Inside UVA Podcast Season-Ender Features Beloved Professor Ken Elzinga
Audio: Inside UVA With Ken Elzinga(23:28)
Professor Ken Elzinga 0:00
Growing up in Michigan in the 50s and 60s, it'd be very hard not to be some form of car guy or to be attracted to cars. So I started with the iconic American street rod, a 1932 Ford, and that was really a cool car. And then I got a '49, Merc, Mercury. And then I got a '68 Mustang Fastback. And the value of that car went up so much, I didn't dare drive it to work anymore, so I sold it. And I have a fairly pedestrian, but nonetheless really fun car. It's a 2007 Shelby Mustang. And I'm confident it won't be stolen not just because of the honor system at UVA, but hardly any students at UVA, anymore, can drive a six-speed manual transmission. So feel safe driving that car to work!
President Jim Ryan 0:48
Hi, everyone. I'm Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia and I'd like to welcome all of you to the ninth episode of Inside UVA. This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the university and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works, and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is. Today, I'm delighted to welcome Ken Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics to Inside UVA. Thanks very much for being here, Ken. And I would ask that you call me Jim, if it's okay, if I call you Ken? That's fine with me. All right. So you have had a long and distinguished career at the University of Virginia. You have won just about every accolade you could possibly win, including the Thomas Jefferson Award, which is the highest award given to faculty. And you continue to offer what I think is the largest single class at UVA, your Introduction to Economics course that draws more than 1000 students. So before we begin, on behalf of UVA and the generations of students who you have taught, let me just say thank you, for your service.
Professor Ken Elzinga 2:08
To us a favorite word here at the University of Virginia, and an important word, it's been an honor, Jim, it really has.
President Jim Ryan 2:14
I'm pleased to hear that. So what's a day in the life of an economist like?
Professor Ken Elzinga 2:20
Well, for me, it depends a little bit upon the day of the week. If it's a Tuesday or a Thursday in the fall semester, it is a very distinct set of responsibilities because I teach hundreds and hundreds of students that day, and usually see dozens and dozens of them during office hours later in the afternoon after the lectures. So Econ 201 in the fall is pressure packed, it's full of surprises, and at times, it's rather intense. Although when we move into office hours, where I see students personally as opposed to an auditorium of hundreds of them, then it becomes very special at times. The other days of the week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, those are days for doing my research, for doing what we call, service to the university, [like] committee work and so on, within my department or outside my department. It's also for me, at least later in my career, days in which I might be involved in Anti-Trust Consulting, or serving on boards or giving talks at other universities or at other conferences. So I kind of divide my week up, Tuesday and Thursday is very focused on teaching. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, are all the other activities that make up part of being a professor at UVA.
President Jim Ryan 3:35
So let's talk a little bit about the classes that you teach. Can you describe what they are and then also say a little bit about how you manage such a large group of students?
Professor Ken Elzinga 3:47
Sure, in the last part of my career here, I've sort of fallen into two classes, and they're very, very different. They're almost exact opposites. Econ 201, in the fall is an introductory class. Lots of first year students, [it's their] first class in econ that hundreds of people take at the university, and it's a lecture class. I don't entertain any questions. It's impersonal in many ways. And the way it works, it's not just a teaching job, it's a management job. Fortunately, I've got over 20 TAs who work with me, and their job is to personalize it. And then I've got a head TA and an administrative assistant. So it's teaching but it's management. Spring semester, I teach in my research area, anti-trust policy. That class is one of the few classes at UVA that's taught Socratically. That's a more common pedagogy over where you used to live, over in the law school. But there I hardly do any lecturing. And the students are selected for the class, they write an essay to get in. I limit the class to about 20-22 students and we go in... I cold call on people, I work with them for five or ten minutes before I may move on to another student. And it is intense, it is very intense, but I love it. And when it when it works, when it sings, the time just flies by, I mean we have a three-hour class, sometimes we take a quick break, and at the end of three hours, I think "where did the time go?" It's just a very, very different kind of high-energy classroom setting. And so I'm fortunate, and in some ways, unusual, perhaps, to teach a very, very large classes straight lecture and then in the spring semester, go to Socratic. I prefer the Socratic teaching. My favorite class at UVA is my antitrust class.
President Jim Ryan 5:34
I was going to ask you that. And you also mentioned office hours a bit ago. How do you manage Office Hours with such large classes? I would imagine a lot of students would want to come in to see you.
Professor Ken Elzinga 5:48
Well, I'm very fortunate, my department actually gives me a reception room. So students don't have to sit out in the hallway. They did years ago, but they sit in a reception room, I keep a refrigerator there and some snacks. And so it'll hold maybe 10 or 12 students, sometimes if they're packed in - this is pre COVID. And, and they can meet in there, they may have to wait a half hour or so to see me. But they sign in and so I don't want to compare it to a doctor's office, but I go in and call one person and they come in, we visit for a while and they leave. And I generally have an agreement with my wife that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'll be home, when office hours are done and if that's 6 or 7 o'clock, that's when that happens. So I try very hard that if a student has been sitting there, waiting to see me, that I don't want to go in and say "Hey, sorry, I'm heading home." So I have this arrangement to stay around and try to see everybody. I really want, Jim, any student who wants to see me personally in Econ 201. I want them to think that they can do that. Obviously, with 1000 students, I'm not going to be able to see everybody personally, but anybody who wants to see me, I want them to say, you know, I may have to wait a little while but I can see the professor that who teaches me in Econ 201. It's very important to me that they at least have that sense that yeah, I'm available to them. Obviously, for many students who want to talk about, you know, some technical question about elasticity, the obvious thing is for them to go to their TA, but if they want to talk to me about broader issues of econ, or careers, or things like that, life at the university, that's what office hours are for me. And they're very important to me, I would not want to be in a position where I just went in and gave a big lecture and that was it. Some people do that in my field and in other fields, but that would not appeal to me.
President Jim Ryan 7:37
Well, it's clear why you are part of what makes UVA a special institution. So I'm curious what led you to study economics in the first place?
Professor Ken Elzinga 7:50
So I'm first generation college, and really had no real knowledge of college. A store that I worked at in Kalamazoo, Michigan, my boss had gone to college, and he thought I should go to college. So I was able to live at home and go to a college in my hometown, Kalamazoo College. And my plan, my vocational aspiration, was to be a fishing tackle salesman. I worked in a sporting goods store. And when I got to this college, Kalamazoo College, I looked around, and there were no courses in how to be a fishing tackle salesman. The closest thing that seemed to be there was something called economics. So I took economics and soon learned that it had very little to do with retailing. But it was the closest thing I had. And so I remember telling my dad, I was going to major in economics. And he asked me what that was, and I wasn't sure, I didn't know how to give a good answer. But it was the closest thing to business that existed in a college that had a rather pure liberal arts curriculum.
President Jim Ryan 8:49
And were you hooked right away? Or was it more of an acquired taste?
Professor Ken Elzinga 8:54
No, no, I was not a very strong student. My first and second year I struggled with a lot of my courses. But there was an econ professor who took an interest in me. He really did. I don't know why. But he took a real interest in me, he saw intellectual potential that nobody had really seen before, and had no reason to see it. In high school, I was in a shop curriculum, not in a college curriculum. But he encouraged me to to hang in there, develop study habits that I didn't have. And by the time I was a third year student, I was a pretty good student. Fourth year, I was a very good student. And so he encouraged me to go to graduate school. He really took an interest in me as potentially an academic, and as somebody who might be able to do well in graduate school. He helped me get a scholarship to graduate school that made that financially possible. The first time I ever lived in a dorm was when I went to graduate school. I had never left home until graduate school. So I have a huge debt for him as you can imagine. Huge debt.
President Jim Ryan 9:57
And was it when you were in graduate school that you began to focus on antitrust?
Professor Ken Elzinga 10:04
Yes, it was. I considered three graduate schools. They were all within driving distance of my hometown, Chicago, Michigan and Michigan State. And there was a professor at Michigan State who was very, very well known in antitrust economics. I'd actually used his book as an undergraduate. And so that was one of the attractions to Michigan State was to study under that person. I actually wrote my dissertation under him, I lived in his home, we became very, very close. He also influenced me profoundly. There were antitrust experts at Michigan and Chicago as well. But this person, Walter Adams, was larger than life. Terry Sullivan could tell you that, she knew Walter at Michigan State when she was an undergraduate student there.
President Jim Ryan 10:47
And I'm curious how the study and teaching of economics and, in particular, antitrust have changed over the last half century?
Professor Ken Elzinga 11:02
Well, I would answer that in two ways. First of all, the influence of the Chicago School has profoundly affected the way antitrust economics or competition economics is done, how it's viewed and assessed. And I spent some time at the University of Chicago as a visiting scholar while I was on the faculty at UVA. I learned an enormous amount there from people like Ronald Coase, Nick Posner, George Stigler, others in the in the Chicago School, and that's carried over into my antitrust research and into my antitrust consulting. I would think the other area is, the whole field has become much more quantitative, much more kind of rigorous and tight. Even as it's reflected in being in the courtroom, testifying as an expert witness. The trial court's emphasis and interest in "Is this really science? Is this really analytically sound? Is this what's happening in the journals?"
President Jim Ryan 11:59
Right. And I would imagine, as both a teacher and a researcher, you have to keep pace with the changes. And has that been a challenge? Or is that been one of the joys of being a faculty member?
Professor Ken Elzinga 12:17
I would say it's a challenge and a joy. But it's really just my job as well. I mean, I have to keep up with the research, I'm contributing to the research, I have to follow the research of other scholars in my field. I mean, it's something you want to do. It's something that at a school like UVA you're expected to do if you're a faculty member.
President Jim Ryan 12:35
Right. And you talked about testifying in cases. And I understand that you've also been an expert in some antitrust cases that have made it to the United States Supreme Court. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about those experiences.
Professor Ken Elzinga 12:52
Sure. This is really quite astonishing to me, because, first of all, not many antitrust cases go to the Supreme Court. But I've been the economic expert in four cases now that have gone to the Supreme Court. And I've been on the prevailing side in three of them. And so I've had a chance to, I think contribute to how the courts view, or ought to view, good economics. One case that I went on, that I worked on, as the economic expert, overturned a Supreme Court precedent in antitrust that had been around for 90 years. In that case, I was more the retailer of the economics. The economics was already there. It had been developed. But I was the first person to bring it into a case that actually went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was a five to four decision, it was a closer call than I would have liked. But nonetheless, working on that case, and others was just, again, I don't want to overwork the word honor, but it was an honor. It also meant a lot to me that that my research an teaching as well, was making a contribution in the world of public policy, because I thought these three decisions were were really good ones that the court involved, it was Matsushita, Brook Group and Legion were the three that I worked on where I was on the prevailing side. You're a lawyer, you can imagine the, you know what a treat it was for me to be on the inside of a case, to see as its tried before the trial court and to be an expert witness and to write expert reports, but then to be involved in in preparing the person, a former Solicitor General of the United States, Bob Bork, Ted Olson, to prepare them for oral arguments. Obviously, they don't look just to me, but I am part of the team that prepares them for the oral arguments. That was just an incredible experience and then to go to the Supreme Court when the case is being argued and to sit there and, in the case of one time, Sandra Day O'Connor came in. She had left the court, but she wanted to hear the arguments in this case and sat very close to me. Wow, I mean, who gets to do that? I got to do that it was a thrill.
President Jim Ryan 15:04
It is a fascinating experience. And I will say you have a much better record than I do at the Supreme Court. I've argued exactly one case and I lost 8-0. And the only reason I didn't lose 9-0 is because Elena Kagan had to recuse herself.
Professor Ken Elzinga 15:17
Oh, my goodness. Well, ironically, the case on which I was not on the prevailing side, had the University of Virginia indirectly, as a participant. It was the NCAA case on the compensation of student athletes. And the defendants, the people for whom I was an expert, myself and an economist from the University of Chicago, we were the experts for the NCAA and the five power conferences, including the ACC, where University of Virginia is obviously a conference member. And that did not go well for the NCAA and the conferences. And I still wince over that, because I care very much about, not only the law and economics of that case, but even the sort of cultural implications of that for for education.
President Jim Ryan 16:07
Right. It's becoming an increasingly important issue in college athletics, for sure. So I'm curious with your limited free time, what you like to do, and in particular, I want to ask you about someone named Marshall Jevons. And I'm curious what your connection to that person is?
Professor Ken Elzinga 16:31
Marshall Jevons is my pen name or pseudonym. And I write murder mysteries under that name. I've written or co-authored four of them now. They're not exactly a series, but they have a common central figure or protagonist. He's the central figure's named Henry Spearman. He's an economist at Harvard. And he solves the crime using economic theory, that's the schtick that I bring to the mystery genre. The central figure has to solve a crime using only economic analysis. That's not easily done. And it's, I admit, heavily contrived, but I've written four of those books with a beloved friend of mine who used to teach here. He has since passed away. And so that's been another kind of fun thing. I mean, how many jobs do you get where your boss will let you go off on company time, and write a murder mystery, but I've been able to do that at UVA.
President Jim Ryan 17:27
And do you ever use your murder mysteries in your classes?
Professor Ken Elzinga 17:34
I have in the past, I haven't assigned them for the last couple years, but I have assigned paperbacks of my murder mysteries as supplemental reading. I've kind of switched over into something different. Now I do 'econ minutes,' where these are recorded in a recording studio, and I have students look at the econ minutes. Frankly, it's it's stuff that I just don't have time to get into the lectures time, but I want them to learn these little things about how does an economist look at sports? How does an economist look at two sided markets and I... they're just topics. How does an economist look at the topic of happiness? So I have these econ minutes that I record. And I do that now instead of assigning a murder mystery.
President Jim Ryan 18:18
So you participated in the Double Take event that we had at Carrs Hill, which is a storytelling event where, I think, eight people told stories from their lives. And you told an incredibly powerful story about the role that faith played when you lost your first wife. And I understand that faith is very important to you. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the role that it plays in your life and what it's like to be a person of faith in a modern university these days, and in particular, at a university that is famously secular?
Professor Ken Elzinga 18:57
Sure, in graduate school, in addition to studying economics, I started reading people like CS Lewis, and John Stott. And that's a dangerous thing to do if you want to stay an agnostic or an atheist. I really began to be persuaded that they made a strong 'case' for, to use a legal term, and argument for the Christian faith. And, and kind of along with that I was attending a church that was a puzzle to me, because there were well known professors at it and there were also people who worked on the assembly line at an automobile plant. And I tried to figure out, what keeps this unusual collection of people together? They seemed so different to me as a social scientist. And the thing they all had in common was they they all talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I came to have that in graduate school. And it began pretty much to define who I am, what I wanted to be. And so that involves certain changes in lifestyle, but in addition, it began to make me think well, what does this mean for my teaching? What does it mean for my vocation? Can I consider myself called, as a Christian to be a professor of economics? That's a hard question. And involved a lot of thought on my part. And one of the answers to that came, actually in a story in the life of Jesus, of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. And I came to realize that Jesus was often called rabbi or teacher by His disciples, and He was willing to wash the feet of his disciples. And so I have a picture on my office wall that I look at a lot. It's a very sobering picture for me, "What would it mean, Ken, to wash the feet of your students?" Well, not literally. But it means that I have to have a servant's heart to them, I have to somehow figure out what that means for me, as a follower of Jesus. What does it mean for a person, who has, you know, by standards of my family background, a very high income? What does that mean? If I'm a follower of Jesus with this kind of income? What do I do with it? Do I spend it on myself? Do I put it under a mattress? Do I use economic theory to figure out how to invest it? Or do I give it away? So these are all things. Then, to go back to your tail end of your question, being a Christian in a secular university? Well, Jesus himself was, in many ways, in a secular setting. And the Christian faith came out of a time when when Rome controlled the land in which Jesus lived. And the the apostles were working very much in a secular setting. So it means that I'm here. I'm to do everything I do as unto the Lord. So what would it mean to teach economics as unto the Lord? Well, Jesus suggests be willing to wash the feet of your students if it comes to that. And, obviously, when I teach Econ 201, I don't teach it as Sunday School. I don't, I'm employed by the University of Virginia to teach economics. But if I'm invited to speak to a group of students at UVA, like Chi Alpha, or Grace, Christian Fellowship or Cru, sure, I can go and do that. I have the freedom to do that at Mr. Jefferson's University, for which I am very, very grateful.
President Jim Ryan 22:19
Well, can I can't thank you enough. Both for everything you have done for UVA and for spending time with me this afternoon. I've thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
Professor Ken Elzinga 22:29
It's been a pleasure, Jim, thank you so much.
Mary Garner McGehee 22:35
Inside UVA is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. Inside UVA is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Professor Ken Elzinga, Bella Hicks, Monica Shack and McGregor McCance. Our music is turning to you from Blue Dot sessions. Listen and subscribe to inside UVA and Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We'll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the university.
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan welcomed Ken Elzinga, UVA’s Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, as his final podcast guest of the season, and the two talked cars, antitrust policy and the Supreme Court.
Elzinga has been at UVA for 52 years, in that time teaching some 50,000 students in his large fall course, Economics 201.
He is also known for his love of hot rods, having grown up in Michigan in the 1950s and 1960s.
What people may not know is that because of his expertise in antitrust policy, Elzinga has also appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court on a number of occasions.