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Students Persuade Solow to Teach One Last Course

Esteemed theorist, teacher changed the course of economic theory

Cambridge, MA--MIT professor and Nobel Prize-winner Robert M. Solow, a dedicated teacher and mentor to a generation of economists, has retired after a 45-year MIT career. He has a final teaching "obligation," though. Solow was persuaded by some graduate students to teach his usual fall graduate class in macroeconomics one last time.

The students thought that he owed it to them, said Solow, and he willingly agreed. The course, Macroeconomic Theory IV, began on October 26.

Teaching has been a major part of Solow's career at MIT and a major source of his enjoyment. "I think what has differentiated us from other departments is paying more attention to teaching than most good research departments do."

He also said he holds the record for having advised more Ph.D. theses in economics than anyone else at MIT. He will continue to supervise theses in his retirement.

"We have built at MIT, a very unlikely place, the best place to study economics in the US," said Solow. Many of MIT's graduates have gone on to serve the nation in the field of policy. Two current members of the President's Council of Economic Advisors were advisees of Solow's during their studies at MIT. Looking back on his career, Solow values most "having attracted marvelous graduate students."

With the honorary title of Institute Professor and the elimination of the federal retirement age, Solow had no need to leave his post and join the retired ranks of "professors emeriti." It was important to him, though, to stick to a retirement age. "I want my department to be able to hire a young person," he said.

Solow won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1987 for developing a mathematical model to determine factors that drive economic growth and showing that mature economics reach a stage where growth will be primarily determined by technological progress.

One of his recent projects, carried out with two students (Abid Rizvi and Tina Trikha) in MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, was to look critically at the common belief that inflation is almost irreversible once it starts. From this would follow that monetary policy needs to err always on the safe side. Solow's evidence seemed to suggest instead that the process of inflation is very sluggish. In that case, central banks can afford to take a cautiously experimental approach. "Even if the Fed lets employment rise a little too far, it can just back away. Both bad things and good things seem to happen slowly."

Solow and his friend Frank Hahn, a professor at Cambridge University and at University of Siena in Italy, have just finished a book on microeconomic theory. They intend it as a sort of "guerrilla warfare" against the dominant trend in macroeconomics theory that looks at the economy as if it were purposely carrying out a far-seeing consumer's optimal plan. Events that Solow and Hahn regard as pathological--high unemployment, for instance--are then treated as benign.

"One of the great things about being at MIT (Solow has been here his whole life) is having a department where we all are each other's friend," said Solow. The economics department had lunch together every day for years at a large roundtable in the faculty club--a table no one else would dare occupy. Solow and his closest friend, fellow Nobel-winner Paul Samuelson, have had neighboring offices for 45 years.

Solow is looking forward to getting back to the "spirit of an assistant professor." He also said, "I'd like to wake up in the morning and say to myself 'there's nothing I have to do today' and just get up and think about a theoretical or statistical problem that's been bothering me."

And then of course there are the grandchildren...

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