Reuben Zubrow is a household name at the University of Colorado Boulder. The professor of economics taught for 43 years and is remembered as an engaging, energetic, challenging and humorous instructor. Zubrow passed away in 1997 at the age of 83, only five years after he finished teaching at the university.
Eighteen years after his death, his colorful personality, playful sense of humor and engaging teaching style is vividly remembered by students, colleagues and friends. An unusually engaging teacher, economist of national stature and pivotal figure in attracting students to the study of economics, Zubrow could enliven everything from an economics lesson to a tennis match.“He had a seminal influence on thousands of CU students,” says Bronson Hilliard, assistant vice chancellor for strategic media relations at CU-Boulder. “He was one of those professors who was just a legend.”
A testament to Zubrow’s enduring popularity is the sheer number of students he influenced. Zubrow’s teaching specialties were the introductory courses to economics: Principles of Macroeconomics and Principles of Microeconomics.
"He was challenging, and entertaining, made me test myself to my limits, and that’s what I wanted out of college.”
He taught 500 students at a time in CHEM 140, which during his time was one of the largest lecture halls on campus. Over his career at CU-Boulder, Zubrow taught roughly 43,000 students.
Zubrow attended Trenton State College for his BA, earned his MA from the University of Pennsylvania and received his PhD from Indiana University in 1950. Zubrow served as a naval officer during WWII, where he suffered some hearing damage. Students recall that he would sometimes cup his hand over his ear, scrunch up his face and ask them to repeat their questions.
Zubrow worked as a research economist for the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C. for a few years near the beginning of his career, but teaching became his passion early on.
He started his college teaching career at Indiana University in 1946 and made the transition to Colorado just a few years later with his wife Anne and their young family. He taught until his full retirement in 1992.
Fully engaged in public economics
Though teaching quickly became his life’s work, Zubrow’s involvement with public economics continued. He served as a special tax consultant for Nevada, Nebraska and Colorado at different times, publishing several comprehensive studies pertinent to those state and local governments.
"He had the ability to speak directly to you, even though he wasn’t.”
Zubrow was a senior author of the Governor’s Colorado Tax Study of 1959, which examined tax code and poverty and recommended tax-code reforms to the state Legislature. Among those reforms that lawmakers adopted, and for which Zubrow testified, was a partial repeal on the “regressive” food tax.
He is remembered by colleagues as being an active force in helping form policy sensitive to the needs of the people.
Bruce Cohen, both a student and neighbor to Zubrow, remembers going to Zubrow’s house and finding “a bunch of suits hanging on Reuben’s every word.”
Bruce’s father, Phil, a close friend of Zubrow, remembers the same thing; “Whenever legislators had a bill come up that had to do with economics, they’d all go over to his house,” remembers Phil. “But he’d really listen to you, too.”
Zubrow was influential on state economic dealings, but his influence was perhaps seen best on a more personal level—in the classroom.Students of Zubrow describe him as a great lecturer: funny, entertaining, engaging, challenging and interesting . “I still remember his voice,” says Hilliard. “He had this unusual kind of East-Coast way of talking.”
Glenn Asakawa, associate director of photography and video for CU-Boulder, remembers taking a class from Zubrow his sophomore year, partly because he had heard a lot about Zubrow his freshman year.
“There was a lot of buzz among the first-year students,” recalls Asakawa. “He had the ability to speak directly to you, even though he wasn’t.” Asakawa also notes how engaging Zubrow made the class despite its daunting size. “He kept the students on the edge of their seats,” says Asakawa.
Zubrow made his students feel he was paying attention to them. Hilliard remembers that Professor Zubrow required a lot from his students. He expected his students to be prepared before class, listen during the lecture, be engaged with the material and answer questions.
“He’d throw an eraser at you if you were talking during his lecture,” laughs Hilliard.
Engaged with 500 students at a time
Robert McNown, a professor of economics and colleague of Zubrow’s, says that Zubrow would deliver his lecture and then take the enrollment list of the 500-person class and call out students by name to answer questions.“Nobody dared read the newspaper,” says McNown. “That’s what you used to do instead of texting your friends.” Students wanted to earn the respect of Zubrow, a commanding lecturer, McNown recalls.
“He treated students with humor but would keep them in place,” McNown says.
Asakawa and Hilliard both describe being in Zubrow’s class as receiving the kind of college experience about which students dream.
"He treated students with humor but would keep them in place.”
“It was everything I thought a college class should be,” describes Hilliard. “The professor was wise and experienced; he had life experience as well as knowledge. He was challenging and entertaining, made me test myself to my limits, and that’s what I wanted out of college.”
“It was what you hoped for when you first enter into college,” says Asakawa. “You expect a college-level course to be like Zubrow’s class.”
Bruce Cohen recalls Zubrow making the economic principles stick by attributing his own vocabulary to the subject matter—referring to economic benefits as “goodies” and dis-benefits as “noodies.”
He also made his students feel like individuals by being quick to greet them around campus. “He’d call out ‘Zubrow here, Cohen there?’” remembers Bruce.
Bruce only ever felt treated differently in class by Zubrow when he was on the end of the professor’s well-known and good-natured teasing.
“On one occasion he told our massive class that I was ‘the super-sacker at King Soopers’ because I worked there to earn tuition money and that was where he and his wife Annie shopped,” laughs Bruce. “He did such things in good fun, which was never mean spirited and always triggered laughs.”
Hilliard remembers Zubrow’s sense of humor well because the professor would tease his teaching assistant, a graduate student named Granger.
“All the girls had a crush on Granger because he looked a lot like Richard Gere,” chuckles Hilliard. “Zubrow would say, ‘The handsome Granger is passing around this hand-out for me, so pay attention.'”
Zubrow was remembered for his fast-paced teaching. He talked fast and speedily sketched charts and diagrams on the chalkboard but quickly brought complicated concepts down to a level all the students could understand.
Asakawa, a journalism student, took the economics class as part of his required elective courses, but recalls the lessons he learned to this day. “He always seemed to draw from examples from daily life and their relevance,” remembers Asakawa. “That really stuck with me.”
"He never indoctrinated students in one school of economics. I don’t actually know what his economic orientation was.”
Zubrow included intensive study of current day economic events within his class, utilizing the Economic Report of the President, and discussing at length the various schools of thought within the study and application of economics.
Hilliard is quick to note that Zubrow was unbiased, however. “He never indoctrinated students in one school of economics,” says Hilliard. “I don’t actually know what his economic orientation was.”
Zubrow’s colleagues recall what a forceful personality he had and how much he served as a mentor to other instructors in the department. McNown describes Zubrow as the “master of teaching Principles of Economics.”
Larry Singell, a retired professor of economics at CU-Boulder, recalls that Zubrow was a generous spirit who looked after the junior instructors as a natural mentor. “He kept track of your career and where he thought you should be,” reflects Singell.“He decided at one point that I was ready to be chairman of the department, and he made it clear—let people know that it was time—and they elected me.”
Singell also notes that although he served as chairman for several terms, whenever he traveled and spoke with other colleagues, they assumed that Zubrow was the chairman.
“It was partly his natural disposition,” laughs Singell. “He was a real patriarch.”
Zubrow’s exposure to so many students meant he had a large role in attracting students to the economics major. Since he taught the introductory courses, Singell notes that Zubrow at some point mentored nearly all the students in the department. Zubrow also mentored graduate students.
“He tended to pick out people he thought were really talented and help them go in a certain direction that would utilize that skill,” says Singell.
Zubrow’s influence helped shape the career of former U.S. Federal Reserve and budget official Alice Rivlin. She took a summer course with Zubrow when he was first teaching at Indiana University, and she so enjoyed the experience that she changed her major from history to economics.
"Zubrow made economic principles stick by attributing his own vocabulary to the subject matter—referring to economic benefits as ‘goodies’ and dis-benefits as ‘noodies.'”
“Zubrow was a master teacher, a fine human being,” remarks Singell. “He was very caring about his colleagues and students, his friends, and the university. He was loyal to the university and a supporter of Colorado.”
Bruce Cohen notes that due to Zubrow’s career, intelligence and charisma, he could have taught at any number of prestigious schools on the east coast, but he loved Boulder’s mountain climate.
Zubrow enjoyed playing tennis and taking long walks, often accompanied by his friend and neighbor, Phil Cohen. “He was a good tennis player, good on strategy,” says Phil. “He made nice remarks that made you laugh during the matches, too.”
Zubrow earned every major teaching award that the University of Colorado had to offer, including the Thomas Jefferson Award and Boulder Faculty Assemblies Teaching Excellence Award.
In 1985, the economics department established the Reuben A. Zubrow Graduate Fellowship for the Teaching of Economics to honor professor Zubrow. At that point, though in his 70s, Zubrow was still teaching the principles classes and was one of the most sought-after professors on campus.
The influence Zubrow had on thousands of students and on his colleagues is remarkable, but Zubrow would likely treat his stellar reputation with his characteristic humor. “He took his role very seriously,” says Hilliard. “He made class fun, engaging, and you had a good time and learned a lot.”
Phil Cohen remembers vividly a comment that Zubrow made one afternoon on a walk they shared together. “He said, ‘I’d really like to live until the year 2000 comes along.’ He didn’t, but I always wished he could have seen that,” says Phil.
But Zubrow did live until 2000, and continues to live on nearly 20 years after his death, in the fond memories of the many individuals whose lives he positively impacted with his teaching, mentorship and forceful personality. As Singell says, “As long as people’s names are mentioned they live.”
Magdalena Rost, a student majoring in classics and English, is an intern for Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.