David R. Henderson  

Lionel McKenzie, RIP

The Flexibility of Identity... Intelligence Makes People Thin...

Lionel McKenzie, the man who started the University of Rochester's Ph.D. program in the 1950s, died last week. He was one of the heavy-hitting contributors to general equilibrium theory. That was never my cup of tea, but when I was an assistant professor at the University of Rochester's Graduate School of Management from 1975 to 1979, I occasionally went to the Econ Department's seminars. I always appreciated Lionel's input. He was a classy man, never out to trap someone, always out to clarify and get to the truth.

He was also classy even when treated in a non-classy way. The last seminar I went to at the U of R was in May 1979, just before I left for a job at to the Cato Institute in San Francisco. The speaker was Paul Samuelson, who, as I recall, was there to receive an honorary doctorate. Lionel introduced Samuelson and reminisced graciously about how Samuelson had recommended him when the U of R had asked who would do a good job of starting the Ph.D. program. Then Samuelson started to speak. I'll never forget what he said. He said that back then he thought Lionel was being undervalued in the market. "I'm not saying he was the best, mind you, but he was definitely being undervalued and I thought he could do a good job here." I think if that happened today, I would probably gasp out loud. Instead, I just looked at Lionel who looked hurt but quickly recovered and listened, apparently serenely. As I say, Lionel McKenzie was a classy man.

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (3 to date)
eric falkenstein writes:

I wonder if he told his wife that she was the best a man could hope for--given the fact that he could only choose among women who he should rationally expect to accept his offer.

A great sign of high emotional intelligence is not taking offense at unintended slights, no matter how boorish.

David R. Henderson writes:

You nailed. That's what I liked about Lionel: he had such dignity.

Lionel's wife of many years, Blanche, was an economist herself. She died in 1999. There is a scholarship in her name at U.C. Santa Cruz.

Many economists, worldwide, believe that Lionel McKenzie should have shared the 1983 Nobel Prize along with Gerard Debreu. Lionel's work on general equilibrium theory contributed equally to that of Arrow and Debreu in solving problems of how changes in one sector contribute to changes in other sectors of the economy. It is yet another indicator of Lionel's southern-style grace and dignity that he brushed off his being passed over by the Nobel Committee any time it was mentioned. A political lobbyist on his own behalf, he was not.

Lionel McKenzie also pioneered a successful new standard for creating an economics department--a model followed today at many schools that look to refresh academic departments that have stagnated. When Lionel came to the University of Rochester in 1957, he insisted on having carte blanche to both fire and hire. He used that opportunity to cut dead wood and to hire young newcomers in many fields, stressing only the quality of their work.

In Econ Department faculty meetings when new hires were being considered, during my own years as a young Assistant Professor at the U. of Rochester in the early 1980s, we all always spoke freely and with personal passion about our impressions and about the pros and cons of hiring this or that interviewee. Was the person a potential contributor to the department? A clear thinker, clear articulator, with innovative ideas and energy, someone who impressed us in line with or even beyond any recommendations or academic credentials, someone who would enhance and contribute to the lines of research already in progress in the department? If we made an offer, would the person be enticed to take it seriously at such a small private school located in a less-than-balmy clime? Would we be able to convince the university administration of the person's worth--e.g., any political matters, internal or external, about which we should know before we tried to make our case? Were there job-search issues for a spouse to consider? Costs we should consider such as competition by other universities that would be appealing to the person? Colleagues in other departments who might interact to mutual appeal? Lionel, as always, sat and listened to the discussion. And then he would ask a single question, modest as always--but the room always went silent with respect. His question always brought us back to the fundamental issue: How smart was the person as a thinker? An independent thinker with impressive, creative ideas? Someone who would attract others to study those ideas?

Lionel McKenzie was a man with much more than class, grace, dignity, loyalty, fidelity, and brilliance. He inspired by demonstration as well as in the classroom--by giving the gift of recognition and a career to three generations of economists, established or youthful, who all benefited from being at the U. of Rochester as a springboard or landing place while they spent time there. Every one of them knows, even if it wasn't obvious in the moment they were hired, that it was because of Lionel's insistence on believing in them as a great thinker, and that the quality of their ability as thinkers was the key. Lionel was also a man who was respected, devoted, and beloved by family who predeceased him, by his close colleagues, by his acquaintaces, and by caring and beloved friendships of many years all of whom steadfastly appreciated his specialness and who received his love in kind.

Lionel McKenzie: May you truly find peace and deserved recognition in your rest.

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