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Alumni Spotlight: Charles Betsey

Charles Betsey

Charles Betsey, A.B. and Ph.D., Economics

Charles Betsey spent most of his childhood in Detroit.  His family moved to Ann Arbor the summer before 9th grade and like many local kids, he had aspirations of becoming a Michigan Wolverine. “I still remember the joy I felt the day I received my acceptance letter to LSA. I was sure I was going to be a Spanish teacher, but when I took my first course in economics, taught by Dan Fusfeld, I realized econ was for me.” Dr. Betsey fulfilled his dream twice over, completing his undergraduate degree in Economics and Spanish and continuing immediately for his Ph.D. U-M opened a door for Charles with that first economics class that changed the trajectory of his education and established solid ground for a lengthy and illustrious career in academia and public policy research.

Despite his initial interest in a teaching career, he didn’t work as a teaching assistant while at U-M.  Instead, Charles concentrated on research, holding several research positions as an undergrad and grad student. One of his best experiences was working with staff in the Institute for Social Research on various studies including one on the 1967 Detroit riots, and on undetected youth delinquency, and with the Center for the Study of Higher Education on the use and effectiveness of Title III funds for “developing institutions” (legislative language that included many historically black colleges). Dr. Betsey also worked at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, where the research he conducted with fellow U-M student Howard Wachtel became his first publication. He recalls, “It was ultimately a great experience. It was brutal trying to get published but so rewarding to have our paper appear in a leading economics journal. At the time, I had not finished graduate school, and it was unusual then to publish as a student. Now it is an expectation - times have changed in a lot of respects.”

Staying at U-M for his graduate work afforded Charles a level of familiarity with campus, but he reflects, “My undergraduate experience was very different from my graduate one. Partially because there are so many undergraduates, I was more likely to feel that ‘herd’ experience and doing something fun like attending a football game meant being immersed in this huge crowd of people. The graduate experience is different in terms of scope. The economics department had its own building at that time, and that made for a very different experience as well. The building was more amenable for grad students to hang out there. I felt there was a lot of camaraderie in my program, with grad students and with faculty. Given the large size of the student body at U-M and the relatively small number of African American students, I’m not sure what my experience would have been if I didn’t have family there or hadn’t gone to U-M as an undergrad.”

Funding was a key issue for him, as it is for graduate students today. “Overall, I have a strong memory of not having enough money as a grad student. That’s one of the reasons I contribute to graduate students in ways that I can. It is so important that students don’t have to compromise their studies by interrupting them to work or carrying too many hours outside in order to get by,” he contributes.

Dr. Betsey’s advice to students is a reflection of his experience and career path. He offers, “Be open to new experiences; don’t be too closed minded in terms of your career path. I started in one direction and things opened up and I was lucky enough to be able to follow a new path. I was fortunate that I was prepared for unexpected twists and turns. In today’s world there is so much career uncertainty and a much more competitive academic job market. Currently I teach a course in Howard University’s Preparing Future Faculty Program for students who want to consider an academic career, and I think things like that help.”

It is the advice and mentorship of others that helped Charles along the way. “I was fortunate to have several close mentors on faculty, including George Johnson who was my advisor as an undergrad and became my thesis advisor. I wound up getting a bit tired of living on a grad student’s income, so I left and took a job in Washington DC before I actually finished. My first job was at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in the Executive Office of the President. It was a great opportunity for exposure to a group of highly skilled economists who were doing important policy research,” he continues. In the course of that work, Charles made some professional contacts and friends who he remained in touch with over the years. One of my supervisors at OEO, Ned Gramlich, later came to Michigan and chaired the economics department. He says, “It was [an]important training ground for me in social science and policy research using economics to shed light on important issues of the time.”

Needing to make progress on his dissertation, Charles took a teaching job at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He returned to DC and worked in non-profit and government research for several years before moving to Howard University. He began his career there as the chair of the economics department, completed a term as interim dean of the graduate school for three years, and is now (mostly) retired after 25 years of teaching at Howard. “But I haven’t stopped. I’m continuing to teach the Preparing Future Faculty course that I’ve led for eight or so years now. I also serve as a board member of the Michigan In Washington program and on U-M’s Economics Leadership Council. This keeps me in touch with my Michigan contacts,” he states.

As Dr. Betsey reflects on his career, he mentions how his field has changed over the years. He notes, “I can hardly recognize some of the material that’s published now in terms of its mathematical content. I see a reaction to the extent that economics has moved in emphasizing mathematics. Today, economics attracts people who majored in engineering or math as undergraduates. They are told, ‘We can teach you the econ, but you need the math foundation.’ I like to say that I got into economics and developed a love for it as a social science. That’s what I love about it: it brings to bear a framework for thinking about problems including real world issues that can be approached in a systematic way. The problem I see is that because of the mathematical way economics is now being taught, the field tends not to appeal to people who have an interest in solving real world problems. The field of public policy has developed over time as an important field of study in academia and now is seen as an area that produces more people who are capable of addressing issues that were in the past often largely left to economists.” 

In his retirement, Charles and his wife get out of town. He explains, “My wife Margaret and I both like to travel, so we’ve done an international trip each year for the past 15 years. We just returned from my retirement trip, a Mediterranean cruise.” They might stay closer to home some now, with the birth of Ionee, their new granddaughter. 

Wherever he is, Charles knows he’d like to continue doing some work on issues of social policy, particularly the question of the racial wealth gap and its causes and consequences. He has co-directed the Center on Race and Wealth at Howard for a number of years, and plans to keep his hand in the organization for some time. Commitments with U-M bring him back to Ann Arbor generally once a year, so Charles gets the chance to walk through campus and see what’s changed over the years at his beloved alma mater.