UW-Madison: Endowed lectureship honors influential economist, artist wife

CONTACT: Susan Feigenbaum, 314-516-5554, [email protected]; Ananth Seshadri, 608-262-6196, [email protected]

MADISON – Susan Feigenbaum, professor of economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has established a lectureship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in honor of a mentor and his wife.

Feigenbaum, who earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. at UW-Madison, created the Shirley and Burton A. Weisbrod Lectureship in the Economics of Health, Education and the Nonprofit Sector in the Department of Economics.

“Burt Weisbrod has been a tremendous mentor to me throughout my professional career as an economist,” she says of the emeritus professor, who taught and conducted research at UW-Madison for many years.

“My hope is that students continue to be exposed to what I consider to be more frontier areas of economics applications in the area of nonprofit organizations,” Feigenbaum adds. “Ninety-nine percent of economists focus on for-profit markets, and yet the nonprofit sector is huge and growing. It is a diverse sector, and it is central in fulfilling human needs.”

Ananth Seshadri, chair of the UW-Madison Department of Economics, praised Feigenbaum for her gift.

“This lecture series will honor Professor Burt Weisbrod and his wife, Shirley, and connect our students with great economic thinking connected with the nonprofit sector,” he says. “We thank Professor Feigenbaum for making this wonderful opportunity available to us.” The UW-Madison Department of Economics is a top 10 program, according to the 2010 rankings published by the National Research Council.

Feigenbaum’s interest in Weisbrod’s work dates to her years as an undergraduate at Brandeis University. “I was a double major, and one of the majors was economics,” she says. “I was thinking of going to graduate school in economics. I was really very interested in the whole area of the economics of education, because I am a first-generation college graduate.

“I felt very strongly that the whole foundation for opportunity in this country was premised on education, access to higher education and so forth,” she adds. “Burt Weisbrod had done a lot of writing on the economics of education, and I had read his work.”

It turned out that Burt’s son, Glenn, was in college with Feigenbaum and also was majoring in economics. The son arranged a meeting when his father was on campus.

“Burt took the time – I’ll never forget it – to meet with me, this was 1973, and he spent about an hour and a half talking to me about graduate schools in economics, how to pick a graduate school, how they differed, how you couldn’t just look at rankings, how you really needed to look at the various strengths of programs. That was incredibly helpful,” she says.

Even with a prestigious fellowship offer from Washington University, Feigenbaum chose to enroll at UW-Madison “solely to work with Burt.” She received a research assistantship and found her mentor.

Both Burt and another outstanding UW-Madison economist – W. Lee Hansen – nominated Feigenbaums for an Earhart Fellowship, which permitted her to study a year at in the economics department at the University of California-Los Angeles, where the “school” of economics and property rights was beginning to flourish.. “UCLA was the home for an area of cutting-edge work and, as an outgrowth of the Chicago School, was very market-oriented.”

Later, as a newly minted Ph.D., Feigenbaum received an invitation from Weisbrod to present at a conference on nonprofits. “Oh, my gosh, I’m a new Ph.D., and he has asked me to come and present before all of these full professors from all over the country doing nonprofit work,” she says. “One of them happened to be James Buchanan, who was the head and one of the founders of the Virginia Public Choice School and later a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. I was 25 years old, and I’m with all of these full professors, all these people who had contributed so much to the profession.”

Her meeting with Buchanan “began a very long, collaborative career that I’ve had with people from the Public Choice Center,” she says. “That was because Burt gave me that opportunity.”

Feigenbaum said those combined experiences helped make her into “somebody who, I joke about, ‘belongs to no one, and no one will take credit for me,’ because I have a unique blend of Wisconsin’s compassionate, public policy, perspective on how economics can provide opportunities for people and enhance people’s well-being, which is my heart. Then I have the analytic perspective of UCLA and Virginia, which temper me in terms of the limitations of public policy and the power of markets. I have to tell you, I think I’m unique in that way. And that’s all because of Burt.”

She believes the lectureship also will help the Department of Economics with visibility. “I strongly believe that any time you can bring in a stellar lecturer, it’s a win-win for the department in heightening its academic profile and also in creating a relationship that shows the lecturer what’s going on at Wisconsin,” she says.

“Shirley is named quite appropriately in this gift as well. I got to know her very, very well. She opened her home to students and was always gracious to starving graduate students. As is often the case, Shirley was the support through which Burt achieved and still achieves so much,” Feigenbaum says. “Shirley is an artist; Shirley is very creative. It was, therefore, only natural that she provided a very creative foundation to support Burt’s professional activities.”