Honored Economist Builds on Wisconsin Roots

WAA President and CEO Paula Bonner MS'78 with 2011 DAA winner Stephen Roach. Photo by Paula McDermid.
WAA President and CEO Paula Bonner MS’78 with 2011 DAA winner Stephen Roach. Photo by Paula McDermid.

Stephen Roach (’68 BA L&S) saw his world view shift during his years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I was here in a different era. When I came to Wisconsin, it was a classic Big Ten football school,” said Roach, a leading economist with particular expertise on China. “When I left Madison, campus was occupied by the National Guard and there was a lot of tear gas in the air. It was a transformative period in the history of this school and this nation.

“It changed me. It gave me an experience, a set of values, an awareness of problems at home and abroad that I really hadn’t thought about when I started college. Most importantly, it gave me tools and a lot of intellectual curiosity that has driven me ever since,” said Roach, who was honored October 13, 2011 as one of the recipients of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award. He also met with members of the Economics Student Association and gave an address, “Pitfalls in a Post-Crisis World: Moment of Truth in Global Re-balancing,” to a packed lecture hall.

Roach, who earned his PhD from New York University, recently went from chief economist and later chairman of the Morgan Stanley and Company’s Asian businesses to a senior faculty fellow post at Yale University.

“Part of the reason I went to teach at Yale was just the richness of the experience I received at Madison and always feeling that one of the greatest contributions that one could make to society was to participate in the educational process,” he said. “Despite spending 35 years traveling all over the world for Wall Street, during that period, once, twice, three times a year, sometimes more, I’d give a lecture at a university around the world. I gave one here in Madison once.

“Every time I did it I said, ‘You know, there’s something there that I want to come back to someday.’”

A few years ago, Yale received a large grant to start a new global institute. “They asked me to be a part of that startup. I thought that it was the time to do it, and I’m doing it,” Roach said. “I’m now a full-time faculty member teaching four courses this year, which is probably too much. It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding.”

Roach stays connected with his undergraduate alma mater, serving on the Department of Economics Advisory Board and making gifts to support campus activities such as the Department’s career development services.

“These are my roots,” he explained. “Wisconsin really gave me a start in exposing me to the richness of an academic experience. I ended up being an econ major. “Wisconsin had a great economics tradition going way back, and I was fortunate to get turned on by some really impressive faculty members when I was here.

“I was a slow starter. I can’t say I knocked the cover off the ball when I walked in and took my first econ class, but by the time I was ready to move on, I had really gotten a good sampling of what economics could do,” he said while sitting in the William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building near a window overlooking Lake Mendota. “That lit a fire under me that kept burning. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for having experienced those first sparks right here, in this building, looking out at that lake.”

Asked for a memorable professor, Roach said, “The guy I remember the most who had an impression on me was Professor Ralph Andriano. He was my undergraduate advisor. He taught this new approach to American economic history. He examined economic history in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The government didn’t have any data, but he and a lot of these practitioners of the new economic history were able to assemble data through forensic analysis of shipments of freight and travel documents. They were using modern tools to recast and rethink the past. That was really intriguing to me.”

Roach understands the role of private giving and has supported undergraduate advising in the department. “College has got to be not an ending in itself; it should equip you to deal with the future,” he said. “The future is challenging. It’s hard for young adults, at the age of 20, 21, 22, to get their degree one day and find themselves in the world the next day. I really think that the career advisory function in the economics department for any school is a very worthwhile and helpful investment in the human capital of the kids you are trying to inspire and send out in the world.”

Roach was clearly touched at receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award. “It means a lot to be recognized by a university that played a critical role in forming you as a student and a young adult and launched you into the world without any understanding of what the destination would be,” he said.

“It’s a great university with a great tradition and an enormous, broad collection of unparalleled scholars. I don’t want to make too much out of what this says about me – recognition is very satisfying – but I’m just proud to be part of a great Wisconsin academic tradition.”