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Through teaching, research and outreach, ILR generates and shares knowledge to solve human problems, manage and resolve conflict, establish best practices in the workplace and inform government policy.

Ronald G. Ehrenberg Q&A

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Labor Relations, served as a Cornell vice president and university Board of Trustees member, as well as a State University of New York Board of Trustees member.

Here, he recounts some of his experiences:

What was your most impactful research? 

My books that have had the greatest impact are “Modern Labor Economics” and “Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much.” The first, coauthored with Bob Smith, is now in its 14th edition and has been used by thousands of students around the world. It was written specifically for our ILR students. 

To be honest, the last edition I worked on was the fifth edition because when I became a Cornell vice president in the mid-90s, my interests began to shift toward higher education from labor economics. Bob has steadfastly refused to take my name off the book.

“Tuition Rising,” which was written after my terms as a Cornell vice president, was published in 2000 and marks the date my focus became solely on higher education issues. 

My two most important papers were “Household Allocation of Time and Church Attendance,” which was published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1975, and “Do Tournaments Have Incentive Effects?” published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1990. 

The first paper was the first that analyzed the economics of religion since Adam Smith's work back in the 18th century and it led to a growing subfield of research on the economics of religion. The second paper deals with tournament theory. Theoretical economists had developed models to explain the following phenomenon. Two vice presidents at a company are performing almost equally well. The president leaves and one of the two vice presidents is named president and receives a very substantial salary increase. If the two VPs were close to equal in productivity, why is the pay bump for the winner so large?

The answer that the theorists give is that large jumps in pay for the winner of this promotion tournament give both contenders an incentive to work harder than would otherwise be the case. I provided the first test of this theory using data on professional golf tournaments and the paper is very widely cited.

You’ve written many additional papers on a span of topics. What were some of those about?

Topics have included estimating the impacts of a wide variety of social programs and legislation, such as the unemployment insurance system, studying public sector labor markets and collective bargaining in the public sector, evaluating the impact of regulation in New York state in the 1970s on telephone workers’ wages, studying compliance with the overtime pay premium, addressing issues of gender and race and the impact of the matching of students and teachers by these characteristics on students’ educational outcomes, and a large number of papers on K-12 education more generally (including some with my wife). More recently, I have more papers than I can count dealing with higher education issues.

What has been your greatest impact on students?

Our textbook, which was written for ILR students, many who were math-phobic in the early years, demonstrated to 40 years of undergraduate students how economic analysis can be used to explain the benefits and costs of existing and proposed labor market policies and to explain how the existence of labor market institutions, or their repeal (for example, mandatory retirement laws), can be explained. 

Perhaps the most important lessons are that all policies and proposed policy changes have costs, as well as benefits, and before articulating positions based on preconceived views on topics, such as should the minimum wage be increased, students should analyze both the benefit and the costs. Our success in doing so has led to three of the four ILR faculty winning the highest teaching award that tenured faculty can receive, the Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellowship, being labor economists George Boyer, Bob Smith and me. 

During the last 20 years of my career, I required all my undergraduate students to write group research papers. I met with each group three times during the semester so I could help improve their papers before they submitted them to be graded. Although many students were not happy with the idea of writing research papers in economics, by the end of each semester, many of my students would thank me for having them do this. In fact, during this period, about 10 of the students who had taken classes with me or served as research assistants for me went on to Ph.D. study in economics, public policy and education. 

During my career, I supervised the dissertations of 51 students, and I remain close to many of them. My goal was to help them get the types of jobs that they wanted, not necessarily to get the types of jobs that would improve my stature or that of the department. Today, those still in the U.S are employed in research universities, comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, public and private research positions in Washington and elsewhere, and at private companies, including Amazon. I am very close to these students, and they threw a retirement conference for me five years before I formally retired because they wanted me to be able to celebrate with them before my kidneys had depreciated to the point that I would be unable to attend a two-day conference, including a large conference dinner.

How did ILR change you?

I became much more of an interdisciplinary scholar. When I was working on employment or labor law issues, I turned to Michael Gold and Risa Lieberwitz in the then collective bargaining department. When I was interested in the incentive effects of compensation policies, I turned to George Milkovich in human resources and, together, we organized a conference that brought both academics and practitioners to campus. That led to a book titled “Do Compensation Policies Matter?”. 

When I was interested in gender issues in higher education, I turned to Pam Tolbert, who had similar interests, in organizational behavior.  And, Marty Wells was always there to talk to me about the research methodologies that might be more appropriate for me to use rather than the standard approaches used by empirical economists. 

All these interactions, as well as involving college and university administrators in my class on the “Economics of the University,” shifted my intellectual approach to issues and made me more of an interdisciplinary scholar.

How did you change ILR?

I demonstrated to all my colleagues that it is possible to be a quadruple threat by being excellent in all the dimensions of a faculty member's responsibilities. These include undergraduate teaching and advising, graduate teaching and doctoral student advising, research and service to ILR and Cornell, as well as public sector organizations and private nonprofit organizations and professional associations. 

My activities in each dimension feed back into other dimensions. For example, my research and administrative roles at Cornell, as well as my service as a Cornell and then as a SUNY system trustee, fed directly into my class on the Economics of the University and teaching that class helped me to be appointed to the SUNY board.

To take another example, after I founded the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI), I employed a number of undergraduate students as research assistants. Around 2000, I realized that I should provide all my undergraduate students opportunities to do research as part of all my undergraduate classes. So, my research fed into my undergraduate teaching, and it also obviously did that for my graduate teaching and mentorship.

Performing at a high level in each of the dimensions of faculty responsibility and understanding all their interactions improved how I performed in each of the dimensions and kept me highly motivated throughout my career until my long battle with declining kidney function ultimately sapped my energy.

What is most memorable about your ILR years? 

After my family and I visited Ithaca and ILR in the fall of 1974, I was still unsure that I wanted to return permanently to ILR. During the spring of 1975, before I had to make a final decision, Dean Bob McKersie drove four and a half hours from Ithaca to Amherst, Massachusetts, where I already was a tenured associate professor at the University of Massachusetts. He explained to me why he felt I would be a very good match for ILR and the leadership roles he wanted me to play in helping labor economics move into the modern era, namely replacing soon to be retiring institutional economists with younger empirical and model-building economists. 

I was so moved by a dean taking the time to drive so far to see me, that I decided I should accept the offer. It was only after we moved to Ithaca the next fall that I learned Bob's mother-in-law lived 15 minutes away from me in a neighboring Massachusetts town. While I never fully learned whether I was the add-on for the trip, my ego suddenly was quite deflated. 

However, Bob proved to be an extraordinary mentor to me, although he and Tom Kochan, who was a young star collective bargaining professor, left Cornell, if I remember correctly, in the fall of 1979. However, Bob stayed at Cornell long enough to supervise the process of my being promoted to full professor before he left, which took some of the sting from losing him as a mentor.

When my promotion recommendation came before Cornell's Board of Trustees, three trustees from the labor movement voiced opposition to my promotion because of testimony I had given in a regulatory proceeding involving New York Telephone and the Communication Workers of America. Frank Rhodes, who was in his first year as president of Cornell, told the trustees that academic decisions are best left to academics and my promotion eventually sailed through. The board appointed a committee to look at what the appropriate role of trustees should be in tenure and promotion decisions. Without going into the details, by the time I was elected to the board in 2006, the board as a whole no longer voted on tenure decisions and decisions to promote people to full professor are never, if my memory serves me correctly, even brought to the board. Rather, the Academic Affairs Committee of the board receives a sheet that lists all the people being considered for tenure, with brief descriptions of their contributions to their fields and the university and a voice vote is called to approve the whole slate. Put simply, the final decisions on tenure have been delegated to the president and the provost. 

Votes are still held by the committee, I believe, on people being recommended for named chairs, such as the Irving M Ives Professorship that I received in 1989 and the Ronald G . Ehrenberg Professorship, which ILR Dean Harry Katz created in 2014 and which was filled when we hired Seth Sanders. However, the real final authority for approving the creation of these positions and the people who will fill them lies with the deans and the provost. 

Frank Rhodes, who became a true mentor for me, told me years later that all new presidents face one to three decisions during their first year that will determine the future of their presidencies. He added, “You were my first; if I had not made the statement that I did in your case, the trustees would have kept pushing to be more involved in academic decisions.” The long-lasting impacts of his decision in my case has had ramifications that have grown over time. I was so proud about what Frank did in my case that after that, I would do anything to help him and Cornell prosper. 

He and a series of provosts progressively involved me in administrative activities that culminated in my being an acting vice-president in the final six months of the Rhodes administration and then a vice-president during the first three years of Hunter Rawlings’ presidency. After that, I had a year off to write my book, “Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much?” This book discusses the travails of my promotion case in a bit more detail. Election to the Cornell board as a faculty trustee followed, along with appointment to the SUNY board. My transition from a labor economist to an interdisciplinary higher education researcher was complete. 

Interestingly, Bob McKersie, as I recall, never told me about what was going on in my promotion case until after the final decision was made. Like any good dean, he was trying to protect me from news about trustees challenging my promotion before the decision was finalized, and he worried that if I knew about what was going on, I would seek employment elsewhere. In fact, President Rhodes' decision tied me to Cornell and fundamentally altered my career path at Cornell.

What else about your ILR experience would you like to share?

Coming to the ILR School was the second-best decision in my life. The first best was convincing my wife, who was two years behind me at Harpur College (now the liberal arts college at Binghamton University) to marry me. We will celebrate our 55th anniversary in late June. 

My parents were New York City health education teachers and they had programmed me to be a high school math teacher. However, my professors at Harpur taught me that a student follows the path that the student wants to take, not what the student's parents or professors want the student to take, and this is a message I have conveyed to both my undergraduate and graduate students over the years. 

I knew because I admired one young faculty member at Harpur so much that I wanted to be a professor. However, I never dreamed that I would be a professor at an Ivy League university, to have such wonderful undergraduate and graduate students and faculty colleagues, as well as with one exception, wonderful ILR deans largely from our own faculty, that have led ILR over the years. 

I never dreamed that I would be an important faculty member at ILR and Cornell, to receive a chair named after the first dean of the ILR School, who coauthored the first piece of state anti-discrimination in employment law, the New York State Ives Quinn Act, in 1944, almost 40 years before the comparable federal legislation (he later became a U.S senator). I never dreamed that I would be the first member of the second generation of ILR faculty, who are now retiring, to have a chair named after him or her. I never dreamed that I would win lifetime achievement awards from two professional associations (one for labor economics and one for higher education) and receive two honorary degrees. Put simply, I have had an extraordinary career at ILR and Cornell, and my time here has been much more than a job for me, it has been my life.

For almost 20 years, at the end of each semester, my final lecture in each class has had very little to do with the subject of the class. Rather, my lecture discusses why I have loved being a Cornell faculty member so much and the lessons my wife and I learned about life from the experiences of our older son, who died in 2008 after an 18-year battle he had with a disabling malignant brain tumor is his pituitary region, that began when he was a Cornell junior. 

Initially, my final lecture was based upon the 2009 version of my "Last Lecture," which is on my Cornell web page. Over time, I have extended this lecture to talk about the lessons about life that my wife and I have also learned from our other son and our four grandchildren. Students often tell me that this lecture is the most important lecture that they have heard in their years at Cornell. 

For my final class, taught to over 100 students via Zoom in the fall of 2020, I worked hard to produce the final version and the text of the lecture along with the slides that went with it. If anyone reading this would like to see the  text and the slides from my final lecture, or my last lecture (which is truly the best thing I have ever written) please email me at rge2@cornell.edu  and I will be happy to send them to you

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