2003 Graduate Teaching Awards in the Professional Schools: Don Coursey, the Ameritech Professor of Public Policy in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy StudiesBy Peter Schuler
Voted Professor of the Year by Harris School students, Coursey teaches the Core course, Principles of Microeconomics and Public Policy II, required for all candidates in the Master of Public Policy Degree Program.
Coursey credits his success as both a teacher and scholar to extraordinary professors with whom he initially trained while a doctoral candidate. Among them is Vernon Smith, now an economist at George Mason University, who in the late 1970s taught on the faculty of the University of Arizona where Coursey received his Ph.D.
Smith was one of the recipients of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for "having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms."
"Smith had a profound effect on my own career. He is a towering figure in his field, though most of the public have never heard of him," Coursey said. "He developed the basic structure for creating an experimental market almost 50 years ago. His experiments made visible for the first time Adam Smith's invisible hand market theory."
Coursey began his graduate studies at Arizona in 1978, and Smith hired him to be one of his graduate assistants and programmers. "I spent four years in the classroom and learned my economics," Coursey said.
"But I also spent four years in the back room of a computer laboratory with Vernon and other students watching the results of experiments in progress come flashing out onto the screen. What an education that was. We could see how different market institutions produced more efficient outcomes in different situations. We could see how monopolists and members of oligopolies could, or could not, wield their powers. We could see how command and control regulations in the market affected behavior and produced unexpected consequences. We also began to explore how problems with public goods might be addressed using market principles."
Coursey said that Smith was "constantly on the prowl for novel trading structures to expand the reach of economics into public affairs," including the complexities of slot allocation at major airports and pioneering work on an open trading system for electricity in both the wholesale and retail markets.
Coursey has used the tools he acquired while training with Smith to develop some of the first reliable measurements of public preferences for environmental outcomes relative to other social and economic goals. His current research has included an investigation of environmental equity in Chicago, in which he examined the relationship between the location of older hazardous industrial sites and the racial composition of surrounding neighborhoods.
He also has analyzed how people make decisions about what they are willing to pay for certain environmental outcomes, such as increasing the number of trees in a public park or saving different animals on the endangered species list.
"The four years I spent with Vernon were intellectually the richest of my life," Coursey said. "Each day in the laboratory promised the possibility of finding another economic Atlantis. When thinking of Vernon, almost all of my thoughts hearken to the back room of his laboratory. It was where he shared with us an appreciation and understanding for the science in 'economic science.' But there was so much more. It was where so many of us learned from him the art of economic insight.
"It is a pleasure to share these insights with my own students at the Harris School," Coursey said.