Nobel in economics puts Northwestern in spotlight

AP News
Posted: Oct 11, 2010 6:24 PM
Nobel in economics puts Northwestern in spotlight

When Nobel laureate Roger Myerson was asked by German reporters to predict who would be awarded this year's prize in economics, he would venture only that he believed Northwestern University would produce several winners in coming years.

On Monday, his former mentor and colleague Dale Mortensen became the first sitting professor from Northwestern to win the prestigious honor that is more often associated with its neighbor just a few miles to the south, the University of Chicago.

"When people look to the Chicago area as a center of great work in economics, there is twice as much going on here as the world is recognizing," said Mortensen, a University of Chicago professor who shared the 2007 prize for research he'd done at Northwestern years earlier.

The University of Chicago, famous for free-market advocacy known as "the Chicago school," claims ties to about one-third of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics since the first award was given in 1969. Northwestern, just north of Chicago in Evanston, Ill., claims ties to five: Mortensen, Myerson, two other former professors and a former student.

Although Northwestern is well-regarded among economists, many hope that the latest accolade will help boost its reputation further.

"I think obviously an award of this distinction by its nature definitely enhances the reputation of the university in general and the economics department specifically," said Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage. "It's a great honor; it's a wonderful thing."

Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the free market-oriented think tank the Cato Institute, said economists have long rated Northwestern's economics department among the top 10 nationally, "but now there is a question if it's in the top five."

"Among economists, Northwestern has been a very good department for some time ... and this is no surprise," he said of Mortensen's award. "For outsiders, this is official recognition."

Mortensen, 71, shared this year's $1.5 million prize with two others _ Peter Diamond, 70, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher Pissarides, 62, a professor of the London School of Economics _ for developing a theory that helps explain why many people can remain unemployed despite a large number of job vacancies.

Their work resulted in the so-called Diamond-Mortensen-Pissarides model, a tool frequently used to estimate how unemployment benefits, interest rates, the efficiency of employment agencies and other factors can affect the labor market.

Mortensen, who has been a faculty member at the Evanston school since 1965 and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, joked Monday about spending his entire career in one place.

"My colleagues tease me because ... one of the items of my research is why people move" between jobs, Mortensen said. "It's been a long, productive relationship and I've appreciated it."

Myerson said Mortensen became a "wonderful friend and mentor" during his time at Northwestern, where he worked for 25 years before leaving for the University of Chicago in 2001.

"The years I was at Northwestern, I felt that I knew I was part of a group contributing to major breakthroughs in economic understanding," Myerson said.

He said professors from Northwestern and the University of Chicago respect and talk to each other, but are "separate schools and work on our own separate, parallel approaches to developing our research."

But he predicts Mortensen's Nobel prize won't be the last for Northwestern's economics department.

"I could still see a couple more _ enough that you'll notice it as a string," Myerson said, adding that he hopes Mortensen's award "gets some buzz that gets people focusing on another great institution. I think it's only appropriate."