Teaching economics through four decades

Teaching economics through four decades

By Marlen Lebish

Teaching economics through four decades

By Marlen Lebish
Two Miami Herbert economics professors reflect on their 30-plus years of teaching.
During the 1980s, while many were consumed with the Miami Hurricanes football team’s winning streak, two professors, more consumed with Reaganomics than with the scoreboard, were quietly starting their decades-long careers at the University of Miami School of Business.

Combined, Professors Philip Robins and Michael Connolly have more than 70 years of experience in teaching economics at the University.

“I love teaching Miami Herbert students because they are very interested in relating basic economic principles to the running of a business,” said Robins. “The overlap among the various disciplines that our students are exposed to such as finance, marketing, management, and management science make it a truly enjoyable and relatable interdisciplinary teaching experience.”

Connolly said regardless of the changing trends and technology, one thing has always remained the same—the caliber of students and how much they value the education they are receiving.

When did you being teaching at UM?

Connolly: I began teaching at UM in 1987.  

Robins: I began teaching at UM in August of 1982, so I have been here for almost 39 years.  Before coming to UM, from 1972-1982, I taught part-time while I was a senior economic researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. Before that, I was a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

How has your teaching evolved over the years, especially alongside the break-neck speed of technological developments? 

Connolly: My teaching has gone from printed handouts to posting PPT lecture slides on BlackBoard; and from pencil and paper to Excel and Stata. The biggest and fasted shift happened during the spring 2020 semester when we all went to remote teaching because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Miami Herbert immediately provided seminars, training, and resources for delivering classes remotely. I am extremely grateful to the School for their significant investment in faculty training and toward safely conducting classes for both faculty and students.

Robins: As with most everybody else who had been teaching prior to the technology revolution, my teaching style changed from writing on blackboards and handing out printed materials to using PowerPoint and web sources to conduct my classes. 

What do you love most about teaching economics? 

Connolly: It is lively, never boring!

Robins: I love teaching economics because it is so easily tied to real-world politics and economic policy making. I have always been an empirical economist and I love when students are able to see the real-world relevance of what is mostly being taught as a theoretical subject.

What years were the most exciting to teach economics because of events happening around the world?

Connolly: The period starting in 1979 to the present has been the most exciting with Deng Xiaoping’s opening trade and investment in China, and its movement toward the free market, property law, and foreign direct investment. Xiaoping laid the foundation for privatization of many state-owned enterprises and the protection of private property. In this time, China moved from mostly socialism to mostly capitalism in a great successful experiment. This experiment changed economic institutions and unleashed real GDP growth per capita of 11% in real terms from 1980 to 2019 from a low 6% from 1960 to 1980, nearly doubling the growth rate. Poverty has not ended, but policies to improve education at all levels are helping.

Robins: The Reagan years were particularly exciting because of the dramatic shift in economic thinking in the country during that time from what had basically been a Keynesian active government approach to public policy to a Milton Friedman free market approach with limited government. Reaganomics and “trickle-down economics” (which I don’t agree with) made for many lively discussions in my classes. Then, there was the four tumultuous years of President Donald Trump where economic rationale was rarely (if ever) used to make public policy decisions and where “trickle-down economics” again came to the forefront. It was exciting to discuss how many of Trump’s policies, such as the futile trade war with China and the monumental tax cuts of 2017, were at odds with basic economic principles.

How does majoring in economics prepare students for success in their lives and careers?

Connolly: Majoring in economics is a good platform for reasoning–there is no free lunch is a good start – as well as a platform for graduate studies in most fields, especially business school.   

Robins: One major objective of training in economics is to show how economic incentives drive successful consumer and business decisions. By learning how individual consumers and businesses respond to economic incentives, students are prepared to make rational decisions in their everyday lives. I find that students who major in economics and pursue a business career are at an advantage over students who have only limited economics training. In addition, majoring in economics also prepares students for a variety of careers other than business, such as jobs in the public sector, journalism, or organizations that specialize in economic research.

What was your favorite subject or class when you were in college? 

Connolly: Principles of Economics where I learned David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage.

Robins: Besides classes in my economics major, my favorite subject in college was Art History, particularly classes covering the Long Renaissance period from the 14th to the 17th century. I found that taking an analytical approach to understanding art during this period made it a fascinating subject to study.

Favorite economist of all time?

Connolly: Milton Friedman, an unapologetic champion of Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations” and a proponent of the concept of free market. I recommend his three-minute video, in which he points out the remarkable degree of cooperation between people from different countries, who’ve never even met, to make what appears to be a very simple product – a pencil.
Robins: My favorite economist of all time is the “libertarian” Milton Friedman, the founder of the Chicago School of Economics. Friedman and the School emphasized the importance of free market capitalism and a limited role of government. Even though I don’t always agree with everything Friedman espoused, I always found him to be an extremely engaging and convincing speaker. In my early days at UM, I used to show my classes episodes from his successful book and public television film series, “Free to Choose.” When I was in college, the first economics book I ever read was Friedman’s iconic “Capitalism and Freedom,” first published in 1962.

Are you contemplating retirement anytime soon? 

Connolly: Cheeky question! No, my course on Latin America and Global Economics this spring semester has 136 students and is great fun for the students and me—there’s always something new!  The key to a long, and hopefully productive, career in academics is to love what you are doing and try to teach an honest course where we all learn something. Also, the 3rd edition of my book “International Financial Management” with Peking University Press was printed February 2020. I use this in my course in International Money. Sidenote: The MVP in economics is my great colleague Philip Robins who is teaching 240 students in his Principles of Microeconomics course this semester!

Robins: Funny you should ask this question because it is my last semester at UM. I will be retiring at the end of May 2021.  I will certainly miss all my wonderful years at UM and the inspiring colleagues (like Connolly) and students I have known over the years. UM has provided an enriching environment that has enabled me to flourish in teaching and in a multitude of research activities over the years. I consider myself lucky to have obtained such a wonderful position in academia back in 1982.  But as an “emeritus” professor, I will always consider myself a member of the UM family and community. GO ’CANES!