• April 19, 2014

Remembering Gordon Winston, Economist of Higher Education

Remembering Gordon Winston, Economist Who Analyzed Workings of Higher Education 2

Williams College

Gordon C. Winston

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Williams College

Gordon C. Winston

Gordon C. Winston, the professor of political economy emeritus at Williams College who died December 3 at age 84, was my department chair when I was on the economics faculty there, as well as my co-author, mentor, and friend. He was a remarkably innovative and influential economist who made important contributions in the fields of labor and development economics, but he was best known for his work on the economics of higher education.

His insights ranged across a broad swath of the literature—unraveling the mysteries of fund accounting, analyzing need-based and merit aid and comparing net costs to institutional educational expenditures, estimating the impact of peers on undergraduate student learning, understanding ways a university is like and unlike a company, and monitoring the income background of students attending highly selective private colleges and universities. Gordon's work has had a profound impact on how we understand the academy.

At the same time, he was a sensational teacher over more than four decades on the Williams College faculty. After I became Williams's president in 2000, I was thrilled to hear Gordon's name over and over again when I asked alumni to name the professors who had the greatest impact on them.

For a person of such impressive accomplishment, Gordon was refreshingly humble. When he was chairman of the economics department in the early 1980s, we had a program that brought superstar economists to Williams for a semester. We invited the indomitable Joan Robinson, and were shocked when she actually accepted, arriving for the fall semester of 1982. Professor Robinson was known internationally not just for her brilliant contributions to the economics literature and for the fact that she was a student and close colleague of the great John Maynard Keynes at the University of Cambridge, but also for her brutally outspoken manner.

She had written on how to integrate the notion of time into economic analysis, and Gordon had just published a major book on exactly that subject with Cambridge University Press, The Timing of Economic Activities: Firms, Household, and Markets in Time-Specific Analysis. He inscribed it beautifully and presented it to her. He heard nothing for several weeks until one day Professor Robinson walked into his office, dropped the book on his desk, and said, "Winston, this is the kind of book that is a lot more fun to write than it is to read." She then turned around and left without another word. That was Gordon's favorite story, always told with an enormous smile on his face.

But Gordon was more than simply a fabulous teacher and scholar. He was an extraordinary friend and inspiration to so many. He had an abiding zest for life that regularly manifested itself in his latest hobby—whether it was his sporty cars, his motorcycle, his sailboat, or his RV. In fact he once had a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins." But he loved people much more than his material possessions. Not just his wonderful wife, Mary, and his family, but many others as well.

Those of us blessed to have known him realize that both our careers and our personal lives would have been sadly diminished without the guidance of this remarkable man. He truly was one of a kind.

Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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