After 40 years at Macalester, economics professor Vasant Sukhatme wraps up his teaching career.
Back in the 1990s, several admiring students presented economics professor Vasant Sukhatme with a T-shirt featuring quotes from his lectures, a larger-than-life photo, and the proud declaration: “I survived Sukhatme!”
Last fall, Professor Sukhatme, Edward J. Noble Professor Emeritus, taught his final courses at Macalester, concluding a teaching career that spanned 40 years and produced an astonishing number of successful alumni in fields ranging from academia to investment banking. His recent students will confirm that his courses have become no less rigorous over the decades.
“Because I was the preceptor for his Microeconomics course, people came to me all the time,” says Genevieve Gregorich ’18 (Boulder, Colo.), “usually in a state of fear—fear of homework questions, fear of impending exams, or fear that the 45 percent they scored on the midterm exam wouldn’t actually get curved to a B+ as promised.
“This is because he will ask questions like, ‘If a young married couple goes on a date, leaving their child at home with a babysitter, will they go to Pazzaluna or Joe’s Crab Shack?’ And he expects an answer that involves numbers, logic, and economic theory. He challenges every student to see the whole world through the lens of microeconomics. After a long winter break to recover, nearly everyone transitions from a state of fear to a state of admiration.”
Sukhatme grew up in Jamshedpur in rural eastern India.
“Growing up, I saw how farmers struggled to produce meager amounts that barely supported their families,” he says. “I wanted to understand agriculture, income inequality, and poverty.” To that end, he studied economics at the University of Kolkata, then earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and a PhD from the University of Chicago. After a research stint at the World Bank, he arrived at Macalester in 1978 and found that “my heart and soul lay with teaching and conducting research with students.”
Sukhatme’s joy in—and commitment to—students has proven contagious. A number of his alumni are now challenging students in their own classrooms—and not solely in economics.
SherAli Tareen ’05 teaches Muslim intellectual thought in Franklin & Marshall College’s Religious Studies Department. “It is Vasant who really inspired me to be a teacher,” says Tareen. “His classes are intellectually challenging, but he’s funny, too. He has a very South Asian professorial style and I was so inspired to see someone from my part of the world commanding that kind of respect in the classroom.
“The striking thing is that he really gave students their space. He was very encouraging when I decided to pursue a PhD in religious studies.”
For 10 years, Sukhatme served as chair of the Economics Department, and has held Fulbright professorships in both India and Bangladesh. He also has won Macalester’s most respected faculty awards, The Rossman Excellence in Teaching Award and the Thomas Jefferson Award for teaching, research, and service.
Over the years, Sukhatme has taught courses on the economics of foreign aid, microeconomics, the economics of sports, and Adam Smith and Karl Marx. His research, often conducted with students, has been published widely in journals and books, from Economic Development and Cultural Change to Handbook on the Economics of Women in Sports. He particularly enjoys examining the sports industry through a microeconomics lens: “Why are professional athletes paid what they are paid? Why are stadiums built with public funds when owners and athletes are the primary beneficiaries? I’ve long been interested in sports—it’s always in the news, students are often athletes, and we have incredible amounts of data to work with.”
Sukhatme’s introduction to Macalester, while attending a New York meeting of economists, was anything but auspicious. “Vasant had been mugged the night before and spent most of the evening in the ER,” recalls economics professor emeritus Karl Egge, who interviewed him for a teaching job. “He arrived with a big bandage wrapped around his head, exhausted and spooked, but oh, what a mind! I knew then he would be outstanding for our department and school. When I later reviewed student evaluations of Vasant, they often boiled down to this: ‘More than any other professor at Macalester, he taught me how to think.’”
He was a standout from the beginning. “Vasant was a young professor when I met him in his first year of teaching, but no one has had a greater influence on my career,” says Dave Abler ’82, professor of agricultural economics at Penn State and cofounder of consulting firm By The Numbers. “He sparked my interest in economics and, to this day, I appreciate and draw on his wit, insight, humor, and intellectual rigor.”
“While some students feared his scorn in the classroom—“No! Incorrect!”— to me it was an exhilarating environment in which to learn,” recalls Loyola University Chicago economics professor Tim Classen ’96. “His rigor, intensity, and passion for the subject have greatly influenced my approach in the classroom.”
“Tim Classen and I always seem to bring up Vasant when we discuss our jobs,” says University of Iowa associate professor of marketing Bill Hedgcock ’96. “Sometimes we repeat inside jokes, but … inevitably, we talk about him because he was an inspiration. We would both like to be as good as him.
“I knew very little about graduate schools when I decided to apply for a marketing PhD program. [Years later] when I contacted Vasant, he was generous with his time. I am sure his recommendation played a big role in my acceptance into a PhD program. Surviving his class also gave me the confidence that I could make it through the program.” Again, that word: surviving.
It’s not only students who have been inspired by Sukhatme. Economics Department coordinator Jane Kollasch says, “Vasant hired me in 1999, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. He has been a mentor and friend for 19 years; he has taught me so much and challenged me to the highest levels.”
During several years of phased retirement, Sukhatme has taught fall courses, then escaped Minnesota winters with trips to warmer climes. Now he and his wife, Monika, are moving to the East Coast to be nearer their son and his family. He’ll miss the students at Macalester: “The generations I’ve taught have been so intellectually stimulating—and fun. They have kept me fresh and current.”
Economics chair Pete Ferderer has the last word: “Vasant is a wonderful teacher who has set the standard many of us aspire to reach,” he says. “He employs the Socratic method, so students cannot sit in his classroom as passive listeners. They must engage and learn how to think like economists. Few professors impact their students as much as Vasant has.”
This story appeared in the Macalester Today alumni magazine’s Spring 2018 issue. Jan Shaw-Flamm ’76, a freelance writer and editor, is a frequent contributor to Macalester Today.
April 27 2018Back to top