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Personally Speaking/Risk, Reward in the Balance Sheet of Life

Risk lover, risk-neutral or risk-averse – economists often characterize people in these ways. Ask most of my friends which category I fall into and, nine times out of 10, you’ll get a laugh. Yet here I am, embarking on hazardous waters as I plan to take you on this one-page journey from economics to kayaking and back again. I’ve found that whenever I’ve chosen to embrace danger, notoriously risk-averse though I am, the payoffs have been life-changing.

My riskiest professional venture to date started with a call from a friend at another school on a Saturday morning – a call that would steer this economist, trained in the fields of international trade, macroeconomics and econometrics, toward the study of religious identity formation. I had recently been granted tenure, and my research focus was primarily related to issues of international trade and foreign direct investment. My friend was calling to pitch a new idea. He had a data set that asked questions related to immigration. He thought that, since we both worked at Catholic institutions, and since the Catholic church has opinions in this area, we should look into whether a person’s immigration policy preferences were affected by their religious affiliation and a measure of their religiosity.

We both knew this to be a risky project. Interdisciplinary work is notoriously difficult to publish. But it sounded intriguing, and taking chances is a part of the freedom that tenure allows. We found a great group of scholars who shared similar interests, combining the tools of economics with the tools of other disciplines to offer a better understanding of religious behavior. These scholars became our intellectual pack. Defying the odds, we were able to publish papers on the ways religion affects attitudes towards globalization, along with how it affects trust in others – more on trust later. We published on the strategies that megachurches have employed to be successful, and most recently, on how religious identity is established. We were able to host Nobel Laureate Gary Becker for a talk at SNC. Clearly, we were lucky to be following in the footsteps of an intellectual giant who had already established that it was legitimate to use economics to study a topic (in his case, the family) usually left to other disciplines. And we met one of my own heroes, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who cited our work in his upcoming co-authored book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” I get to do this work with a great friend, initially a professor and mentor of mine. More, it has forever changed my thinking. It’s taught me that taking some risks will lead to some of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer, and this is what I want to pay forward to my students.

Leaving the hard-to-navigate waters of interdisciplinary research for the moment, let’s go paddle somewhere we can actually get wet. Labor Day weekend of 2010, my wife, Jenny, and I were introducing two recent graduates (Chris Zaczyk and Andrea Osgood, now Andrea Zaczyk) to our hobby of big-water kayaking. The weather had turned. Temperatures were in the 50s, and the wind was gusting over 30 mph. Clearly, the conditions were not conducive to a relaxed paddling experience. In fact, we could see 8-foot waves on the bay. Those waves could capsize a kayak rather easily. Should we take the risk? We did, and I’ll never forget the feeling of surfing those waves with our friends.

A wise Irish saying goes something along the lines, “A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned for he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea and we do only be drowned now and again.” When my family vacationed on Lake Superior – notoriously fickle in changing conditions – we tempered the risks by hiring an outfitter when we set out to tour the sea caves at the Apostle Islands. It was one of the best days of my life. We launched in fog, but the sun burned it off within 20 minutes. After about 30 minutes of paddling, we were in warm sunlight enjoying the incredible views that Nature was offering us. Some risks are worth taking.

Back at my desk in Cofrin, I do a lot of my work deliberately and with discipline. There is much that takes a lot of thought and time to figure out. For me, the relaxed environment of kayaking is incredibly conducive to letting ideas percolate.

To be good at what we do, it is important to nurture passions related to work and passions unrelated to work. That balance makes us better able to relate to others. And when risk attends personal growth as we learn new things and engage in new activities, the rewards are great.

In memoriam mentor and friend Joe Daniels (1959-2020), Keyes Dean of Business Administration, Marquette University

A friend’s loss, a shared loss

Editor Susan Allen writes: 

We’re all connected to one another in more ways than we can imagine. Marquette University’s sorrow at the loss of their business dean became higher education’s too, and St. Norbert’s through the enduring scholarly friendship of Dean Joe Daniels with our own Marc von der Ruhr. 

If I’ve known one thing about Marc over the years, it was that he set a high value on his mentor and research partner: a touchstone friend a step or two ahead of him on the academic journey: a man, never named to me, whom he held in the very highest regard. So when Marc and I began talking about a topic he might like to write on for our Personally Speaking series, it was no surprise that this ongoing, formative and transformative friendship would also weave its way into his column.

As we wrapped up the final edit for this issue’s, the tragic news broke of a senior administrator who had been knocked down and killed on the Marquette campus. It was a desperately sad moment when Marc shared with me that this was his friend. “Despite the 10-year age difference, we just became very close friends," he said. "When I told him that I could never repay him for all his help, his response was simply, ‘You don't need to, but you want to pay it forward.’ That is likely the best way for me to explain my approach to teaching and mentoring my students.”

March 17, 2020