Department Chair Donna Gilleskie’s interview with retiring Professor Patrick Conway. Pat served the department for 40 years, having joined the economics department in 1983. He received his PhD from Princeton in 1984.
Thinking back over your 40 years of service as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, what aspects of your work brought you the most joy?
This is a hard question to answer because, honestly, nearly everything about the job brought me joy. In no ranked order, I would include:
- The opportunity to work with curious and intelligent undergraduates and graduate students in the classroom. That moment when their eyes light up in understanding: that is priceless.
- Collaboration with UNC faculty, in Economics and beyond. This university is a magnet for innovative and productive faculty, and I was blessed to work in this milieu for 40 years.
- The ability to innovate in improving the supports for faculty or the learning in the classroom. Guiding the Center for Faculty Excellence on campus in its formative years was a rewarding experience and introduced me to faculty and staff from across the university. Creating the Quantitative Financial Economics certificate and watching the students blossom in that empirical, evidence-based curriculum was a joy. Working with the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship to give students a chance to begin their own journey in innovation was a treat.
- I’m sure you (Donna) are waiting to see if serving as chair brought me joy. I’m quite pleased with the service and guidance I provided over those seven years. What truly brought me the most joy in that position was hiring, mentoring and supporting my new colleagues on campus. I brought 18 faculty members on board during that period. Seeing them in Gardner Hall, participating in their seminars, and watching them blossom as researchers and teachers is a continuing joy.
You’ll see that I didn’t mention the joy that comes from being empowered to conduct your own economic research. As an academic, I find that very fulfilling. Being at an elite research university has given me license to create and deliver on my own research program. That, too, has been joyful work.
Was there anything that you recall as particularly challenging?
Everything about being a professor is challenging. Your classes need to be updated in real time so that the students can see the real-world importance of what they are learning. Your research has to be vetted and re-vetted so that your analyses are sophisticated and unbiased and your reports are the model of clarity. You are in constant listening mode – students, colleagues, and administrators are communicating important things to you minute-by-minute, and all deserve your attention and respect.
The most challenging part of the professorial mission comes when you’ve listened carefully, you’ve recognized that both sides have part of the truth, and it’s your job to bring the two sides together into agreement. Whether in the classroom, the faculty meeting or the administrative offices, reaching that agreement was challenging (and sometimes elusive).
Was there an epic moment during your career at Carolina that shaped your approach to teaching or research?
Let me mention two – one for teaching, and one for research.
- At some point in 1990, just after receiving tenure, I received an invitation from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to participate in a program entitled Pew Faculty Fellowship in International Affairs. I’m not sure who nominated me for this fellowship, but I owe that person a great debt. The core message of this fellowship – a two-week intensive conference with periodic short re-engagements over the next two years – was that using real-world cases in the classroom is an excellent method for stimulating active learning and student performance. I had understood this intuitively, since I was using real-world examples in class prior to that, but this fellowship helped me focus systematically on the use of these real-world cases in the classroom. This became a hallmark of my teaching technique for the remainder of my career, and groups as disparate as the American Economic Association and International Finance Corporation invited me to provide workshops to members on the value of this approach.
- In late 1991, I received a call from the World Bank. The Soviet Union was headed for dissolution, and the World Bank was receiving messages from the republics of the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and others) asking to be granted membership as a country. The World Bank knew nothing about the economies of these countries – they’d never analyzed independent countries before. They invited me as the sole outside member to join a World Bank mission to Kazakhstan to prepare an economic report on that new country. The economic report was so well-received that I was invited to participate in subsequent missions to Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. Not only was I providing policy advice to the new administrators of the countries, but the intriguing and complex problems of converting a state-run command economy to a market economy became the subject of my published research for the next 15 years.
What were the biggest changes you experienced in teaching from the 1980’s to 2023?
Let me begin with what stayed constant: the curiosity and intelligence of the undergraduates and graduate students has been inspiring throughout. It was always important that I “brought my game” every class because the students were ready to learn.
My first two decades of teaching were almost entirely in medium-enrollment undergraduate classes (40-60 students) and low-enrollment graduate classes (10-20 students). I became comfortable with enrollments that allowed me to learn everyone’s name and track individual progress through personal interaction.
In my last two decades, I’ve had more experience with high-enrollment undergraduate classes: Economics 101 (Principles of Economics) for five years, Economics 125 (Introduction to Entrepreneurship) for four years and IDST 126 (Values and Prices) this year. There is a nationwide tendency to teach first-year content in large-enrollment classes, but state funding cuts to public universities nationwide have led to greater reliance on and larger enrollments in these classes. I wish we could do better for these students; they deserve that personal interaction that leads to learning. We continue to present material very well, but the large-enrollment setup makes it hard to provide that mentoring that leads to mastery.
The biggest change, of course, was moving to entirely online courses during the Covid pandemic. We learned a great deal about the use of technology in delivering courses during that period, but I hope we’ll never have to revisit that style of delivery. The learning outcomes are just too uneven.
What was the greatest success or accomplishment in your entire working history?
Let me provide one each in teaching, research, and service:
- I’ve received many awards for teaching while here at UNC, but this year must be my greatest success: I’ve been given the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. There is only one given campus-wide each year, and I am the first Economics professor ever to receive it. I’m still in the running for the system-wide award (chosen from among the campus-level winners).
- In research and policy, I will cite the continuing collaboration with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and UN Conference on Trade and Development. This has led to multiple research monographs and publications.
- In service to UNC, I will go with my work in creating and leading the Center for Faculty Excellence on campus. Then-provost Bernadette Gray-Little challenged me to come up with a faculty-development center that would encompass our excellent Center for Teaching and Learning but also support faculty (and graduate students) in research efforts and in their development as campus leaders. It launched in 2008 and I was the initial Director. I am very pleased with its development over time.
Do you have any advice for today’s professors?
I could write a book about this, but I’ll limit myself to three nuggets:
- Be yourself. You don’t get hired at UNC unless you have the intelligence, teaching and research skills to be successful.
- Show respect for all of your colleagues. We have silos within our departments on campus, with one dimension being the subject matter studies and another being the distinction between tenure-track professors and teaching professors. These should not divide us since we all have the same goals.
- Collaborate. You’re surrounded by exceptional people, and your joint work in teaching or research will be better than what you could achieve on your own.
What about advice for students?
This is presumptuous, but here goes: Please remember that admission to Carolina is not the goal-line, but the starting line. You can use your time on campus to learn all the skills you’ll need post-graduation, but it doesn’t happen automatically. Be curious and recognize that every day can be a learning experience.
If you had the power to implement something new in the Economics Department or on campus generally, what would it be?
Here’s my two-part wish:
- That we expand the faculty so that we do not teach large-enrollment classes. The learning outcomes are not as great for those classes overall when compared to medium- or small-enrollment classes.
- That in our smaller classes, the faculty will commit to using active-learning techniques to engage and energize the students. Lecturing is very overrated among faculty, while the learning benefits from engaging the students are not fully exploited in the smaller classes.
I’m not targeting the Economics Department in this, but we are a victim of the popularity of our courses. Other departments offer smaller class sizes because the demand for their classes is small. A great number of students demands our classes, but our faculty size has not kept pace. The result is unavoidable: larger classes.