November 19, 2020

A New Leader for “an Educational Startup in the Startup Nation”: Shalem Announces Appointment of Scholar and Public Intellectual Russ Roberts as its Next President

Russ Roberts, president designate of Shalem College.

In a 2018 article for the website Medium, Russ Roberts, the American economist, public intellectual, and now president designate of Shalem College, recalled writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago under Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker. Sitting across from the revered economist in his office on the Social Sciences building’s fifth floor—a floor, Roberts notes, that Becker seemed to share exclusively with fellow Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow—Roberts would often think back to his time as a first-year student auditing Becker’s class.

“Even though I wasn’t on the roster, he’d call on me and I’d get the question wrong. Every time. A good scene I’ve shared with my children and students about how things can turn out well, even though things don’t look good at the time,” writes Roberts, who is now the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow in economics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is also founder of the acclaimed weekly podcast EconTalk, which, through more than 750 episodes and millions of unique downloads, has enriched America’s intellectual discourse on issues from economics to free will, artificial intelligence to a life well-lived. Past guests include Christopher Hitchens, Jill Lepore, Martha Nussbaum, Yuval Noah Harari, Yuval Levin, Emily Oster, and the Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman—one of 19 Nobel Prize winners to have appeared on the program, and the economist Becker himself once described as “by far the greatest living teacher I have ever had.”

Roberts’ anecdote about Becker belies more than his sense of humor, however, or even his habit of self-reflection. It also speaks to his philosophy of education, or what he likes to call “education as it ought to be”: a guided and genuine engagement with the great ideas of our civilization. Perusing EconTalk’s list of interviewees on the topic, it’s obvious that Roberts feels passionately about the subject. He is also adept at asking thoughtful, stimulating questions—questions for which, he is quick to point out, he is not looking for any specific answer. Rather, listening to Roberts is itself an education in how to conduct a conversation in good faith, wherever it may lead.

“The ideal education is less of a focus on information, and more on open inquiry; less worry about the right answers, and more concern for asking the right questions. When students experience that,” concludes Shalem’s next president with a smile, “they have a chance to transform themselves. They will also be capable of transforming their country.”

Roberts notes that during many summers near the Stanford campus, he has often engaged in conversation with Silicon Valley’s software engineers. They frequently, he says, describe a feeling of emptiness, or what he refers to as “money without meaning.” He laments that so much of today’s higher education “does not prepare students to ask questions such as, ‘What is a life well-lived?’ or even, ‘Will the technology I’m developing help human beings to flourish?’” We will only flourish, says Roberts, both as individuals and as communities, “when we not only focus on the future, but also explore the wisdom of the past, and come to appreciate all that it can teach us.”

All in the Name of Education

Encouraging that exploration is something with which Roberts has ample firsthand experience. He is the award-winning author of five books put out by Princeton, MIT and other leading publishers, including three economic novels that teach economic ideas through fiction. He was a professor at Stanford, UCLA, and George Mason University, among others. He was also founding director of the Center for Experiential Learning at Washington University in St. Louis, where his educational entrepreneurship program generated more than 100 consulting projects between Washington University MBAs and leading St. Louis corporations and nonprofits.  And in his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts takes the lessons from the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith’s little-known masterpiece, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and applies them to modern life, framing the answers to such questions as “What does it take to be truly happy?” and “How can we make the world a better place?” within the context of current events, literature, politics, and culture.

Roberts has also shown himself willing to use unconventional methods to spark interest in scholarly subjects, such as his two rap-video “debates” between the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. The videos, which have generated more than 10 million views on YouTube to date, are used in high school and college economics classrooms around the world. Robert Skidelsky, the great British biographer of Keynes, called the first one “brilliant.”

Finally, Roberts is author of an animated poem, “It’s a Wonderful Loaf,” about the patterns of daily life that emerge without coordination. Showing, in rhyming couplets, how the actions of the enormous number of people who want to eat bread, use flour for baking, or make money by delivering boxes of pizza, come together in an economic drama that unfolds without need for a director, Roberts strives to turn learning a complex subject into a surprisingly simple—and enjoyable—experience.

Roberts plans to bring that emphasis on the learning experience to his role as president of Shalem, a position he will assume this coming March. “The power of an institution like Shalem, which is dedicated to teaching the country’s brightest young minds, resides first and foremost in the classroom,” argues Roberts. He therefore plans to focus on enhancing the classroom experience, and recruiting more top-level faculty to join Shalem’s community of scholars and teachers.

An American in Jerusalem?

Can an American really prove equal to the task of leading an Israeli cultural institution? David Messer, chairman of the Shalem College International Board of Governors and member of the presidential search committee, seems glad to be asked this question.

Recalling James Snyder, the wildly successful, suit-and-tie-wearing American recruit to the directorship of the Israel Museum, Messer insists that such appointments work when “they are made not in spite of, but because of the different background and worldview the individual brings to the challenge. In the case of the next Shalem president, it was clear to us that we wanted someone who could import and adapt the unique American approach to liberal education to Israel. We also sought someone singularly focused on a vision of academic excellence for the college and a commitment to its role in the service of the country.”

“Moreover,” Messer concludes, “Russ also models precisely the sort of civic-mindedness, broad-based thinking, and commitment to respectful discourse that we seek to cultivate in our students, and which the Jewish state needs among its future political, cultural, intellectual, and economic leadership.”

Yair Shamir, chair of the executive committee of Shalem’s International Board of Governors and head of the presidential search committee, also underscores Roberts’ American educational background as a deciding factor in his selection. “In searching for an individual who would best represent our vision for Shalem as a college dedicated to a deep and broad engagement with the defining ideas of the Western and Jewish traditions, we naturally looked to the United States, where the liberal arts tradition is seen as critical to fostering free and responsible citizens,” explains Shamir. “Russ, who not only believes passionately in the value of the humanities for cultivating independent and analytic thinkers, but also models the ability to confront unfamiliar challenges that a Shalem education seeks to develop, was the ideal choice to lead Israel’s only liberal arts college in its next phase of growth and impact.”

Among the unfamiliar challenges Roberts will face in his new role will undoubtedly be acclimating to a new culture. He is sanguine about the transition, however, noting that he and Israel are already on friendly terms. Over the last decade, he has come to Israel frequently to teach; and to visit each of his four children who spent a year in Israel after high school.

“Shalem is already an amazing place and it’s only seven years old. I’m humbled at the opportunity to lead an educational startup in the Startup Nation.” says Roberts. He then adds, with equal parts humor and self-reflection, “I am also a huge fan of both falafel and frankness, and look forward to embracing these new cultural realities as I assume my new role at Shalem.”


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