By Liz Warren-Pederson
For over 40 years, economics professor Gerald J. Swanson has been converting skeptical students into burgeoning economists. Economics Department colleagues joke about the “Swanson Effect” — fewer undergraduates declare econ majors or minors when Swanson is on sabbatical.
But if Swanson had stayed on his initial career path, the story would be much different.
When he graduated from high school in 1958, his advisor steered him into engineering — a hot career choice that seemed tailor-made for his strong math skills. He studied both engineering and business at the University of Illinois (UI) and upon graduation began work as an engineering trainee at the General Motors Delco Remy plant. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” he confessed.
Meanwhile, his wife Gwen — whom he wed right out of college — was having a great experience teaching high school English and Spanish. They had an inkling that Swanson might be happier teaching high school math. So he met with the education department at UI.
“I found out that it would be two and a half years of additional education and student teaching,” he said. “And I already had an undergraduate degree! I’d also had several economics courses, so I decided to look into what it would take to get an advanced degree in the field.”
Swanson got up to speed by enrolling in additional econ courses, and began down the path to a master’s degree. But then fate intervened in the form of a summer teaching assignment, and a new direction opened up.
“I compare my life to a ball being launched in a pinball machine,” he said. “It keeps bouncing from one thing to the next, but luckily hasn’t gone down the center yet!”
That new direction was to pursue a Ph.D. so he could teach college-level economics in a large lecture format. Swanson’s thesis advisor had received a grant to study in South Africa that would take him away from teaching part way through the semester. “We met and he asked if I would take over the 800-student class at the mid-point of the semester,” Swanson recalled. “That spring, I spent ten hours or more preparing for every hour that I lectured.”
But it was a good fit, the fit that had eluded him in engineering, in part because it played to one of his strengths — public speaking. That skill was apparent from a young age. Swanson delivered his eighth grade graduation speech, and, as class president, his high school commencement speech. “I feel like I’m meant to be on the stage,” he said with a laugh.
Swanson completed his doctoral studies in 1971, an advantageous time for him to enter the professorial marketplace: the baby boomers were starting as undergraduates, and universities were challenged to accommodate ballooning student enrollment.
His experience in the large lecture format afforded him a number of options, but Swanson and his wife settled on the University of Arizona, in part because they had family in Tucson. Swanson was still settling in to his new job when the Arizona legislature asked him to join a tax reform commission. “They’d read my dissertation, which was on the cross elasticities of state, local, and federal taxes,” he explained.
The very first meeting of the commission sent him off in another unexpected but serendipitous direction. “This fellow stood up in the meeting and said, ‘Is anyone here from Tucson?’” Swanson raised his hand. “He said, ‘Want to carpool?’” The fellow turned out to be Thomas R. Brown, co-founder of Burr-Brown Research Corporation, later sold to Texas Instruments.
The drive to Phoenix and back cemented their friendship, which would extend over three decades. “I said at the time that the tax commission was going fine, but the ride up and back was killing me!” Swanson said. “Tom was so bright, and he had so many questions for me. We worked together on several projects over the years, and he helped me in so many ways.” Brown helped start the Arizona Council on Economic Education, which sought to teach high school teachers how to integrate economics into their curricula. Swanson served as the organization’s executive director and conducted workshops throughout the state.
That experience brought him to the attention of the producers of a Walt Disney film, The People on Market Street, made in conjunction with UCLA. Swanson served as a consultant and then co-authored the companion guides. When it came time to promote the series, Swanson found himself on the road, showing teachers how to teach the film.
In 1978 Swanson’s workshops came to the attention of Harry Figgie, founder of the $1.3 billion Figgie International. The company flew him to Cleveland to give a presentation. It proved to be the start of yet another fortuitous collaboration: the Figgie Corporation hired Swanson to teach an economic education workshop in the Cleveland area. Figgie’s wife and daughter-in-law attended the workshop and were impressed with Swanson. Figgie brought him on as a consultant to the company. In that role, Swanson traveled in 1987 to South America to research his first book, The Hyperinflation Survival Guide. Then he and Figgie collaborated on Bankruptcy 1995.
“I hated that title!” Swanson said, but it was attention-getting, and publisher Time/Warner was looking for something sensational; market research indicated that the book was going to take off.
“The thing that made the book go over the top was the 1992 presidential election,” Swanson said. During the election cycle, he tuned in to one of Ross Perot’s infomercial-style, 30-minute campaign ads and was surprised to see some very familiar charts. “I thought, those look like they’ve come right out of our book.” he said. Figgie wrote Perot a note and asked if he’d be so kind as to acknowledge the source. “And he did,” Swanson said. “He held the book up and said, ‘Every concerned citizen should read this book!’”
The sales went through the roof, and Swanson began a media tour that took him all over the globe. His wife Gwen, who by that time was director of Eller College Undergraduate Programs, made the important decision to leave the position so that they could travel together. “We’re a team,” Swanson said.
After the success of Bankruptcy 1995, Swanson found that he was able to take assignments that he found personally exciting. Hardly a week goes by that he doesn’t deliver a talk, in the U.S. or abroad. And his 2004 book, America the Broke, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But, he points out, his teaching and commitment to the UA come first. “I always take an unpaid leave of absence when I’m promoting a book,” he said.
Swanson estimates that he teaches about a thousand students every year. “I’ve found that students today are more confident in questioning me, which I love,” he said. His teaching style has always been discussion-based. “Instead of lecturing at a class, I like to talk with them,” he explains. He also relies on the Socratic method to gauge their understanding, but the hallmark of a Swanson lecture is humor. “I find that when I can use humor to present an economic concept it works wonders,” he said. “I have found over the years that there is a very direct correlation between the energy and enthusiasm I put into my lectures and class attendance, participation, and performance.”
At the Mid-Year Economic Update Breakfast earlier this month in Tucson, a line of former students waited to greet him, a common occurrence. In April, family, colleagues, alumni, and friends gathered to celebrate his contributions to the field over a reception and dinner. UA president Robert Shelton recognized his achievements and the guests watched a short tribute film that economics lecturer Amy Cramer produced in secret as a surprise.
The film included an interview with Swanson’s daughter, who attended the UA and took her father’s class. “My greatest teaching experience was teaching my daughter,” Swanson said. “It made me want to be the best teacher I could be, and she wanted to be the best student she could be. I wasn’t going to let her down and she wasn’t going to let me down.” She went on to earn her degree in economics.
Forty years into his UA career, Swanson shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m going to keep teaching as long as I feel the way I do now, which is that I consider teaching a joy, not work,” he said.
Earlier in his career, he had a timetable. “We were brought up to believe that retirement happened at 65,” he said. “Well, 65 came and I thought, 67. And I am still here, about to turn 70.” Last year, even Gwen thought he was on the verge of retirement. The couple was having dinner with friends one night and Gwen said, “Well, this is Gerry’s last semester.”
“Then I said, ‘Oh, no — I’m not retiring!’” Swanson reported. “She’s taken to calling me Brett Favre — always threatening to retire, but then coming back in for one more season.”
Today, Swanson holds a faculty chair in Thomas R. Brown’s name and sits on the board of the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation. He has won multiple teaching awards at the Eller College, at the UA, and nationally, including the Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Teaching, the UA Student Alumni Association Outstanding Educator Award, the Provost’s Teaching Award, and the Eller College Undergraduate Teacher of the Year.