Economics is an extremely broad subject, said Jerry
Thursby, a man who ought to know. Hes taught the subject for
27 years, and last fall he took over as chair of Emorys economics
Economists have looked at everything from understanding whats
in The Wizard of Oz, to the English industrial revolution,
to the way in which firms compete, to looking at [Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan] Greenspans monetary policy, he continued.
Thursby, professor of economics, credits his Hula Hoop Theory
for getting him interested in the subject. As a boy, growing up
in eastern North Carolina in the 1950s, hula hoops were all the
rage. They were available everywhere. But each store charged a different
Even as a kid, it didnt make any sense, he said.
I couldnt figure out how they picked the price. I remember
that bothered me tremendously.
When Thursby entered the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate,
he planned to major in psychology. That was until he took an economics
course, which explained the mysteries of markets and prices.
It was like, Wow! Now I know, Thursby laughed.
He then switched his major to economics. After earning a bachelors
degree, he stayed at UNC for graduate school, which is where he
met his wife, Marie. Only he cant remember which class.
I think it was economic history. She would remember,
he said. Shell be all over me for not remembering exactly
what class we were in.
Thursbys move to Emory, in fact, is the first time he and
his wife have ever worked in different departments. From graduate
school at UNC to faculty positions at Syracuse, then Ohio State,
Michigan, and since 1988 at Purdue, they have worked together.
Marie stayed at Purdue for the 200102 academic year to guide
a group of her students through the second year of a two-year technology
program. In May, she will begin an appointment as an endowed chair
in the Dupree College of Management at Georgia Tech (currently she
is adjunct professor of economics at Emory, a title she holds in
addition to her Purdue professorship).
Part of her work will involve the construction of the program she
currently leads at Purdue, which will bring together science and
engineering and MBA students at Tech with law and economics doctoral
students at Emory as part of a joint program in technology transfer.
That will get off the ground next fall.
Since moving to Emory, Thursby has commuted between Atlanta and
West Lafayette, Ind. He has a house within walking distance of campusalthough
its a little light in the furniture area.
Im living like a graduate student, he said. Since
they are both economics professors, the Thursbys have always had
ample opportunity to work together. They are, in fact, frequent
Its an irritant to our children since so often when
we get together at home were talking about economics,
Thursby joked. Its hard to get away from your co-author
if youre not doing your end of the work. If Im not doing
my part, I cant hide. I have to go home and she says, Whats
going on here?
Switching to serious mode, Thursby said working with his wife is
gratifying, especially since their interests are complementary.
She is a theorist, while he is more statistically oriented, so they
can play off each other perfectly.
While they publish alone and with other authors, the Thursbys have
had 10 papers published together, and others are in the works.Last
April, they produced a paper titled, Who is Selling the Ivory
Tower? Sources of Growth in University Licensing. That subject
is quite familiar on Emorys campus, especially since last
weekends Sam Nunn Policy Forum devoted three days to its discussion:
university licensing and the ties between commercial activity and
the research that takes place on college campuses.
The subject is one that Thursbyif given the opportunity and
a lot of watercould probably discuss nonstop for a few days.
For the purposes of polite conversation, though, touching on the
highlights is certainly sufficient.
Such as: Is technology licensingin which a university or
other entity, like a firm or business who funds the research, is
able to make money from the use of a product it invents or discoversnecessary
to get some technologies from the campus lab to the marketplace?
Yes, according to Thursby. Most technologies on college campuses
are in their early stages, and many fail.
There is a concern that universities have become too focused
on money, Thursby said. Weve always been focused
on money. Im not sure what that means. Most likely its
that were too focused on money from a particular source.
With increasing frequency, some firms are entering first
right of refusal agreements with some university labs.
This allows them first shot on any research that comes out of that
lab in return for funding. The implications are serioushas
the researcher sold out to the highest bidder and can the research
be compromised by the interests of the firm that funds the research?
Thursby said he understands the concerns but that federal funding
is becoming more difficult to acquire, making private support more
of an option.
Is this just an anecdote, or is it a fundamental change in
universities? he said.
This ties into another question Thursby is currently researching:
Are faculty changing the direction of their research and becoming
more focused on applied work? In lay terms, have they sold out?
The jury is still out, Thursby said. He said he didnt
think so. The effect isnt that faculty are selling out, rather
a new kind of person is deciding to go into research as a career.
Someone who in the past never wouldve gone to a university
because there wasnt the opportunity to do a start up or get
involved in the commercialization of something, Thursby said.
Is that good or bad? I think thats good, because these
are people the university couldnt have gotten in the past,
he continued. Youve increased the pool of applicants.
Some people say thats bad, but I dont know. Before,
these people wouldve gone into industry, and now theres
an attraction to academia. Obviously we want them because we hired
While relatively new to campus, Thursby is far from unfamiliar
with his new colleagues. Hashem Dezhbakhsh, former co-chair and
current director of undergraduate studies in economics, was one
of his doctoral students at Ohio State.
I knew the department well; I had been here to speak several
times, and I think it has a lot of opportunity to move forward,
When asked where he would like to lead the department he now chairs,
Thursby paused several seconds before answering.
I like to think of the faculty as members of the university
rather than employees of it, he said. Thats whats
great about being a faculty member. You can follow your interests
in terms of research.
Decisions, Thursby said, are made collectively. Wherever the department
shows its strength, that is where he expects it to naturally gravitate.
Im a member of the team, and well all move together
and try to do the best we can, he said.