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Our laureate in Rio: Heckman scores #72 for Chicago

image: Campus NewsJames Heckman was in the shower, listening for the score of the Yankees/Mariners game on CNN when he heard the phone ring. "A guy with a Swedish accent called," he said. "That sounded good."

It was good news indeed, as Heckman had just become the University of Chicago's 72nd Nobel laureate and the sixth Chicago economics faculty member to win in the last decade. Although Heckman knew he had been on the short list, it took two more congratulatory calls from Nobel committee members before he believed it.

"We had been joking during the week, calling each other pretending we were the Academy," Heckman explains, referring to his Chicago colleagues. "That's why I didn't believe it at first."

Heckman, the Henry Schultz distinguished service professor in economics and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy, has made a name for himself applying economic theory to real-world social issues including affirmative action, Graduate Equivalency Degrees (GED), and adult education, and challenging assumptions about the efficiency and necessity of such programs.

"Economics is a field where you're solving real problems," he said in a telephone press conference from Rio de Janeiro the morning of the announcement. "Being able to tackle real problems has always been an attraction for me." Heckman's trip to Brazil underscores this attitude-he was in Rio de Janeiro for an economics conference, presenting a paper that draws a causal relationship between government regulation and Brazil's high unemployment rate.

A Chicago native, Heckman received his B.A. from Colorado College in 1965, and after a year of master's work at Chicago, transferred to Princeton University where he completed his M.A. and Ph.D. After a brief stint at Columbia, he came back to the U of C in 1973 to teach, leaving in 1988 for a chair at Yale, only to return to Hyde Park in 1990. "I actually tried another university, thinking that what was here was so common you could get it anywhere," he said at a departmental reception upon his return from Brazil. At Yale, everyone was bright enough, he said, but somehow, "there wasn't the fabric of this place...." Heckman thanked D. Gale Johnson, the Eliakim Hastings Moore distinguished service professor, for talking then-University president Hanna Holborn Gray into taking him back: "He rescued me from a bad decision."

The Chicago economics faculty has become synonymous with the Nobel award. Heckman is the ninth active economics professor to receive the prize, which is more than twice as many as Chicago's closest rivals, Cambridge and Harvard.

Gary Becker, AM'53, PhD'55, who won in 1992, attributes the reign to the Chicago tradition of hiring promising faculty early in their careers. "Almost everybody in our department who's won the Nobel Prize-and others who will win the Nobel Prize-we attracted prior to their major work," he says. "This takes some courage, putting your chips in places where there is a deal of uncertainty."

Heckman will split the award-valued at $915,000-with fellow microeconomist Daniel McFadden of the University of California at Berkeley. Once a visiting professor at Chicago, McFadden was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in 1992. "I feel relieved to get a Nobel Prize. This tradition can be quite oppressive," says Heckman of the Chicago legacy. "If you don't have one, you start to feel outside of it." -C.S.

 


  DECEMBER 2000

  > > Volume 93, Number 2


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