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Dale Mortensen '61 earned the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking labor theories. (Photo:Lars Kruse )Dale Mortensen '61 earned the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking labor theories. (Photo:Lars Kruse )

Nobel Prize-winning alum, Dale Mortensen

Mortensen studied economics at Willamette before going on to earn a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University.

Nobel Prize-winning alum, Dale Mortensen

Mortensen (left) was senior class president at Willamette, among other activities.

More about Mortensen

Learn more about Mortensen's work and his Nobel Prize through these websites and media outlets.

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Willamette University alumnus earns Nobel Prize in Economics

It's a long journey from the Willamette University economics department to the Nobel Prize, but not out of reach. Just ask Dale Mortensen '61.

The alumnus — known at Willamette as a high-achieving economics student, singer, senior class president and Beta Theta Pi fraternity brother — was one of three to earn the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics. Mortensen is the Ida C. Cook Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, where he has been on the faculty since 1965.

He shared the prize with Peter Diamond, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Federal Reserve Board nominee, and Christopher Pissarides, professor at the London School of Economics. They won for their "analysis of markets with search frictions."

The three men pioneered a theory that helps explain why people remain unemployed despite many job vacancies. The model can be used to estimate how unemployment benefits, interest rates, the efficiency of employment agencies and other factors affect the job market.

Influencing Labor Theory

Mortensen began researching labor markets in the late 1960s. He says that the economic models used at the time to study labor did not factor in unemployment in a useful way.

"I wanted to find a more realistic way of looking at labor markets," he says. "I started coming up with ideas for how to create models that could be applied to problems that concerned policymakers and the public."

Over time, he worked with Diamond and Pissarides to develop a new model. Focusing on factors such as job seekers' skills, the way they search for jobs and the needs of employers, the researchers challenged the traditional theory that buyers and sellers will always find each other.

For example, job searchers may not have the skills employers want, they may not be able to relocate for work or they might take the first job offer they get, regardless of whether it's a good match. (Learn more in Mortensen's interview with Nobelprize.org.)

Beginnings at Willamette

Mortensen chose to study economics at Willamette to combine his diverse interests in mathematics and history. He spent nearly as much time in the mathematics department as he did in economics — the fields are integral to each other now, but at the time, they were not as connected, Mortensen says.

He was inspired in his studies by Professor Richard Gillis, a popular faculty member who chaired Willamette's economics department for many years.

"He encouraged me in every step of my journey," Mortensen says. "He pointed me toward economics study that I could do beyond the regular coursework, and he wrote recommendation letters when I applied for graduate school."

Mortensen was accepted at Harvard, MIT and Stanford, but he chose to go on to Carnegie Mellon University for his PhD in economics.

Outside of class, Mortensen continued his high school interest in singing by joining the Willamette choir and performing in several theatre productions, including the role of Buffalo Bill in "Annie Get Your Gun."

He also joined a fraternity, was senior class president and dabbled a bit in politics as president of the Young Democrats and as a Senate page across the street at the Oregon State Capitol.

A Distinguished Career

Mortensen carried his diverse experiences and his liberal arts education with him when he went on to teach at Northwestern University.

Over the years he authored numerous groundbreaking studies on the labor market, published a book on wage dispersion and held visiting teaching appointments around the world, including one at Aarhus University in Denmark — where he was located when he learned about his Nobel Prize.

"A liberal arts college trains people to be both literate and analytical, and that's the best training you can have for the future," he says.

"I think Willamette is an excellent place for an undergraduate to become intellectually mature. It did well by me."