Photo by Raymond Rodriguez
“You can try to change the entire world a small amount, or a small part of the world greatly,” Lester Lave ’60 once said. “I think the latter is more beneficial.”
An economist whose visionary approach to energy and pollution issues secured his international renown, Lester passed away in May at his Pittsburgh home. His gift of more than $2.5 million to the economics department will benefit a discipline that is rapidly growing at Reed.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Reed, earned a PhD from Harvard, and spent most of his career at Carnegie Mellon University. He achieved international prominence in the ’70s by demonstrating that air pollution was causing a significant increase in urban death rates. The findings were vigorously contested by industry, but provided an early basis for the Environmental Protection Agency to improve air quality. He also wrote influential papers on climate change, dam safety, truck drivers with diabetes, and the environmental effects of fuel additives. [See “An Electrifying Puzzle.”]
Lester wrote an essay in Thinking Reed, a book of essays by alumni about how their time on campus shaped their careers. “The most important experience in my intellectual life was Reed,” he once said.
Seth Blumsack ’98 was recruited by Lester as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon and stayed close to him for the rest of his life. “You could really see the Reedie in Lester,” says Seth, now an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. “He was very intense, very driven, very intellectual. He had all of these qualities that are characteristic of successful Reedies.”
In addition to chairing the economics department at Carnegie Mellon, Lester was director of the Green Design Institute, codirector of the Electricity Industry Center, a member of the Institute of Medicine, and a founding member of Pittsburgh’s Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), and published or contributed to 28 books and more than 400 other publications. “What I got from Reed was a certain kind of curmudgeonliness,” he told Reed in 2009. “A desire to get to the bottom of an issue. Let’s not just salute the flag. Let’s figure out what’s real and what’s hype. It doesn’t win you a lot of friends—but it does lead you to a lot of interesting conclusions.”
Lester’s gift will significantly strengthen Reed’s economics department. In the ’80s, the department had four full-time professors advising as few as seven thesis students—a manageable load. The department now has six professors advising as many as 27 thesis students. “We’re on the trajectory to be one of the larger departments on campus,” says Noelwah Netusil [economics 1990–]. “We’re seeing an incredible interest in the major, and I think a lot of it is because we have great new hires and have worked really hard to have a great program.”
Econ 201, Reed’s one-semester intro course, is equivalent to three semesters at most other institutions, Netusil says. Students are presented with intermediate microeconomic theory and an introduction to macroeconomic theory. “We hit the ground running and we go really fast,” she says. “That allows us to present, in their second class, courses that usually are the primary purpose for why students take economics. They want to understand trade, to understand environmental economics, to do a course in game theory. If they had to have a year and a half of coursework before they could take the applied course, the upper-division course, then many students who weren’t majors would never see the application. Students here want a lot of information, and they want it quickly.”
Reed’s Committee on Academic Policies and Planning has recently approved a search for a new tenure-track position in economics. Chair Denise Hare [economics 1992–] says the department has identified several priority areas: industrial organization; financial economics; health, education, and welfare; and the history of economic thought.