Peter Blair Henry grew up wanting to play Pac 12 football. His football scholarship didn’t materialize, but Peter had hedged his bets: he interviewed for Carolina’s Morehead Scholarship. He won that competition; then he discovered economics in Chapel Hill and has never looked back.
Today, Peter is Dean Emeritus and William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Finance at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Formerly, he was a tenured professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and served as an economic advisor on Barack Obama’s Presidential Transition Team. He is also the author of a well-received book on macroeconomic policy, Turnaround: Third World Lessons for First World Growth (Basic Books, 2013), as well as numerous articles published in leading academic journals.
Asked how his time at Carolina prepared him for his top-shelf career, he told us, “UNC really captured my imagination. I arrived at Chapel Hill as a student-athlete who wanted to get good grades, and I left as a young scholar with a love of learning and a desire to use that learning to try to make the world a better place.”
Economics was a revelation for him: a discipline that offered him the perfect way to combine his appreciation of fact-based analysis with his more subjective interest in social issues. Why did some places on earth have significantly higher standards of living than others? (Peter’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was nine, making global economic inequality a very personal area of inquiry).
“I vividly remember walking into Gardner Hall and my International Economics class on November 9, 1989, the day I and my fellow Tarheels learned that the border guards at Checkpoint Charlie were being dismissed. The fall of the Berlin Wall arguably provided the single most important impetus to the phenomenon we now call globalization. First experiencing that with students from all over the world, in a class that launched my career as an investigator of the costs and benefits of economic integration — who could ask for more?”
Peter found lifelong mentors in UNC’s Econ Department. He is especially grateful that he enrolled in classes taught by Professor William (Sandy) Darity, Jr., who supported his interest in the field and shared some of his own articles on development and economic history. When Peter found some of the math challenging, Professor Darity recommended several classes to accelerate his learning. By senior year, he had urged him to apply to the prestigious doctoral program in economics at MIT, where Peter earned his Ph.D. after attending Oxford University for two years as a Rhodes Scholar (also thanks to Professor Darity’s encouragement).
“Strong mentorship is critical for success,” Peter says, “especially for minorities in the field.” He recommends that all students take time to seek mentors actively, both in and outside UNC. He also urges Econ majors to take more math classes. “Whether you want to get a Ph.D. in economics or work in the private sector, you can never have too much analytical training. For that reason, I would suggest taking courses in linear algebra, differential equations, and probability theory in addition to the core calculus sequence.”
Indeed, intensive mentoring and enhanced math coursework are pillars of a new research fellowship program in economics, the Ph.D. Excellence Initiative, which Peter established at NYU Stern with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The two-year post-baccalaureate program provides research training and career guidance for high-achieving minority scholars who seek admittance to top-tier doctoral programs in economics. “Paying forward some of the advantages I received during my years at Carolina by supporting a rising generation of minority economists is something that makes me very proud.”
While life since receiving his B.A. in Economics from Carolina has been, and continues to be, full of rewarding endeavors, Peter admits to moments of nostalgia. “If I could, I’d transport Polk Place from Chapel Hill to my current home in New York, because ‘Magnolias in Manhattan’ has an especially nice ring to it!”
And for those who wonder about the athletic aspirations that started his journey — Gardner Hall was only one piece of his Carolina experience. Peter walked onto the football team as a wide receiver, reached the finals of the 1991 campus-wide Slam Dunk competition, and was recently honored as one of UNC’s Tarheel Trailblazers.
He hopes that you’ll forgive his “NYU purple” tie in this picture: he’d much prefer to be wearing Carolina blue.
Well done, Peter!