Frequently Asked Questions
Why study economics at CSB/SJU?
The following article, which appeared in the St. John's Alumni magazine in August 2002, addresses this question.
The Stock of the Economics Department is High— and on the Rise
By Jennifer Delahunty Britz
In the CSB/SJU economics department, the supply of innovative and effective teaching and the success and satisfaction of the department’s graduates are both off the charts.
The CSB/SJU economics department may be set in the heart of Lake Wobegon, but it is way, way above average.
"We don’t look like a Midwestern economics department," says Assistant Professor Louis Johnston, who has taught at Bowdoin in Maine and Gustavus Adolphus in Minnesota. "We look like an eastern college, like Amherst or Bowdoin. We use the same textbooks and expect the same level of rigor. In some ways, we expect a bit more."
"A bit more" is precisely what has placed the CSB/SJU economics department in the enviable position of being perceived as one of the most dynamic and rigorous departments on this campus and one of the leading economic departments at similar liberal arts colleges today.
"I am impressed by the quality and commitment of the members of the department of economics, especially by their sincere desire to work together to advance their common goals," wrote Bruce Dalgaard, a professor of business and economics at St. Olaf College, who conducted a formal program review of the department in the spring of 2000.
What sets the SJU department apart is, well, its separateness, says Johnston. "We aren’t linked with business or management. We are a separate department, like the eastern privates." That separateness enables the department to focus on economics as a discipline, in general, and on the teaching of economics in particular.
Ask anyone who has spent time in other economics departments what they think, and you’ll hear words they don’t use in Lake Wobegon.
"What you have at Saint John’s is a group of first-rate economists and teachers of economics who are focused on the process of creating knowledge," says Dr. Scott Simkins ’81, himself a professor of economics at North Carolina A & T State University. "It’s not about getting the answer. It’s about the process of getting to the answer."
TEACHING STUDENTS TO SWIM
Professor Joe Friedrich ’64 is teaching economics major Mike Wacker, a junior from Eagan, MN, to swim—not in the campus pool, but in the giant sea of economics. First Mike and his EC 379 classmates review an economic journal article with Friedrich; they observe Friedrich’s mind prying and poking at the author’s reasoning. Then all students read and discuss the same article without Friedrich’s intervention—a kind of collective treading of water. And finally, the students choose their own article, independently dissect it and create an outline for a presentation.
"This isn’t easy stuff," says Friedrich, one of the senior members of the CSB/SJU economics department. "I have them put their toe in the water, then I follow them into the deep end. And finally, they have to cross the pool on their own."
"There’s a moment," he says, "when the light goes on and it all makes sense. Getting students to and through that moment is what’s great about teaching." Friedrich says he doesn’t know how to produce that "ah-ha" moment. "It only happens after a lot of hard work on the student’s part." Still, he’ll take a smidgen of credit when the light does illuminate. "If I do have a particular skill, it’s trying to take complex things and make them simple."
Jeff Korsmo ’80, the highest ranking non-physician at the Mayo Clinic, would agree with that. "I was taking Intro to Microeconomics with Joe, and I really got intrigued by his passion for the topic and the rigor with which he taught it," says Mayo’s Chief Operating Officer. "I was far from the top student; in fact, I was struggling. After some coaching, I did well on the midterm, and I won’t forget the positive reinforcement he gave me for that."
Korsmo, who had come to SJU to study biology, found himself declaring a major in economics. When he began thinking about graduate school, he turned to his economics professors. "Chuck [Rambeck] helped me develop criteria for choosing a program and was incredibly supportive of my application," says Korsmo, who went on to earn an MBA in finance at Purdue University.
"The CSB/SJU faculty aren’t flashy. They’re real straight-shooters," says Joe Deignan ’95. "What they do is bring economic theory to life." Deignan, who today helps manage $1.2 billion of Cargill’s portfolio, fondly recalls Associate Professor Larry Litterst’s International Economics and Labor Economics courses and a "quasi-thesis paper" he wrote for Rambeck. Those experiences—and the mentorship of professionals in the Career Services department—landed him an investment-banking job for a boutique technology firm at the beginning of the dot.com boom. "That first job was like drinking from a fire hose," he laughs. His education and his chutzpah have enabled Deignan to compete with Tufts and Wharton MBAs throughout his entire career. Today, he’s just a few classes away from an MBA at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota; much of his education, however, has come on the job. "All day I look at Harvard business cases gone bad," he says, noting that his group invests in companies that need restructuring.
REAL WORLD 101
Application of theory is a departmental hallmark. "We challenge our students to think systematically about an economic issue and to find their way through a problem to workable solutions," says department Chair John Olson. The program’s capstone experience—EC 384—requires all seniors to delve deeply into a topic of their choosing. (See sidebar, page 15)
The capstone course requires seniors to wrestle with real-world problems and come up with real-world solutions. "The capstone is the closest thing I did in college that relates to my work today," says Nathan Meath ’01, who works in the risk management department at the Federal Reserve Bank and is applying to attend graduate school in applied economics.
The integration of real world economics is essential in every class, beginning year one, says Associate Professor Meg Lewis, who co-edited The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics, selected by "Choice" magazine as one of the "Books of the Year."
"I used to teach as I had been taught—abstract exercises of economic theory," Lewis recalls. "But one of the things I realized is that I needed to teach what was actually going on in the world. Instead of starting with an abstract model, I now foreground real world issues. If we’re talking about supply and demand, let’s look at particular markets. Let’s look at what NAFTA did to the American tomato market."
This presentation of real world issues is the way Professor Ernie Diedrich thinks and lives. Rather than studying sustainability in his classes, Diedrich requires his students to get active in communities—helping to restore buildings in Sauk Centre and starting a community garden in St. Joseph, for example. Rather than simply reciting environmental economic theories, Diedrich’s students are evaluating the viability of a wind turbine on the SJU campus and making recommendations to local coffee shop owners on the kind of light bulbs they should use to save energy and money.
And that emphasis on the real world has led many graduates to make a real world difference. Mike Culligan ’87 is a senior regional representative for Catholic Relief Services for Africa. He earned a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University and speaks five languages, including Portuguese—knowledge that landed him on the front lines in Angola, translating between United Nations peacekeepers, the government of Angola and rebel troops. "I know exactly when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life," says Culligan. "It was Ernie’s [Diedrich] ‘Economics of Development’ class. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life."
OUTREACH AND DEPARTMENTAL POLITICS
Faculty members extend their theoretical understanding of economics into the real world. Louis Johnston is a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of the Minneapolis StarTribune and a commentator on Minnesota Public Radio. "I consider the popular press just a larger classroom," he attests. Johnston is also very active in national economics history organizations and is authoring entries for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History.
Economics faculty members stay abreast of their field through professional meetings off campus as well as a semi-annual on-campus faculty forum. Students are introduced to the larger economic arena by presenting their senior seminar work to one another and occasionally presenting research at national conferences, including the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (See Sidebar, page 15).
The department is known on campus for being serious without being stuffy, challenging without being contentious. "We have a real commitment to comity," says Diedrich. Political economist Lewis agrees: "One of our department’s strengths is that none of us are doctrinaire. We have wide views of what economics is and we challenge one another. But once I’ve defended my position, my colleagues respect it, and we move on."
THE CURRICULUM: CHALLENGING, FLEXIBLE
The department’s curriculum gets a good deal of credit for graduate success. The required 11 courses cover the basics, but it also challenges students to do more. In their sophomore year, for example, potential majors are urged to take a quantitative methods course to enable them to do more sophisticated analysis in their junior and senior years. "We were out on front [of other schools] on this," says Professor Lewis.
And because the required curriculum does not overload a student’s schedule, majors are able to reinforce their economics education with related coursework.
"I was so fortunate to be able to double major in economics and accounting," says Mike Philippe ’80, executive vice president and CFO of The Credit Store. In Philippe’s first job in commercial banking, he was fast-tracked into the lending division—a promotion he credits to his ability to "think big picture, which I learned in my economics courses." His career in international banking included a program in finance at Wharton. Today, he’s at the helm of an innovative consumer lending company. "I employ the economics and the accounting I learned at SJU every single day," he testifies.
Curricular flexibility also allows majors to make important links with other disciplines. "Our major is not merely technical and mechanical," says Chair Olson. "We urge our students to study broadly throughout the curriculum so when they ask ‘What are the larger consequences of that decision?’, they have the tools to answer."
Graduates laud the liberal arts context of their economics education. "I remember writing a paper on Anna Karenina and applying Adam Smith’s theory of the ‘invisible hand’ to a literary analysis," laughs Simkins. "I met with my English Professor Steve Humphrey about this and he said, ‘I’ve never seen this one before—but it works.’ The point is we weren’t just learning economic theories and principles. We were learning to think about economics in the broader world."
That broader world is part of junior Mike Wacker’s intellectual landscape. "I’m taking a US-China government course right now," says Wacker, "And I’m using my economics education to figure out how policy decisions are made." Wacker also studied on an SJU program in Cannes, France, where he observed the European market first-hand. "The French hold equality over efficiency," he says. "It would have been abstract to me if I hadn’t seen it for myself."
Linking economics with other disciplines has been stock-in-trade for the department. "We don’t stay in our department," says Diedrich, who co-founded the environmental studies department. Microeconomist Friedrich has an interest in public policy and will launch a new course in health care economics next year. Lewis often teaches courses cross-listed with the gender and women’s studies department. Hallway conversations are being held on developing a new finance track. And Professor Dan Finn, one of the standout scholars in the department and the holder of the prestigious Clemens Chair in Economics, holds the only joint appointment in economics and theology in the entire country.
Finn says his appointment demonstrates the colleges’ commitment to inviting students to look at the overlap of ethics and economics. "I ask my students to read the Wall Street Journal and to develop a moral imagination for what looks like technical business news," he says.
Finn, who is in the midst of writing a book called Markets and Morality, has published widely and is a frequent guest at international conferences. Despite his high profile, Finn believes intensely in the importance of local involvement. He is chairing a five-city committee attempting to bring affordable housing to Central Minnesota, and he urges his students to do service learning. "I hold the conviction that learning happens when students are actively engaged in the process," he says. His students have volunteered at local soup kitchens and the St. Cloud Reformatory. He also uses technology to advance learning: His students are required to dialogically wrestle with concepts on-line by 2 a.m. the night before class. Finn reads these discussions and uses the class time to address the on-line themes. His approach works: Last year, Finn won the Robert L. Spaeth Teacher of Distinction Award.
A survey of graduates of the economics department found that 70 percent of graduates had careers in the area of finance—from Managing Director of Citibank, Corp. Joe Scoblic ’62 to Andy Schroepher ’97, president of Tier 1 Research. Others are leading economics educators and policy leaders. Some have completed graduate programs at the nation’s top universities. And many graduates, like Mayo’s Korsmo, credit a portion of their success to the Benedictine learning environment.
"I consider myself a servant leader," he says. "If I’d taken an equally good economics track at a non-liberal arts public university, I wouldn’t have absorbed the Benedictine culture of servant leadership. That has made all the difference in my career and in my life."
Jennifer Delahunty Britz worked at SJU from 1982-1989. She writes about higher education and edits "The Lawlor Review," an education marketing journal.
All photos by Michael Crouser, SJU 1995.