Published in the May 16, 2018 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
On Saturday, April 21st, the friends, colleagues, and family of Uwe Reinhardt gathered in the Princeton University Chapel to celebrate his life and career. Uwe, who passed away in November, was the James Madison Professor of Political Economy and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs—and one of this University’s most beloved teachers.
The New York Times published an excellent obituary that captured Uwe’s maverick personality. The headline described Uwe as a “listened-to voice on health care policy,” and the lead sentence reported that his “keen, caustic and unconventional insights cast him as what colleagues called a national conscience in policy debates about health care.”
Most of the Times article focused on Uwe’s accomplishments as a scholar and policy expert. Only late in the column did it mention that Uwe was an inspiring teacher. For many of those who gathered in the chapel last month, however, it was Uwe’s extraordinary teaching that made him a potent force in their lives and a vivid presence in their memories.
Uwe taught at Princeton for nearly half a century—and during that span he influenced a tremendous number of students. When I sit down with alumni, I like to ask them about the mentors and teachers who made a difference in their lives. They mention many different people—professors, coaches, deans, and staff—but one of the names that I hear most often is “Uwe Reinhardt.” Fittingly, two very generous alumni who studied under Uwe, Gilchrist Berg ’73 and Mitchell Julis ’77, have named endowed faculty positions in his honor.
Alumni remember Uwe not only because of his trenchant wit and sharp intellect, but also because he cared so deeply about the classes that he taught and the people who took them. Though the large, formal memorial service took place in late April, several of us gathered in Bernstein Gallery during the week after Uwe’s death to reminisce about his life and legacy. Uwe’s longtime friend Burt Malkiel remarked that while he discussed economic policy with many colleagues, his conversations with Uwe were often about pedagogy. Uwe, said Burt, was often searching for better ways to convey difficult concepts to his classes. And, of course, he often succeeded.
Like all great teachers, Uwe took an interest in the people in his classes—and, for that matter, in the people around him, whether they were in his class or not. In my case, his interest manifested itself in advice about a tree. Uwe lived near me and often walked by my house. He told me that I should remove a solid oak that, in his opinion, was dangerously close to the house. He was so persistent in this advice that we eventually called a tree service, which vindicated my wife’s judgment that the tree was just fine. She wondered why I was taking arboricultural advice from an economist. But it wasn’t just any economist. It was Uwe.
Uwe was not shy about giving advice, even when it was not easy for students, or anyone else, to hear. After reading a New York Times column in which students blamed binge drinking on the “scourge of loneliness,” Uwe replied with a scathing letter. College students, he wrote, are “among the most pampered and highly privileged human beings on the planet. Using loneliness as an excuse for binge drinking is just pathetic.” Some of our students took umbrage at that. But I hope that others recognized that, in his blunt-butcaring way, Uwe was telling them something important about personal responsibility, the privileges they enjoyed, and the hardships faced by others less fortunate than them.
Students throughout the years treasured Uwe because he spoke his mind and loved an argument. I thought of Uwe in early April, when the economist Raj Chetty came to the Arthur Lewis Auditorium in the Woodrow Wilson School to deliver Princeton’s 2018 Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Chetty’s topic was “The Intergenerational Persistence of Racial Disparities.” He was presenting headline-making research made possible through access to vast amounts of Internal Revenue Service data.
The room was packed, and the opening lecture was delayed for several minutes while the fire marshal cleared the aisles. The event was being live-streamed, so people could have watched in the comfort of their homes, but—despite overhyped claims about the “death of the lecture”—when an Uwe Reinhardt or Raj Chetty speaks, you want to be there in person. People banished by the fire marshal left glumly; two students shared a single chair so that the marshal would let them stay.
Those who got seats for Chetty’s two lectures saw exactly the kind of interaction that can make live presentations so riveting. Chetty was a masterful speaker. Then, at the end of his second lecture, commentator James Heckman *71, Nobel laureate and Madison medalist, took issue with Chetty’s methodology. Chetty answered, and pretty soon the two brilliant economists were talking over one another in a vigorous intellectual argument.
Uwe, I thought, would have loved it. He was a man who understood the power of great teaching, incisive argument, and personal presence. As a result, he had an enormous impact on this University and its students, and he will be remembered on Princeton’s campus and beyond it for many years to come.