Southwestern @ Georgetown
Volume 17 • Number 3
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Southwestern @ Georgetown
Professor of Economics

Holder of the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Chair in Economics

Bachelor of business administration degree from The University of Texas at Austin; master of business administration degree from Wharton School-University of Pennsylvania; doctorate from University of Wisconsin at Madison

If I weren't an economics professor, I would be … a fly fishing guide.

My secret passion is … flamenco guitar.

If you were any dollar amount, what would you be and why … Even though I'm an economist, I won't put a dollar value on humans.

Best advice to economics students … Pay attention to politics and history.
Ken Roberts

Ken Roberts was living on his family’s ranch near Liberty Hill and working at The University of Texas after having returned from three years of research in Mexico. The commute became terrible, and somewhere along the way Roberts found Southwestern. “Actually, it was an accident of location,” Roberts says. “A liberal arts school was not on my radar, but I taught one class and the rest is history.”

A native of Austin, Roberts first became interested in economics and the role it plays in different countries right out of high school when he went to Washington state to work for the Green Giant Company, which used the homeless as their labor force to pick peas. “This was clearly exploitation, and many of these men were formerly living normal lives. I became interested in why people do well and do poorly. I wanted to know how the economy worked and it fascinated me how it affects our lives,” Roberts explains. This early taste of field research has stayed with him throughout his career.

Roberts’ current position as holder of the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Chair in Economics has given him the opportunity to expand his research. “All of my research is field-based and the chair gives me the resources to do that,” Roberts says. His earlier research was in rural Mexico, where he studied the effects of the Green Revolution on agricultural employment. Because many of the men in the region he studied had left to work in the United States, he became interested in migration.

Since then, his interests have shifted to China, which is currently experiencing the largest migration in human history. Roberts has been able to travel to China many times since his first trip in 1984, a period during which China has undergone dramatic changes. “I feel so lucky—I’ve always been fascinated by the economic history of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is like someone said, ‘Why don’t we have this change occur again during your lifetime and compress it into a few decades for you to watch and study.’” Roberts truly appreciates the opportunity for research. “My research affects my teaching. It keeps me excited about intellectual things and you can’t get excited unless you’re engaged. When you convey that excitement to your students, there is a positive impact.”

One of his favorite classes to teach is the introductory-level course, Principles of Economics. “Teaching this class gives me an opportunity to meet students early,” Roberts says. Hopefully piquing their interest in the discourse, Roberts teaches upper-level courses like Economic Development, Finance, and The Chinese Economy. Roberts tries to make each one of them unique: “Each class is different. Some are discussion-based and some have more lecture. My hope is to convey the fun of learning and understanding.”

Working at Southwestern has allowed Roberts to travel and work on his ranch. “I find myself gardening, feeding cows, clearing brush … just ranch work. I live in the Texas Hill Country, and it is part of who I am. I love the serenity. If I had decided to become an investment banker, I would have wanted to live on a ranch eventually. I do that now, so I don’t regret any decisions that I have made,” he says.

Roberts wishes to say hello to all the students he has taught. “Call me up,” he says. “And thank you.”