Gita Gopinath is the first Indian woman to be granted permanent tenure as a professor at the university’s economics department. A true inspiration
Pallavi Polanki | 22 Jul, 2010
Gita Gopinath is the first Indian woman to be granted tenure as a professor at the university’s economics department. A true inspiration
Achieving tenure at the world’s most selective university at the age of 38 is enough to send ripples out in academic circles, but Gita Gopinath is also the first woman of Indian origin to do so. For someone who took up economics as a means to crack the IAS exam (only to find herself falling under its academic spell), and who picked Princeton over Harvard for her PhD (since the former granted the aid package she needed to be a ‘self made person’), to now be on a faculty that boasts of such greats as Ken Rogoff and Amartya Sen, must surely bring what economists call ‘increasing rewards to scale’. An email interview:
Q You are the first Indian woman to be tenured at Harvard University. Your thoughts on creating this little bit of history…
A To clarify, I am the first Indian woman to be tenured in the Economics Department at Harvard. I am not aware of the history of other departments. I am thrilled and honoured to have received this appointment. I am not sure how much of history this creates, but I hope it encourages more Indians to pursue their ambitions in the field of academia. It also reaffirms the faith I have in consistent hard work with which much is achievable.
Q Harvard has drawn criticism for its poor record on giving women professors tenure. Is the record still tipped largely in favour of men? Do you believe things are changing?
A It is certainly true that there are very few tenured women in top universities across the US in departments such as economics and in the sciences. At Harvard, out of 50 tenured faculty in the Economics Department, there are only three tenured women (including me), so the ratio is extremely low. Universities like Harvard are concerned about this, and policies are being put in place to have a level playing field for everyone. So, yes, things are changing–such as providing leave and stopping one’s tenure clock when one has a child. Significant change will however only come about slowly. To ensure that more women receive tenure at top places there needs to be a strong pipeline of women candidates, and once they enter the academic profession, that they receive requisite mentoring. I believe women benefit from being mentored by other women. In the absence of sufficient numbers of tenured women, this is just harder to accomplish.
Q You are only the second Indian after Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen to be made a permanent professor at Harvard’s Economics Department. What kind of influence has he had on you? Could you share with us what he said to you on learning of your appointment?
A Besides Amartya and me, there are two other male professors of Indian origin in the Economics Department. What Amartya and I share in common is that we were educated in Indian universities, while the other two received their college education from US universities. Amartya had a big influence on me when I was a student at the Delhi School of Economics in 1992-94. He gave a special lecture at DSE back then, and I remember being very inspired by him. We were in awe of faculty at places like Harvard, and meeting someone from there who was also a product of the Indian education system made it seem like it was not an impossible dream to aspire for. At Harvard, I see little of him because our independent schedules don’t permit much interaction, and Amartya travels a lot. He sent me a very nice email after learning about my appointment and I hope to interact with him more in the future.
Q Your story is inspirational. When you look back, what is it that made this extraordinary journey possible?
A Thank you for saying this. It is difficult to go back and retrace one’s steps, but I can think of some factors that made a difference. I have been truly blessed to have been surrounded by or to have interacted with extraordinary people. To start with, my parents. I remember always being given the sense that much is achievable with sincere hard work. My father always encouraged me to achieve things that I would have otherwise thought impossible to achieve. Then there is my husband, Iqbal Dhaliwal, who I owe so much to. We have been married for 12 years, and have a 7-year-old son, and throughout my academic journey he has been a great support. Lastly, on the professional front, I had fantastic advisors like Rogoff, Bernanke and Gourinchas who provided terrific academic mentoring and from whom I learnt an immense amount. I sincerely believe that my accomplishments would have been impossible without the support of all these people.
Q Why did you choose Economics?
A I came to it a bit accidentally. I was a science student until my 12th standard. Like most students at that stage, it was not very clear to me what I should do. My parents wanted me to join the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), and it was decided that a subject like Economics would serve me well, so I went to Delhi to study economics for the very first time. I starting enjoying the subject when doing my Bachelors and decided that I had more of a love for academia than the administrative services.
Q Tell us about your student days in Delhi. What was the atmosphere like on campus?
A I did my Bachelors and Masters at Delhi University from 1989-1994. I lived in the Lady Shri Ram hostel and Post Graduate Women’s hostel. I enjoyed my time in both places. Initially I was intimidated by the competition at Delhi University. I was from Mysore, having not attended any fancy schools and having not studied any economics. But eventually I got to enjoy myself and once again found that hard work could overcome most obstacles. Having now spent several years on U.S. campuses I do think there are a few things that need change in India. I think it is important that the faculty who teach are also involved in research because that keeps them at the frontier of knowledge. This is very beneficial for students, but unfortunately, that is not the model even in the best of colleges. Also, the level of rigour at which the subject is taught can be increased substantially. We get taught very little over a 3-year BA programme, and that should change.
Q You completed your Bachelors in Economics (Honours) at Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College (1989-1992), and then went on to do a Masters at Delhi School of Economics (1992-1994). A time that coincided with India’s launch into the era of liberalisation under then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s supervision. How did you perceive the historic shift at that time?
A This period was a remarkable period to be a student of economics. I remember that one of the reasons I enjoyed the subject was because it helped me understand—or at least made me realise how economics could help one understand—what was going on. My interest in international economics, which is my field of specialisation, also came about during this period, because the crisis that preceded the reforms was a current account crisis. I participated in inter-college competitions that debated the outcome of India’s liberalisation. All of this made studying economics a lot of fun.
Q You were selected for the PhD programme at Harvard, but went on to do your Masters at University of Washington because Harvard refused to give you financial aid. Did that disappoint you very much?
A Yes, there was a time when I got admitted to Harvard but could not go there because of the lack of financial aid. This was actually after my Masters at the University of Washington. This was a disappointment, but I got admitted to Princeton with full financial aid, and so I had a lot to be happy for. I have always wanted to be a self-made person. It sounds a bit old fashioned but what this meant was that I did not want my parents to spend their hard earned money on me. I could never ask my parents to pay for an expensive US education, even though I knew they would try their best to do it if I asked for it. I worked extra hard to ensure that the opportunities I received did not put any financial pressure on my parents. Thankfully, I was able to make that happen.
Q You completed your doctoral thesis at Princeton University (1996-2001) in the field of International Macroeconomics and Trade. Your advisors were Ken Rogoff, Ben Bernanke (appointed US Federal Reserve Chairman in 2006, replacing Alan Greenspan) and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas. Some of the biggest names in their fields. Tell us about the experience of working with them. Who were you most influenced by?
A I have indeed been fortunate to work with several big names in the field of macroeconomics: Ken Rogoff, who is also a professor at Harvard, was formerly the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the US Federal Reserve, and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, a professor at Berkeley. What I learnt most from working closely with these people is that besides being brilliant intellectuals, they remained humble scholars. That is, they always tried to learn more and it did not matter where the knowledge came from. They were open to learning from their students if an interesting idea was brought to them. At no point while working with them did I get a sense of hierarchy. We were all in the business of pushing the frontiers of knowledge, and it did not matter who was faculty and who was the student. I have tried to model myself along these lines in my interactions with students.
Q Could you briefly tell us about your areas of research in the context of the global economic crisis?
A My research is in the area of international macroeconomics, where I have focused on two central issues: 1. International pricing and the impact of exchange rate movements. 2. Business cycles and crises in emerging markets. On the topic of international prices, I explore empirically and theoretically the impact of exchange rate changes on the price of import and export goods and on consumer prices. In the current global crisis there have been sharp movements in the value of the dollar relative to other currencies, and there are discussions of the impact of the crisis in the euro region on the value of the euro. My research helps understand what these movements imply for import price and consumer price inflation in countries. It also helps analyse how the pricing behaviour of firms can change in a world where the importance of the dollar becomes diminished.
On the topic of business cycles in emerging markets, I have explored the differences in business cycles between developed and emerging markets, and the impact of international capital flows and sovereign debt in these markets. Debt crises have in recent times been viewed mainly as a phenomenon of the less developed world, so the developments in Greece certainly shake things up. In my research, I have explored the negative impact that large levels of debt has on the real economy. As Greece undertakes tough measures to reduce the size of its debt, it must have in mind the negative impact of large debt levels. On the other hand, there is the negative demand side effects that arise from the wage and salary cuts that are being instituted, so there is an interesting trade-off that I wish to explore in future research.
Q What is your assessment of the ongoing debt crisis in Europe and future of the Eurozone?
A The debt crisis in Europe is severe, and it is one of the main factors behind countries adopting austerity measures through expenditure cuts and tax increases. There is a delicate balance at this point. These measures have put a pause on speculative runs on [sovereign] debt, but at the same time these measures could destabilise a nascent recovery, and if indeed these measures push the economies back into a recession, it will only exacerbate the debt crisis. The political will seems to be there to keep the Eurozone together—through instituting large bail-out funds and politically costly austerity measures. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the near future.
Q How will India be affected by Europe’s crisis?
A The channels through which a crisis in Europe can affect India are through real factors like a recession in the Eurozone reducing demand for Indian products, or lower investments from Europe in India. India could also suffer if it is exposed to euro debt in the event of a default. My sense is that in all these dimensions, India’s exposure is low and so the direct effect of the crisis is not that large. There is however an important indirect effect that arises if in the event of a default in the Eurozone investors panic about their prospects in other emerging markets like India and pull their money out quickly. To avoid this, India has to prepare in advance: it needs to signal to the world that it is serious about keeping its fiscal deficit within reasonable limits and it should announce important measures to prop up revenues and reduce unproductive subsidies. This will distance India from other markets that are in fiscal trouble and prevent a speculative run on India.
Q At a time when economies the world over are searching for a way forward, your field of expertise puts you in pole position to analyse and offer solutions. In September 2008, were you expecting the beginning of the ‘greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression’? Do you believe lessons have been learnt? What are your worries?
A There were several economists who warned about an impending crisis, but policymakers at the US Federal Reserve were mainly persuaded by the voices of optimists. No two crises are ever alike, so it is not surprising that the current one was so unpredictable. Nevertheless, we can use our rich understanding of prior crises to solve some of the issues of the current one. Ben Bernanke, who is one of the leading researchers of the 1929 ‘Great Depression’ and currently the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has used all the tools at his disposal to avoid the mistakes that were made by the Federal Reserve during the Great Depression. The fact that the current financial crisis did not end up as a second major depression owes in a significant way to his policies. Going ahead, there is a serious need to address failures in financial regulation and the growing budget deficit — to the extent that these issues receive a lot of attention and the momentum on reform is not lost, I am very hopeful about the future of the world economy.
Q Does your being an Indian influence your economics in any way? If so, in what way?
A It has influenced me to the extent that I have worked a lot on emerging markets as compared to developed markets. The issues of business cycles in emerging markets and issues of debt and debt overhang are central to my research.
Q You have watched the India growth story unfold in the last two decades. How have we fared? What would you say have been our biggest successes and failures?
A The high growth rates in India and its performance during the recent global crisis are impressive. It is only too bad that it took so long to bring about high growth. There were obvious reforms that needed to be undertaken and were adopted in the 1980s and 1990s, such as breaking up the Licence Raj, allowing greater competition, liberalising trade, etcetera. It is not surprising that the economy has benefitted tremendously from this. A lot more needs to be done in the area of infrastructure, labour market reform, education, and India will need to focus on these sectors. There is also a need to make sure that opportunities are available to everyone in society and growth percolates down to people at all income strata. The successes have been many though it is tinged by the fact that it has been so slow to come. Our biggest hurdle lies in the low quality of governance. Without fundamental reform in this area, India’s growth prospects and quality of living will be below its potential.
Q Do you think the UPA’s economic policies are on the right track? Any worrisome trends?
A There are several sound economic polices being undertaken. The two worrisome trends I see are the rather large budget deficit and high inflation. Policy steps to contain both are essential.
Q Your take on whether economists make good politicians.
A Hard to say. I know of only a handful, so I could not perform a scientific test!
Q Do you visit India often? Does the prospect of advising governments on economic policy interest you?
A Yes, I visit India often—at least one a year. I like to work on policy questions, so yes, I would be interested in engaging with policymakers on economic policy.