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Father and son economists share commitment to teaching

Fred Thompson quit law school after two weeks because he didn’t want to think like a lawyer.

Many years later, Fred’s son Jon decided he wanted to become a rabbi, despite the fact that he didn’t happen to be Jewish.

These seemingly incongruous decisions eventually led to a shared passion for the study of economics between the father and son. Now they also share a commitment to the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

Fred is winding down his 30-year career teaching students at the Atkinson School, while Jon will begin as a visiting assistant professor this fall. Fred continues to serve as Emeritus Grace and Elmer Goudy Professor of Public Management and Policy Analysis as well as Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy Research at the Atkinson School. His long lists of publications, awards and accolades pay tribute to his life-long accomplishments.

An indirect route

After growing up in California, Fred earned his B.A. in economics at Pomona College. While he originally intended to major in engineering, he took a course in economics and found it fascinating. “Economics involves a similar type of thinking about practical tools that can be used to convert existing states to better ones,” he says “but it is a lot more interesting than engineering.” He got into law school but realized quickly that wasn’t the career for him. At that point, he says, he found being drafted into the U.S. Army a better alternative.
After the army and a stint in banking and insurance, he was drawn back to economics. “I’ve always been very interested in history,” he says. “Events that have had a profound transformation in human history have had economics at the core – the discovery of agriculture, the invention of money, and both industrial revolutions,” for example. He earned his Ph.D. in economics from Claremont Graduate University in 1972.

For the next several years he held a variety of positions, working as a consultant, teaching at several universities including Columbia and UCLA, and spending a year on the Economic Council of Canada. In 1985, he joined the faculty of Willamette University. “It was always my aim to live in this part of the world,” he says. His family had a cabin in Oregon on the Rogue River where, growing up, he spent holidays and summers. In Salem, he built an illustrious academic career and raised a family including his son Jon.

Creating his own path

While Jon will have big shoes to fill following in his father’s footsteps at the Atkinson School, he is forging his own path in the broad field of economics. Growing up, he was fascinated with science fiction because of its focus on new technology. “The way people react to new technology and how it changes our lives, I realized, is of great importance. The change in the material condition of the last few hundred years has completely altered our lives. How can we deliver the advantages of technological changes to less developed societies and to future generations?”

Meanwhile, Jon figured out what fascinated him about the local Rabbi. “Most of my friends growing up were Jewish,” he explains. He was impressed as he watched those friends and their families interact with the Rabbi, who wouldn’t give answers but instead provided the tools they needed to answer their own questions. “After I figured out becoming a rabbi wasn’t possible, I took the opportunity in the only logical way I could think of, which was to become a teacher.” (After all, the word rabbi means teacher in Hebrew.)

At one point, he thought he would write science fiction books and teach high school. But ultimately, he combined his childhood passions for science fiction and teaching others in another way. “A few hundred breakfasts with my Dad talking about economic issues made me realize I wanted to engage with the wider world with these ideas and the best way to do that was through economics.” He earned his undergraduate degree at Willamette, then did his graduate work at the University of Oregon, culminating in his doctorate in economics in spring 2015.

Research interests diverge

One of the central themes of Fred’s scholarly pursuits has been the use of economic ideas and methodologies to understand collective choice. Collective choice is a concept that examines and explains the decision making of groups of people, particularly in public entities. But he has also pursued the research interests of colleagues because he enjoys working with other people. On one of his many jointly-written papers, a study of what makes good state tax policy, he hired Jon, then a second year graduate student, to collect data and conduct statistical analysis.

Jon’s current research interest focuses on role of culture in determining outcomes. “There are a lot extremely interesting things to pursue in culture,” says, such as “How does culture affect people’s ability to solve problems?” But like Fred, he enjoys collaborating with others. “I look forward to working with a great set of colleagues and engaging them with things they are interested in.”

Teaching is the reward

Jon taught throughout graduate school at the University of Oregon, and is excited to begin conducting economics classes at the Atkinson School. “One of the most rewarding things about teaching is when you realize you’ve helped students understand something they didn’t before. You can see it in their faces.” He also enjoys it when students let him know they have succeeded in their endeavors “even if you don’t know whether you’ve been a part of that success.”

Fred agrees that watching students achieve is gratifying. “Unlike Jon, I never imagined myself a teacher when I was growing up. It sunk in that if I was going to be an academic economist I was going to be a teacher, and that was scary at first.” But he found he enjoyed the role. “I’m most proud of the students I’ve helped become successful.”

Fred believes emphatically that graduates from Atkinson do succeed. “The school’s special qualities and characteristics are what brought me to it 30 years ago. Each of the sectors – public, business and nonprofit – are equally important and equally rigorous. And the distinction of our faculty is remarkable for a school of its size.”

Both father and son get a bit emotional when describing their feelings about Jon joining the staff at the Atkinson School. “I think of Jon as my legacy,” Fred says. I’m very proud he is continuing this thing I’ve devoted my life to. That is more than I ever could have hoped.”

“Working at Atkinson is a great honor,” Jon says. “Carrying on my Dad’s legacy and maintaining his longstanding reputation are more important to me than anything.”