Alumnus and Nobel Prize winner visits campus


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The economy of a liberal arts education

50th reunion

Dale Mortensen graduated in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and math from Willamette. During Alumni Weekend 2011, 50 years after his graduation, he shares his enthusiasm for education along with his story.

He has fond memories of the university, which include “Serenade” night. As a choir singer, the echo of Mortensen’s rich, bass voice must have resonated among the dormitories. His smile resonates too as he describes the tradition. “At that time, the women had to be back in their dorms by 10:30, so one of the things that the men did was to serenade them.”

I think that’s what a liberal arts education is designed to do− train future leaders.

He was active on campus, a senior class president who participated in theater, Beta Theta Pi and Young Democrats before being a page in the Oregon Legislature. He met future governor Tom McCall when McCall was a journalist on the legislative beat. But it was an economics professor, Richard Gillis, who inspired Mortensen.

Gillis “inspired a lot of people,” says Mortenson. “As a teacher, he had the unique ability to combine a very keen sense of humor… with his own enthusiasm for economics.” 

Mortensen eventually became an assistant to Gillis, a position Mortensen calls “a great honor” — one he shared with university trustee and fellow alumnus from the class of ’61, Stewart Butler. Gillis mentored and encouraged Mortensen to “be sure to take mathematics, because that would be important in graduate school.” 

Gillis was right. Mortensen went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics.

Training future leaders

There’s no question that Mortensen values higher education. “Just look at the pure economics of it,” he says. “The difference between earnings of a typical [college] graduate and non-graduate are significant.”

That difference isn’t only because graduate salaries have increased, he noted, “it’s partly because the earnings of non-graduates have fallen.”

Willamette served me well.

Mortensen understands these issues deeply. His Nobel Prize was for his work with Peter Diamond, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher Pissarides, professor at the London School of Economics. They created a widely used model of labor markets.

“In the future, there’s no doubt that the world is going to be led by those who have a good, solid education,” says Mortensen. “A general education is extremely important because the world is changing so fast. A narrow vocational background is risky and limited simply because that particular occupation may disappear within a lifetime.”

According to Mortensen, learning to read, write, communicate – and compute – effectively are absolutely essential.

“I think that’s what a liberal arts education is designed to do,” he continued, “train future leaders.”

Lessons from Willamette

After graduating from Willamette, Mortensen continued his career as an economics professor at Northwestern University, where he advises students to follow their dreams and talent. 

“Do what you do because you’re interested in it,” he says, advising students to “find where you can contribute, because that’s what you’re going to enjoy.” 

“Willamette served me well,” Mortensen noted.

Fifty years after graduating and using his Willamette experience to the fullest, Mortensen seeks to share that opportunity. He was glad that his class decided to support scholarships through the class of 1961’s nearly $1 million gift to Willamette. 

“I was the beneficiary of a very generous scholarship,” he said. “I think that’s a good way for people who have succeeded to contribute.”