Published: Nov. 27, 2017 By

James Markusen looks back on his illustrious career, the state of higher education and his retirement plans

James Markusen, a CU distinguished professor and noted economist who helped develop international trade theory and did foundational work on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is retiring from the University of Colorado Boulder and taking time to review his career, critique higher education and consider his next steps.

Markusen's biggest accomplishment is the development of international trade theory by introducing multinational firms and other modern features into traditional models, and studied the impacts of trade and investment liberalization extensively while advising on several international agreements.

Markusen originally took the path he did because of a passionate for the subject.

Markusen sitting in his office

Markusen helped develop international trade theory and did foundational work on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Photo by Steven Hlavac/University of Colorado Boulder.

"That's what I encourage students to do. Sometimes they say, 'What should I work on?' And I go, 'Well, what are you passionate about?' And that’s what they don’t want to hear, they want me to hand them a topic," Markusen remarked. "I try to find out what they are truly interested in."

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that Markusen stumbled upon international trade theory: "I didn't initially think about, 'Oh, gee, this is going to give me a bunch of international travel opportunities.' It didn't work that way."  It was more that he was bothered by flaws and deficiencies in the existing models.

Markusen took this interest and became involved in the background work of NAFTA and the Canadian American Free Trade Agreement, which are far-reaching trade pacts that have been both hailed and criticized since their enactment, and has since studied the positive and negative results of these programs.

"Serving on these advisory boards and panels and things are broadening experiences, they almost force you to think outside your own box," Markusen said. "They made me think about a lot of things I had not thought about before."

He recognized that serving on advisory boards and panels are broadening experiences because they forced him to confront important realities not present in mathematical models, and came to understand that some economists were overselling the positive points of some agreements and ignoring some downsides.

In trade agreements, Markusen notes that gains are unevenly distributed across regions and occupations. He said both politicians and economists could have been more intellectually honest about the pluses and minuses of the treaties, instead of selling liberalization as a goal in itself.

Despite his extensive work on the international stage, being named a distinguished professor in 2006 was his biggest achievement, Markusen said. He is one of two CU Boulder economists who have gotten that designation, which is the most prestigious award bestowed on faculty; there are 48 distinguished professors in the whole CU system.

On higher education, Markusen expressed concerns about its financing and future. "I'm not entirely happy with what is going on, on the Boulder campus. A lot of it is the campus leadership and not so much the college," Markusen states.

The economics building is, "Cannibalized for every last square inch of space, subdividing it into offices" despite the number of economics majors tripled over the last 20 years while faculty numbers have increased 15 percent, states Markusen.

Markusen at his retirement party

James Markusen is retiring this fall, and took time in September to celebrate with his colleagues and peers. Photo by Craig Levinsky/University of Colorado Boulder.


Critical of online classes and the pressure to move toward them, Markusen says there are concepts that cannot be taught exclusively from textbooks, and that the focus on online classes will diminish proper education, reducing face-to-face interaction and team-building.

Looking at the northeast side of campus, Markusen said the "luxury" of intercollegiate athletics facilities disturbs him.

Popular wisdom is that athletics draw funds to the university, but Markusen said this view has been proved untrue following rigorous statistical evaluation: "One thing that students rarely think about but weighs on professors' minds all the time is the diversion of funds into athletics and away from academics… Typically, the athletic department runs large deficits that have to be paid for, and unfortunately students don't get it, and their parents don't know this."

Overall, Markusen is happy being retired, noting that he will not be separate from the university and joking, "I will work one-third the time for zero pay, which is OK, because I will have more international travel opportunities."

He will continue writing papers and overseeing graduate students, but wants to structure his own time "in ways that are most productive and enjoyable to me."

Noting the significance of his relationships with students, Markusen likes the idea of going to Shanghai or Beijing, and having a richer experience because he can visit his former students now living abroad.

With more time on his hands, Markusen will have more time to spend with his family, including his wife, Ann Carlos, divisional dean for arts and sciences and fellow economics professor. His daughter, Hillary, is an assistant professor of hydrology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. His son, Peter, is a master scuba instructor and back working in Boulder after jobs living in Indonesia and Grenada.

Markusen is also looking forward to more cycling time world-famous roads and paths around Boulder.

The flag along the top is the official NAFTA flag.