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April 8, 2002

Economies of $cale

By Eric Rangus


“Economics is an extremely broad subject,” said Jerry Thursby, a man who ought to know. He’s taught the subject for 27 years, and last fall he took over as chair of Emory’s economics department.

“Economists have looked at everything from understanding what’s in The Wizard of Oz, to the English industrial revolution, to the way in which firms compete, to looking at [Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan’s 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 price.

“Even as a kid, it didn’t make any sense,” he said. “I couldn’t 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 bachelor’s degree, he stayed at UNC for graduate school, which is where he met his wife, Marie. Only he can’t remember which class.

“I think it was economic history. She would remember,” he said. “She’ll be all over me for not remembering exactly what class we were in.”

Thursby’s 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 2001–02 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 campus—although it’s a little light in the furniture area.

“I’m 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 collaborators.

“It’s an irritant to our children since so often when we get together at home we’re talking about economics,” Thursby joked. “It’s hard to get away from your co-author if you’re not doing your end of the work. If I’m not doing my part, I can’t hide. I have to go home and she says, ‘What’s 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 Emory’s campus, especially since last weekend’s 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 Thursby—if given the opportunity and a lot of water—could 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 licensing—in 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 discovers—necessary 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. “We’ve always been focused on money. I’m not sure what that means. Most likely it’s that we’re 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 serious—has 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 didn’t think so. The effect isn’t 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 would’ve gone to a university because there wasn’t the opportunity to do a start up or get involved in the commercialization of something,” Thursby said.

“Is that good or bad? I think that’s good, because these are people the university couldn’t have gotten in the past,” he continued. “You’ve increased the pool of applicants. Some people say that’s bad, but I don’t know. Before, these people would’ve gone into industry, and now there’s an attraction to academia. Obviously we want them because we hired them.”

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,” he said.

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. “That’s what’s 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.

“I’m a member of the team, and we’ll all move together and try to do the best we can,” he said.