knew every day.”
Heckman also studied philosophy with Jane Cauvel, and he remembers long discussions with classmates about course readings such as Plato’s Republic -- some of them held in a bar called the Kachina Lounge.
“I had just turned 17 in April of 1961, so I couldn’t get in to the 18-and-over bars that sold 3.2 beer. But it turned out the Kachina Lounge, which was 21-and-over and sold hard liquor, had completely lax standards. So I remember spending hours there discussing small points about the Republic and trying to understand the significance of what the social order should be. I found that to be an incredibly stimulating class. In fact, the whole first semester I thought was fantastic.”
During the next four years, Heckman seized the opportunity to dabble in everything from physics and mathematics to history and philosophy, and even spent a term editing the campus newspaper, then called The Tiger. A voracious reader, he took advantage of many independent reading classes and tutorials. Heckman was less keen on a then-compulsory ROTC program, but even that experience enriched him, he says.
“(Colorado College) gave me the chance to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have done. The classes were very good ... I felt I did a lot,” he says of his time at CC. “It allowed me to become a dilettante outside my professional life, which I probably still am. I agree with Keynes’ statement that ‘no one can be a good economist who is just an economist,’ ” Heckman said.
Heckman began studying economics during his junior year in a readings course directed by Ray Werner, and he took to it easily, aided by his grounding in mathematics. While house-sitting in nearby Manitou Springs, Colo., during a break in classes in 1964, he had an epiphany. One of the titles on Werner’s reading list was a book by economist Arthur Lewis, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1979. Heckman devoured the work.
“This book had it all,” Heckman says. “It was on the theory of economic development. And I’ll tell you, when I read that book, I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. It wasn’t just what he said, although there was a lot that he said. But it raised a lot of basic questions, which are still on the table. And by the end of my junior year, I pretty much decided I was going to do economics.”
Some of Heckman’s experiences outside the classroom in those years also shaped the path of his career. A road trip to New Orleans in late 1963, he says, fostered a life-long fascination with racial disparity.
Heckman had a roommate at CC from Nigeria named Abiodun Afonja, and during one winter break the two of them took a car trip from Colorado Springs through Chicago and Lexington, Ky., down to Louisiana by way of Birmingham, Ala., and Hattiesburg, Miss. With the civil rights movement in full swing, clashes in the South between demonstrators and white resistors were growing increasingly violent. Four girls had been killed in a racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., only a few months earlier.
“He and I were just curious about the Jim Crow system of racial segregation,” Heckman says. Driving into Birmingham, “We began to realize how strictly enforced the segregation code was.”
“It’s hard to imagine,” he continued. “Soda fountains were segregated. You’d go into a store and there was one rail if you were white, and another rail if you were black, and they’d have two separate counters.”
Banned from checking into hotels together, the two young men spent one night at a black YMCA. Says Heckman, “The people [there] were scared to death that we would be discovered.”
On New Year’s Day, 1964, Heckman and Afonja made it to New Orleans, right after college football’s Sugar Bowl was played.
“The thing I remember,” Heckman says, “we walked down Bourbon Street, the main drag. And all the hawkers there trying to get people in, they literally closed the doors. They saw a black and a white coming down the street, and they closed the doors.”
College students of both races at the time had begun taking “freedom rides” through the South to promote desegregation. As they drove along, Heckman says, “Black people would wave to us. They thought we were freedom riders but we were just ignorant kids. We waved back, but we didn’t realize we were in fact integrating and creating a lot of suspicion.”
Nonetheless, he says, “That experience led to a deep interest in racial segregation and civil rights. It’s been a constant interest of mine.”
Heckman says his interest was heightened by a return trip to New Orleans seven years later. Back on Bourbon Street, “Everything was integrated. I was amazed and curious about how such rapid change could come about.”
Heckman has written several academic papers on the economic status of black Americans, including a review of the effect of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act on the prosperity of workers in South Carolina. He recently completed a new paper on a related topic and is writing a book on the impact of social action, litigation and legislation on the economic status of African-Americans.
Heckman’s research often leads him into politically charged territory. He has investigated the role of schooling on women’s earnings, and why students in Catholic schools are observed getting higher test scores than students in public schools in spite of similar backgrounds.
The political debates can wear on him to a point where he sometimes has to take a break from certain topics, particularly those involving race. But at the same time, Heckman says it’s the immediacy of social questions that drives his interest in applied economics.
“There is an earnestness about economics and data and the idea that economics is a field that tackles real problems that I think has always been attractive to me,” he said in a news conference shortly after winning the Nobel Prize last fall.
Heckman’s Nobel was announced in October, but the actual presentation took place in Stockholm in December. The laureates are honored as part of an eight-day series of lectures, dinners and formal receptions, many involving the king and queen of Sweden along with countless other notables.
The scheduling and the specific protocol of the events are challenging enough that each honoree is assigned a personal attache from the Swedish diplomatic corps, along with a driver. Heckman and his wife, Lynne, who made the trip with their son, daughter, and other relatives, found the experience exhilarating but nearly overwhelming.
“The structure is very formal, and the dinner was very formal but very moving,” Heckman says. “It’s an occasion for a lot of solemnity. And frankly it gets tiring because there’s too much of it. It would be much nicer if there were only two or three days of the ceremony.”
Easier to accept was the check that comes with the award. Heckman shared honors for the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with a co-recipient, Daniel McFadden of the University of California at Berkeley. The two split a prize worth roughly $930,000.
Has the prize changed his life?
“It seems to affect people around you. I’ve noticed that people are pretty respectful, and they tolerate more idiotic statements from me than they would have three months ago,” Heckman says. “You have a wider audience, and that’s good. The danger is that find yourself talking about a lot you don’t know about. I’ve tried to avoid that.”
Despite his career success, Heckman has mused about what it would have been like to teach at his alma mater. He got a glimpse of the life during his senior year at CC, when he had an apartment on Wood Avenue near an enclave of several professors’ homes.
“My whole life has been at research universities. I’ve often wondered about the road not taken,” he says. “When I started out, my ideal would have been to teach at Colorado College. That struck me as the true life of the mind, ranging freely across broad areas of knowledge.”
Julie Ingwersen ‘89 works for Reuters as a commodities reporter in Chicago. A political science major at CC, she also has a journalism degree from the University of Michigan.
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