Elizabeth (Betsy) Hoffman
Professor of Economics, Iowa State University
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
March 14, 2023
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, March 14th, 2023. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Elizabeth Hoffman. Betsy, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me.
ELIZABETH HOFFMAN: Thank you. I'm happy to do this.
ZIERLER: Betsy, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
HOFFMAN: I am Professor of Economics at Iowa State University.
ZIERLER: Have you spent the bulk of your career at Iowa State?
HOFFMAN: No. I've been many places. [laugh] Do you want me to go through that?
ZIERLER: Yes! Let's just do a quick tour.
HOFFMAN: From Caltech, I went to Northwestern as an Assistant Professor of Economics. I stayed there three years and the third year I was recruited from Purdue by—oh, I'll come back to it. I was recruited to Purdue. I spent five years at Purdue. During that period my husband got very sick and so we looked for a place where he didn't have to breathe the ugly, nasty air of Northwestern Indiana and we moved to Wyoming, and that's a complicated story. We were being recruited by the University of Arizona, but they took way too long and one Friday evening Don Coursey, whom I worked with for a while, called me up and said, "You guys are looking to move someplace, aren't you?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, two positions just opened up. Would you like to come to Wyoming for a year?" And I said, "Sure." And by Monday morning we had all the paperwork faxed to us. Meanwhile, Arizona was still scratching their heads, as it were. But we did agree to go to Arizona so for four years we went back and forth between Arizona and Wyoming. We spent a year at Arizona. Vernon Smith had just gotten the big grant from the State of Arizona to fund the experimental laboratory there, which became the foundation for the Economic Science Association. This was the Economic Science Laboratory. And I was the first distinguished visitor. And interestingly they were told by the dean, you may not recruit her to be a fulltime professor because that's not what this money is for. And I said, "Fine. I'm happy to . . ." We bought a ranch up at eight thousand feet. We were going to be staying at Wyoming for the rest of our careers because it was a really good place for him to recover, and he did. He did finally recover pretty much by living on a mountaintop. But during that fall of 1987, I guess it was, which was my first full year as a full professor with tenure, the whole works, at Wyoming, Dave Conn—and that's a whole other story—who was chair of the recruiting committee, called me up and said, "We want you to come back." And I said, "What? I thought you weren't allowed to recruit me?" He said, "No. The dean wants you." And I thought and I thought. I said, "Well, I'll come and talk to you."
They ended up offering me the moon to come at that point. It doesn't sound like much in today's dollars but at the time, relative to what we were getting paid at Wyoming, which was nothing, it was the moon. [laugh] And the opportunity to really work with Vernon Smith to build this amazing program. And so I went. Well, then it turned out that the dean actually had an ulterior motive. He wanted me to be on his administrative team, and he was not going to quit. That's why he let them recruit me. And I almost went back to Wyoming. I remember coming back from breakfast with the dean saying to Brian, "I was recruited on false principles. I do not want to be an administrator. Let's go back to Wyoming." [laugh] But again, he offered me the moon, as it were, to go to be the director of the MBA program and associate dean for graduate programs. And I literally gave him a long list of nonnegotiable demands but he started to negotiate with me, and I said, "What part of nonnegotiable did you not understand?" And he acquiesced to everything I asked for which means, of course, that you have to agree to do it. [laugh] And one of them was that if I hated it he would let me go back to the faculty and never bother me again.
I discovered that I really liked being an administrator. I really liked the fact that you could actually get something done and it didn't take, like, five years to get it published and another three years to get it cited by which time you were on to doing something else and you'd forgotten what you'd written in the article that was suddenly getting cited. And I realized that being an administrator was fun. And I was continuing to work with Vernon. I did some of my most cited work during that time I was an administrator. And then, after four years I was ready to go back to the faculty but then the dean recruiters came after me and again I started going on job interviews and that's when I went to Iowa State the first time. Iowa State recruited me. It was a wonderful interview. They really wanted me and frankly Arizona was not willing to do anything to keep me, and so on the last day when they could make a counteroffer the provost made a counteroffer and I said if this is what it takes forget it, and so I went. And again, there was so much you could do, and I continued to do research so again I continued the line of research that became my most cited set of papers with Vernon. I got an agreement from the provost that I could spend several weeks every year in Arizona and appoint somebody to take over while I was gone so I could devote myself completely to research for a week at a time, which was amazing! And then, again, after four years I started to be recruited for provost and I remember the headhunter called me and said, "I've got the perfect job for you." I said, "Oh, yeah?" He said, "University of Illinois at Chicago." I said, "Isn't that the ugliest campus in the entire United States?" And he said, "Oh, they've fixed it. They've torn down the walkways, they've planted grass and flowers. You'll love it." So I agreed to go for an interview, and they wanted me really badly and I took that job. And I had so much fun as provost until my boss got fired in the third year I was there. Well, you know, your boss gets fired and you're not going to be hired to replace the boss that gets fired. There's just no way. And so I ended up on the market long before I intended to be on the market. [laugh]
At the University of Colorado, they recruited the heck out of me, and they wanted me so badly. And even though a little voice inside me told me, "That is a university that eats people for lunch. Do not go there!" [laugh] But, you know, when they want you they want you and then when they don't want you they don't want you. [laugh] So I went, and the first three and a half years were just golden. I raised a billion dollars. I oversaw the consolidation of the health sciences center in the Denver campus. I established a strategic plan that emphasized interdisciplinary research. It was amazing! I got so much done.
Then the governor, who had tried to get rid of me, tried to get rid of the university, tried to do everything, and I had bested him, he finally bested me. That's the only way to put it. The last year and half was holy hell and on March 5, 2005, I resigned. [laugh] And interestingly, the governor came back and begged me to help him pass this law to allow them to keep more money and he knew the only person who could actually help him, who had the political clout with the Democrats—he was a Republican—even though I was a Republican, but that didn't seem to matter to them at all because I was a RINO, as far as they were concerned. Of course, today's Republicans—I left the Republican party after that and it's so much worse now. [laugh] I kind of look at it and say, why was I ever associated with that group of yahoos? [laugh]
I went back to teaching and then the provost at Iowa State took a presidency and the president of Iowa State—we'd come up through the ranks together. We'd been AAU deans together, we'd been provosts together, we'd been presidents together, our spouses knew each other from the presidential circuit. He called me up and he said, "Well, would you ever be a provost again?" I said, "I would love to be a provost again. That was the best job I ever had." So I went back to Iowa State and then five years later he retired. A guy came in I couldn't stand to work with. [laugh] I stepped down and I was looking for other jobs but then I was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2012 and so I went back to the faculty. I've been a professor ever since. I now have graduate students who are tenured and one of them is coming up for full professor next year. It's just been a wonderful "into the sunset" part of my career to go back to being a faculty member to working with graduate students publishing papers. And I'm able to give the students a sense of, okay, so what it takes four years to get something published; that's just the way it is. And then it gets rejected by ten journals. [laugh] Just helping them to understand that you just keep at it. If the editors of the journal say make these changes and you think it's the right thing to do, do it.
I like to tell the story that Charlie Plott and Vernon Smith, who are two of my great mentors. Charlie Plott would fight to the death to get his paper published in the first journal he'd sent it to. Vernon kept a stack of envelopes that were addressed to different journals, and if it came back rejected he'd read the referee reports and if he thought they were worth changing he might change them but if he didn't think so he'd just send it off to the next journal. [laugh] And who won the Nobel Prize? Of course, Charlie should've won a Nobel Prize, but he didn't. So, that's in a nutshell my career. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Oh, my goodness. Betsy, what a rollercoaster!
HOFFMAN: [laugh] It was a rollercoaster, yeah. Now I'm seventy-six years old. I have Parkinson's. I work from home, but I do everything over Zoom. I attend an exercise class every day over Zoom. I meet with my students over Zoom. I teach my classes over Zoom. I meet with my friends over Zoom! [laugh] So here we are.
ZIERLER: Betsy, what kind of an economist would you call yourself? What are the kinds of economics issues you've worked on in your career?
HOFFMAN: I started out as an economic historian and I'll talk a little bit later about coming to Caltech which was, again—I have so many interesting stories about my life. I'm really an accidental economist but I'll come back to that. I call myself an experimental behavioral economist. If I'm asked to describe myself, I teach the graduate course in experimental behavioral economics typically taken by second year students but this semester I had second- and fourth-year students. The fourth-year students probably are not going to have a dissertation chapter with an experiment in it because it takes too long to get IRB approval and collect data. But they want to be able to talk about an experiment they might do when they go on the job market next year. Most students I've had as second year students over the past nine years end up writing a dissertation chapter using experiments. I teach a graduate course and an undergraduate course in experimental economics. And then, I teach a research seminar for the students in the graduate course who actually want to do an experiment and actually want to pursue this as a dissertation chapter, I teach a research seminar in the fall. I teach in the spring, I teach the seminar, I teach the introductory graduate course, and in the fall I teach the research seminar. And then I teach an undergraduate course in public finance which is what I taught when I went back to the faculty at the University of Colorado at Denver. For over a year and a half I taught public finance, and I had a great time with it.
Of course, we're in this incredibly politically divided country right now. I tell my students, check your politics at the door. I don't care who you voted for. What we're going to do is we're going to talk about policy. Even if the politicians don't want to talk about policy we are going to talk about policy and we're going to talk about it from a conservative perspective, from a liberal perspective, from a middle of the road perspective. We're going to talk about what would a traditional republican say about this? What would a traditional democrat say about this? And I love that course and the students love it, too. They have so much fun with it. And they really like the safe space that I create for them to talk about politics, talk about policies without worrying about who's listening in as it were.
ZIERLER: When you say you started out as an economic historian, of course your first PhD was in history, were you focused on economic history for your first PhD?
HOFFMAN: Yes, I was. I was.
ZIERLER: What did you work on? What did you look at?
HOFFMAN: My dissertation was on the decline in mortality in Italy since unification. In fact, the title is Sources of Mortality Changes in Italy Since Unification. My dissertation committee consisted of Dick Easterlin, who is a very well known—he spent most of his career at USC. You may know him.
HOFFMAN: He was the unofficial chair, I'd say. He couldn't be the official chair because he was an economist. John Durand, who was a demographer, and this poor guy in Italian history who didn't know anything about what I was doing but agreed to sort of be the official chair of my committee. And so I came out in 1972. I met Deirdre McCloskey and then Donald McCloskey at the cliometrics meetings. It was the first big economic history meeting I went to, which was in 1972. I believe it was at Oxford, Ohio, but it was at some place in Ohio. I met Donald McCloskey, I'm pretty sure I met—I have never been able to remember names and that's probably the one Parkinson's issue that it just made my memory for names much, much, much worse than it used to be, though it's always been terrible. But anyway I met a number of economic historians, one of whom recruited me to Caltech and I'm sure you know who that is, and I've just forgotten his name. Lance Davis.
ZIERLER: Ah, yes. Yes.
HOFFMAN: I met Lance Davis and Donald McCloskey at the cliometrics meetings in 1972 and that was what I was going to do for the rest of my career. I sort of specialized in plagues and the economic impact of plagues, so I wrote a paper on the plague of 1720 where I went to the Venetian archives and read the letters that were sent all around the Mediterranean. The ship left Constantinople known to be carrying the plague and runners delivered letters to the doge in Venice who then notified all the cities around the Italian peninsula that they were to burn the ship in the harbor if they tried to dock. And so this ship, it comes to Venice, it's turned away, it goes down around the boot, up the side of Italy, turned away at every port, and then it comes to Marseilles. A famine is going on in Marseilles and it sits out in the harbor for forty days and there is much discussion it has to be burned in the harbor but there's grain on the ship. And eventually for some reason the people of Marseilles allowed it to be docked. Well, grain's got rats in it. Rats have fleas. People got sick and boom, you have the last great plague of Europe. I wrote a paper about how this cordon sanitaire had been established all around the Italian peninsula and then the king of France established a cordon sanitaire that basically shut Marseilles off from the rest of France so anyone who tried to leave Marseilles was to be killed on sight. And they finally stemmed the spread of the plague. And then I wrote a paper on the demographic transition in Costa Rica. That was sort of what I was working on when Lance Davis—so now do you want to know how I got to—
ZIERLER: That's the million-dollar question.
HOFFMAN: I was on the job market for two years in history. I was a weird historian. Most historians have a time and a place and a language that they focus on. I think it's gotten a little bit better in history but as you are well aware the job market in history is still horrible. I was reading about the American Historical Association this year and it sounds like it's just as bad as it was when I went to the AHA meeting in 1972, ten new PhDs for every job. It sounds like there's ten new PhDs for every job this year, too.
HOFFMAN: [laugh] Did this field never figure out that they have too many graduates for the number of jobs? I was on the market for two years. I interviewed all over the country. I came in second in more jobs than you can imagine. Of course, with ten new PhDs for every job if you're second you don't get hired. Because I was interested in the whole sweep of demographic and economic history, how they came together and how they reinforced one another from the prehistoric times until the present, and here I'd studied late medieval Italy and written a dissertation, 1887 to the present, and people were, like, who is she? That's really weird. We can't hire somebody like that. That's not safe. I didn't get hired.
Then I finally did get hired by the University of Florida and I was really excited. I thought, well, this is great. Well, it turned out I was hired by the chair because the department was under threat of suit under Title VII for never having hired a woman ever. And I'd just gotten a divorce from my first husband. I was already dating Brian and I was twenty-seven years old and tall and skinny, wearing miniskirts since 1974, miniskirts and go-go boots. And I go down to the University of Florida and I am a pariah. The wives don't want me around because they're sure I'm going to steal their husbands, which was not the case. And half of the department didn't even want to speak to me because they didn't want to hire me for the same reason nobody else had hired me. And then I was saddled with teaching two huge sections of western civ to a bunch of students who had zero interest in learning anything. Lance Davis called me up in the middle of the first quarter, the fall quarter, and said, "How's it going?" and I just unloaded on him. And he said, "Well, why don't you come to Caltech?" And I said, "And do what?" I said, "I know you don't have a job for me because you interviewed me for a nonexistent job last year." Because I'd actually spent some time at Caltech talking to Lance, but it turned out there was no job. [laugh] And I said, "You don't have a job for me." And he said, "You know, I'm starting this new graduate program." And I said, "Yeah, I know. My future second husband—" actually, I didn't want to get married again ever but that's a whole other story. We did finally get married. I said, "I know. I recommended that Brian go. It's a wonderful program but who'd want to be a graduate student again? Are you crazy?" And he said, "You know, I'm just looking for interesting students so I'd just like to have you around." I said, "You're kidding." He said, "No. Just come." He said, "You don't have to get another degree. Just come and spend some time with us." He said, "I need a TA. The graduate students we have don't know how to teach and you know how to teach." [laugh]
And he said, "Just come." I said, "Ughh!" Well, I went back and tried to interact with my colleagues and my students again for a couple of weeks and I called him up and said, "What do I have to do? Do I need to retake the GREs?" He said, "What did you get in math?" and I said, "I got a 99th percentile in math." He said, "Just send me your GREs." I said, "Yeah. But I got a 37 percent in verbal." He said, "I don't care what you got in verbal, we only care what you got in math." [laugh] I said, "But I haven't taken a math course since my senior year in high school, but it was calculus." He said, "How did you get a 99th percentile then?" I said, "I'm just good at it." I've always been good at math. That's probably why I didn't take any math in college. And he said, "No, no, don't worry about it." So he offered me an assistantship that paid a thousand dollars less than I was making as a new assistant professor and the opportunity to come to Caltech and do whatever I wanted to do, and I took it.
For years afterwards I was the first woman ever hired by the University of Florida History Department who left to follow her boyfriend. Years later when I was a full professor at the University of Arizona I happened to meet the chair of the history department at a conference and I told him the story and he said, "That's you?" I said, "Yes. And please go back and tell your colleagues that the woman who left the University of Florida to follow her boyfriend is now a full professor of economics at the University of Arizona, which is the best place in the world to do the kind of research I do right now. I know Caltech is probably the best place now but at that time Arizona was the best place in the world to do the kind of research I do. "So just go back and tell them that I did okay." [laugh]
I moved to Pasadena in the summer of 1975 and I spent the summer relearning calculus because I knew that I was going to have to do some math to survive in this program if I really wanted to survive. Dave Grether was incredible. There were two women, me and one other woman who is, I think, a history professor right now who talked about how incredibly helpful Dave was in helping those of us whose math background was a little weak to make the transition. I spent that whole summer studying math and I figured as long as I'm here I might as well take all the courses that the first year students are taking. Paul Thomas was in that class. Actually, Paul Thomas and my husband Brian were one class ahead of me. Let's see. Who was in that class? Tom Lee, Nancy Childs. The class I ended up graduating with was Steve Matthews, Paul Thomas—except Paul didn't actually finish but he was in the class—Brian and—let's see—oh, Linda Cohen. Oh, and Naeem who probably got murdered by Saddam Hussein but whose son is now, I believe, at UC Irvine. I think that was the class I ended up graduating with.
Anyway, I did okay. The first quarter I took Gary Lorden's statistics class, and I think Mo Fiorina's political science class and John Ferejohn's game theory class. I'm trying to think, was there a fourth class? I think we only took three. And I got straight A's. Winter quarter I took the first math econ course, and I took the first econometrics course and I think I took another political science course—no, I think I took another game theory class, and again I got straight A's. At the end of the first year I said, hmm, I might as well take the qualifying exams even though I'm not going to finish just to certify that I know this stuff. A bunch of us—I know it was Tom Lee and me and I'm trying to think who else—there were three of us who got together every day for two or three weeks before the qualifying exams, which were then in August. Are they now in June?
HOFFMAN: Yeah. They were in August then. Every day we'd get together in one of the classrooms by the blackboard and just do all the old problems we could possibly find and if we got stuck we'd go to Dave Grether and ask him to help us solve the problem. And I remember there was one econometrics problem we worked on and we worked on and we worked on and we could not solve it. And we went to Grether and Forrest Nelson, because both of them had taught us some econometrics, and said, okay, how do we do this? And they kind of looked at one another and said, "Well, there's a trick," which they showed us. But of course, that was a question that if they were ever going to give anybody distinction it was going to be for answering that question. Of course, we all answered it correctly because by that time they'd already written the qualifying exams. This was like the day before the exam. They'd already written them and run them off and they were all ready for us to pick them up and take them so they couldn't rewrite them, and we all got that one right. But they said, "You know we can't give you distinction." We said, "Hey, we just want to pass." [laugh] So I passed and that was it. I figured, well, I might as well keep going. By this point I was already starting to work on Roger Noll's earthquake project—I think that's what it was—and somebody's water project. Anyway, I ended up writing a dissertation on the Colorado River Compact.
But I want to back up. Beginning in the second year I took math 108 which was the death of me. [laugh] I barely passed that one. I found that my limits in math were math 108. Tom Palfrey just soared through math 108, got straight A's. He took math 108, he took a couple of follow along classes, got straight A's. Mark Isaac struggled but I think he got either a B+ or an A- in math 108. I got a C, so that was sort of okay. [laugh] I found my limit. I'm not going to be a math economist. Tom could be the math economist. What am I going to do? John Ferejohn was my advisor at the time and he said, "What do you want to write your dissertation on? What are you interested in?" I said, "I'm interested in cooperation." And he said, "Oh, that's way too hard, way, way too hard." I said, "Why?" I said, "I know that economics tell us that people should not cooperate but everywhere I look I see people cooperating. I want to know why. I want to know what it is that—is it that they're violating the models, that the models need to be tweaked?" He said, "This is a very interesting and important question but you're not going to solve it—especially not with your math background—you are not going to solve it in time to write a dissertation. Find something else. Come back to that later if you're still interested."
I had been working on this water project and I ended up writing a dissertation on the Colorado River Compact which, at the time, was not terribly interesting. That never got published. Now, of course, it's the hottest thing going is why was the Colorado River Compact so bad? Well, it was based on bad data. It was based on data on stream flows that were way, way above the long-term average for the Colorado Basin streamflow. But anyway, I finished, and I went on the job market in the third year, which was practically unheard of, but by this time Brian was graduating and we wanted to go on the market together. I went on the market in the third year and after being in the history market for two years and getting one job offer I had so many interviews at the American Economic Association meetings I couldn't do them all. And then I had flyouts all over the country. This was in the winter of 1978 which was one of the all-time great snowfall winters of all time. I got stranded in Columbus for a week. Then I went to Northwestern. I got out of Chicago ahead of the storm. I went to Boston and got stranded in Boston for a week. And while I was in Boston I got job offers from Northwestern and Swarthmore and I had to decide. I'd always thought I'd end up at a small liberal arts college if I possibly could but the offer from Northwestern was just—I just decided, you know, if I go to Swarthmore I'll never be able to build a research reputation because there won't be enough time because the number of courses you have to teach and the expectations for student engagement were so high that I wouldn't be able to build the research agenda. But if I went to Northwestern and I paid attention to teaching and if I found out that I couldn't cut the research at the level of Northwestern I could always go back to a small liberal arts college. I reasoned I could go one direction and I couldn't go the other, so I went to Northwestern and it was another one of those great decisions.
So, actually I'm an accidental historian, too, because when I went to Smith I was going to be a music major. I wanted to be a singer but then I got a D in music theory, so I had to find another major and I kind of dithered and dathered, and thought about what I'd want to take and was fascinated with medieval history, just absolutely fascinated with medieval history so I decided to major in history. But then I got really, really interested in the plague and I ended up writing an undergraduate thesis on the plague of 1348 and its economic and social implications based on a Florentine journal of the plague. Well, my advisor thought that if you were an economic historian, you were a Marxist. What? I guess that was the thing in history. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The economic historians I know almost all of them are interested in the interplay between market development and institutional development and historical development. She didn't like what I was doing but I was so fascinated with it I paid no attention to her. [laugh] So I ended up actually not graduating with honors because she didn't like my thesis. I think there's a theme here. I don't pay a lot of attention to what other people think.
ZIERLER: Betsy, if I can, I want to go back to—so the original idea was that you were coming to Caltech not to be a graduate student but simply to be a teaching assistant?
HOFFMAN: From my perspective I was coming to Caltech to improve my modeling skills and my statistical skills so that I could go back into history and do the kind of research that I wanted to do in history. I wanted to do data analysis. I wanted to do cliometrics. And I figured that this was an opportunity to learn more—I'd only had principles of economics and one course from Dick Easterlin when I was at Penn. That was it. That was all the economics I'd had. In fact, I got working with Dick Easterlin, so I'll tell that story. I'm married to my first husband who was an Amherst graduate. I met him my freshman year at Smith and Amherst. He went to Penn, got a PhD in economics. He actually died about five years ago, but he was an economist. And he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania and Dick Easterlin was his advisor and he was writing a dissertation on the demographic transition in France. He was working with this group of students, each of whom had a different country. And one day Dick said, "I need somebody who reads Italian because the Italian data is the best data." My husband said, "My wife reads Italian, but she doesn't know any economics." And Dick said, "I can teach her all the economics she needs. I just can't teach her to read Italian." [laugh] So I'm working in the rare book room at the University of Pennsylvania library poring over this journal I was studying, and Bill comes in and says, "You want a job?" Now, you have to understand, we had nothing. We had no money. We were living on his TA position. I'd scraped together enough money for my tuition but that was pretty much it. And I said, "No, I'm not interested in a job. I'm writing this undergraduate thesis." And he said, "Well, Dick Easterlin really wants you to come work with us." And he gives me this story, "We need somebody who reads Italian." I said, "Okay. I'll come talk to Dick." And I was so interested in what they were doing that I joined this team. I was an undergraduate at the time. This was between my junior and senior years in college. That summer I joined the research team studying the Italian data. I would take the train to the New York Public Library. I would take the train to D.C. to the Library of Congress collecting data and I think the Philadelphia Physicians Library also had some data. I was doing historical stuff. I was doing the archival research data and data collection and I loved it. Working with this group of students under his direction was one of the great research experiences of my career.
ZIERLER: Why so? Why was it so great?
HOFFMAN: What he taught me was how to work on a team. It's something I still use with my graduate students today. If you are my graduate student you meet with me once a week and you report on your progress once a week and we talk about what you've done. That's what I learned from Dick is you don't let your students just wander off by themselves in the wilderness as it were. You work with them. And if you have a group of people working on the same thing you bring them all together. And so every team I've ever worked on I sort of model it on this team I worked along with Dick Easterlin. And I think that's probably why, given all the other things I've done, all the administrative work I've done, I've put together a pretty decent research record with a fairly high level of citations. It's not Colin Camerer's research record but it's certainly a research record that rivals most scholars today. And I've been able to do that because of I think the discipline that Dick taught me.
ZIERLER: Betsy, how well established did the HSS division feel to you when you arrived on campus?
HOFFMAN: [laugh] Not at all established I would say. There are so many stories about how other faculty in the institute hated us, so I'll give you an example. Nancy Childs—I don't know whether you know who Nancy Childs was?
There is one place where I probably should elaborate a bit. You asked me if HHS was organized or disorganized in managing the Ph.D. program in the early days. I said disorganized, laughed, and moved on to how we were disliked by the hard science types. I probably should have elaborated that Lance Davis, who was director of graduate studies, tried to put some structure on the program with pronouncements seemingly out of the blue about rules he expected us to follow. Since I was the student who already had a Ph.D. and Lance's T.A., the other students would come to me asking do you think we really have to do this? I would go talk with Lance about perhaps making new rules for the next entering class, but not springing them on the current students out of the blue. I've been wracking my brain to try to remember anything specific. One had something to do with having one, maybe two "concentrations" before graduating. At that point, I do not think there were any formal concentrations, other than perhaps economics or political science, but even those distinctions were blurry at the time. We all had to study both subjects and take both qualifying exams, as well as econometrics.
Another vignette is the failed attempt to add macro to the core. Students asked to have macro available. Not wanting to hire a macro economist, Lance brought in a macro theorist from (I think) UC Irvine. He taught one quarter of macro, which the students hated. I believe macro has never been taught at the graduate level since.
If I think of anything else, I will let you know. It was kind of the wild west of graduate programs at the time. I loved it! Most of us loved it! Now, back to Nancy Childs. She ended up leaving with a master's degree and ended up getting a PhD in accounting, I believe—accounting or marketing. And she was dean of the business school at St. Joseph's, I believe, for quite a long time. She's retired now. And her husband is a chemist. Her husband graduated from—I believe it was USC with a PhD in chemistry when she was in her second year at Caltech. And he was offered a postdoc at Caltech until Harry Gray heard the reason that he wanted to be at Caltech was because his wife was a graduate student in HHS and he withdrew the offer.
HOFFMAN: We were hated. I remember the first test I took in math 108 the professor was just horrible to me. He treated me like I was some kind of bug or something. I failed the first test and instead of helping me he insulted me and said, "You shouldn't be here." And I started crying and he said, "Ugh, women. They always cry." And I said, "This is my thirtieth birthday and I've never failed a test in my entire life." He said, "Oh, God! She's turning thirty. Oh, man." But I think a lot of it was just because we were so hated. I think Tom may have helped. He probably also had a different teacher.
ZIERLER: This is Tom Palfrey you're talking about?
HOFFMAN: Tom Palfrey. He sailed through math 108. He'll probably tell you he worked very hard. I'm sure he did, but to the rest of us it seemed like he was just on another planet in math 108. Because, of course, math 108 at that time was the weed-out course for math majors at Caltech, which tells you something about how hard it was.
ZIERLER: Betsy, was your background in economic history, was that useful as you went in economics proper?
HOFFMAN: Extremely. I taught economic history for years. Really, until I became an administrator, I was still teaching economic history and still going to cliometrics and EHA meetings. I still considered myself an economics historian. In fact, I've probably jointly authored maybe five or six papers in economic history, one with Joel Mokyr and two with Ann Carlos. I visited a number of campuses to give talks on joint papers I'd written on economic history so really until I became an administrator, I had my feet in both camps. And I can tell you, when the pandemic started I went back and started lecturing on the history of pandemics because that had been really my specialty when I started in history, and I ended up writing a paper and publishing a paper in 2021 on the history of pandemics. So, yeah, I think it's been very useful. And I think there's a way of thinking that economic historians have that—that's always been a part of the way I think. I think in terms of formal models but not the way economic theorists think in terms of formal models, the way economic historians think in terms of formal models.
Going back to the first year at Caltech—these memories are coming back to me as it were—I fell in love with economics that year. I realized that my brain organizes the world in formal models and that is so non-historian. I'm talking to a historian, so . . . [laugh]
HOFFMAN: When you think about the Myers-Briggs, I'm an N, INTJ, I'm an N. You're probably an S. You like to collect information and make sense of it. I like to start with a formal model and try to understand and then collect data. I'm trying to explain it. But I discovered this about myself the first year I was at Caltech, and I realized I never thought the way my history professors thought. I never thought the way my history colleagues thought. But suddenly I thought it's exactly—even though I don't have the math background that somebody like Tom Palfrey does I thought in the same worldview. My guess is there is no economist who's not an N.
ZIERLER: Did you develop your thesis you think specifically based on your expertise in economic history?
HOFFMAN: Which one?
ZIERLER: At Caltech.
HOFFMAN: Definitely. It was sort of a combination of a general equilibrium model and an economic history paper. And there was a chapter on the history of the Colorado Compact. There was a chapter on how in a perfect world you would price water. So there were economic history aspects to the thesis and then there were purely economics aspects to the thesis.
ZIERLER: Betsy, I want to move on now. Before you moved into administration, when you were strictly part of the faculty teaching as a professor, what did you enjoy about Northwestern, Purdue, Wyoming, Arizona? What sticks out in your memory as the best aspects of each of those institutions?
HOFFMAN: I was hired by Northwestern into the economic history group so Joel Mokyr, John Hughes who died shortly after I came—I'm trying to think who else. But they were the two leaders of the economic history group. And I taught economic history. I taught the equivalent of intermediate theory, and I taught economic history. And I actually designed a course on economic demography which my students used to dub rats, plagues and—what did they call it? Oh, sex and violence in history. [laugh] I would start with the earliest data we have from skeletons about the life expectancy at birth, what kind of diseases people had, and this is pre-DNA.
I actually wrote a second paper where I went back and looked at the data, the very recent DNA data from the Bronze Age. And what's happening is they're retelling the story of the Bronze Age collapse as the plague. Archeologists are pretty sure that the Bronze Age collapse wasn't some vague sea people who came and destroyed the Minoan civilization, it was the plague. Because now we know that there was a plague that probably came with the Yamnaya people of India and swept across Europe. And they're actually even rewriting now the history of Stonehenge. They think that Stonehenge now was built because the plague was coming and people were trying to ward off the plague, kind of like the Easter Island people, by building these stone circles that somehow had magic powers and they were going to protect from the disease plague and the plague of warriors on horseback who were coming from the east. The DNA evidence is totally rewriting the history of the late Bronze Age. It's so interesting to see this period that I'd studied much, much, much earlier completely retold because we now know of DNA evidence that they had that the plague was rampant.
I taught those. And I loved Northwestern. The problem became that there was a fight between the theorists and the applied people and the theorists won and basically made life miserable for the applied people. Now, Joel Mokyr was a full professor by then, John Hughes was dead, and I was an assistant professor looking at, am I going to get tenure in this environment and thinking, ugh, I don't know. When Purdue came calling, when Purdue recruited us I said, this is better. I'm going to go there. ‘Cause they reset my tenure clock. Then I got tenure two years later anyway, but they reset my tenure clock. But I had nothing published after three years. I had a bunch of stuff under review. But when I came in for my third year review the chair said to me, "Why are you doing this experimental stuff?" Oh, I should probably tell you how I went from economic history to experimental.
HOFFMAN: Maybe I should back that up a bit.
HOFFMAN: I was trying to decide what courses to take for my last quarter, the last quarter of taking courses, the third quarter of my second year. And again, John Ferejohn says to me, "You've got to take Charlie Plott's course. You can't graduate from Caltech without taking Charlie Plott's course." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "This is going to be the next big thing and he's the guy who's going to make it the next big thing." Of course, it ended up being Vernon who really made it the next big thing but I think Charlie got robbed. Anyway, so I took it, and it was so much fun! Two of the projects I worked on that quarter ended up being two of my first papers and one of them is in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, one of only two papers I have in the top five journals. [laugh] And the other was published in Public Choice, I believe. When I went to Caltech, I was still working in economic history actually. I worked on a paper with Joel Mokyr, I worked on a paper with Ann Carlos while I was at Northwestern, both of which are published. But actually, it was Matt Spitzer who graduated a year after we did because he got his law degree—do you know Matt Spitzer?
ZIERLER: Um-hm, yes.
HOFFMAN: Okay. He stayed an extra year to finish his law degree and his PhD in economics but then he joined us at Northwestern in the law school which, of course, is on a different campus, the next year. He started in the fall of '79. I started in the fall of '78. And he calls me up one day and says, "Let's work on Coase." And I said, "Well, that sounds like fun." That's how the whole set of Coase papers got started. I designed the experiments. He put it all in the legal context. We ran the experiments together. We're still working together. Even though he's retired we're still working together. And one of the great research partnerships in my career was with Matt Spitzer. We actually ended up leaving at the same time. He went back to USC and I went to Purdue at the same time. But we continued to work across the country. Typically, I would go out there and we'd spend a week or two doing nothing but research because again I was able to carve out time, particularly in the summer or in between semesters, and just go and spend time working with Matt. And then I'd come back and run the experiments at Purdue. I'd go and we'd design the experiments and then I'd come back and run them at Purdue and then we could get together and write up the paper. And that continued when I went to Wyoming, but we started at Northwestern. I'm getting comments from the other room. [laugh] So what I like about Northwestern, to me it was like being a postdoc.
Who were some of the assistant professors with me? Let's see. Kip Viscusi and—won the Nobel Prize recently—Milgram. Milgram and I were assistant professors at the same time. The seminars were just incredible, and so were the seminars at the University of Chicago. I used to go to the economic history seminars and also I used to go to Schultz's seminars at the University of Chicago. Brian was working at the University of Chicago so I would take the EL down to the University of Chicago, we'd go out to dinner together and then we'd go to the workshop together. He would drive down and then we'd drive back. And actually for a year I ran the economic history seminar at Northwestern which is one of the great economic history seminars in this country. It's still today the economic history seminar to present to. Well, I was the person who organized that seminar for an entire year, issued the invitations to people, hosted people when they came, so intellectually it was an incredible place to be, even more so than Caltech I think because it was established. There was a vibe there that was so—I don't know. Working with Matt was fantastic! And my students were incredible. It's the best group of students I've ever had. And I could tell who was going to get an A and who was going to get a C when I walked in the first day of class. The A students would all sit in the front row and the athletes would all sit in the back.
HOFFMAN: For some reason, I attracted all the athletes who were smart, but they worked just hard enough to get a C and no harder except the captain of the tennis team kept getting B minuses. [laugh] He couldn't help himself. He was just a little bit better than the rest of the athletes. And one poor guy, the last year I was there I taught a brand new course that was really pretty hard. And a bunch of students who had taken every other course I'd taught took that course and one of them was this poor guy who shouldn't have been there. And I'm grading his final exam and I'm realizing, this is not even a C. I actually called up the registrar and said, "Does this guy need a C in my course to graduate?" She said, "Well, he needs all C's to graduate this semester," so I gave him a C because he was graduating the next day or a couple days later. He was from this huge Catholic family. Everybody had been invited to his graduation party and he'd already been accepted at Loyola Law School, which tells you something about Loyola Law School. It's one of the few times in my life I've given away a grade, but I knew he'd worked hard. He just didn't quite have it. But most of my students were just—I would kill to have those students again. They were so serious.
One of the things I did was I ran the econ honors program. Every once in a while, one of those students will come up to me and say, "I was in the economics honors program at Northwestern, and you taught me how to do research." And I just say, "Thank you. Thank you." Because I don't typically remember them, but one I do remember is Nancy Lutz who is, of course, the NSF program director in economics who was an undergraduate student at Northwestern when I was teaching there. I really loved being there. I loved the house we had. I loved Evanston. I loved the lake. I ran every morning along the lake, which I miss. I still dream about running, something I can't do anymore. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Betsy, tell me about your decision to move to Purdue.
HOFFMAN: They offered the two of us positions in the same institution and frankly I worried that I wasn't going to get tenure at Northwestern. I guess I sort of left off that story. I'd moved on to something else. The chair of the department, I won't mention any names, said to me, "You know, we hired you to do economic history." I said, "Yeah, I know, and I am doing some economic history and I'm teaching economic history." He said, "Yeah. Why are you doing all this experimental stuff?" I said, "It's the next great thing." He said, "No, you're not going to get famous fast enough." That's a quote. He said, "Go back to doing economic history. You're not going to get famous fast enough if you continue to do experimental economics." Well, that was fighting words to me. I mean, you don't tell me what to do. I am not somebody who has ever taken well to being told what to do. [laugh]
Actually, the day after that meeting with the chair we had been invited—Paul Thomas had recruited us. He was at Purdue at the time. He ended up not getting tenure at Purdue because he didn't finish his degree. That is another whole other story. Of course, he became the chief economist at Intel and probably made more money than the rest of us put together. [laugh] I think he was the smartest person I knew except perhaps Tom Palfrey at Caltech. He and Roger just didn't see eye to eye, and he ended up not finishing at Caltech, but he finished at Washington University St. Louis, so he did okay. But anyway, he recruited us to come down and I was not interested in going until I'd had this meeting with the chair. We went down. They offered us both jobs, raises. They reset my tenure clock. It was one of those great decisions. It was one of the many unexpected decisions I've made in my career that turned out to be great decisions. And it was a wonderful place to be. First of all, it was a business school that really believed that economics was the center of what they were doing, which is very unusual in a business school. All the graduate students were required to take a calculus-based microeconomics class. That became the basis of the textbook that Brian and I ended up writing was teaching that class at Purdue.
It was a very close-knit group, much more so than at Northwestern. At Northwestern the economic historians were close-knit but the department itself was not close-knit. But at Purdue the economists were very, very close-knit. We partied together. We ate lunch together. And part of it may have been that the way that the Krannert School was arranged was your office was not next to somebody in your department. The offices were in these little side halls. There would be four offices in a side hall and there would be somebody from each department in that little side group. I got to know people in marketing and operations and MIS. But I think that maybe forced the economists to band together for other reasons, but we just became a very close-knit group.
And of course, there's nothing else to do in Lafayette, Indiana, in contrast to the Chicago area where there's so much to do, that you're constantly have to weigh your time. In Lafayette, Indiana, there's nothing else to do so I got tons and tons of work done. I went there having published nothing but the next year, six articles and my history dissertation were accepted for publication so they put me up for tenure. And after they put me up for tenure and had gone through all the paperwork and voted me out of the college, the associate dean pulled me aside and said, "You know, you might not get it because it's your second year in a six-year term and the campus doesn't like to give people early tenure." And I said, "Why did you do this to me?" I said, "I didn't ask to be put up for tenure. I don't want to be turned down for tenure." I said, "Why did you do this to me?" And he said, "I was afraid you'd think that. That's why I didn't tell you until after it was too late." [laugh] But I did get through for some reason and so there I was tenured in my third year at Purdue. And suddenly I really wanted to catch up with my cohorts. I'm six years older than everybody else I graduated with because I'd gone through another PhD and had the start at least of a career before going into economics. Now you want to know why I went to—
HOFFMAN: Wyoming. Well, that was really because Brian got so sick.
ZIERLER: Betsy, my main question there is how was your research affected by going to Wyoming?
HOFFMAN: Not at all. Matthew was already and USC and Don Coursey was at Wyoming and I just picked up where I'd left off and Matt and I continued. We added Don to the group. A couple of my Coase papers are also jointly with Don. And then I got working with the Wyoming group on valuing environmental goods, so I have a strain of research on valuing environmental goods. And I just graduated a student who—it wasn't that she valued environmental goods but she used very similar research techniques to what we used to value environmental goods. There's a long string of things that work out together. But then, of course, going to Arizona, that was wonderful. That was a wonderful experience.
ZIERLER: Did you always understand Wyoming to be a short-term solution?
HOFFMAN: Yes and no. At first yes, and then when I was offered the position—well, I was offered a full professor with tenure position and we bought this ranch and Brian was getting well and I thought, well, maybe I'll just stay here for the rest of my career. I loved it. I loved the ranch. I enjoyed my colleagues. I loved the place and I was getting a lot of work done. The current chair of the department at Wyoming was actually a student in my experimental class. I taught a graduate seminar in experimental economics and Jason was one of the students in that class. Yeah, I really liked Wyoming.
ZIERLER: How then did the opportunity at Arizona come about?
HOFFMAN: Well, that's what I'd said before, that I'd been to Arizona as a visitor in the economic science laboratory. What had happened was Vernon had an asthma attack and he was supposed to host the dean's advisory council in the laboratory that day. And he calls me up at seven o'clock in the morning and says, "Betsy, I can't talk. Will you do the honors? Will you lead the dean's advisory council?" So I put on the only suit I owned. Literally the only suit I owned, I put it on and went and I held forth for the day. And the dean was there and he liked what he saw and he decided, I want her on my administrative team, and that's how I ended up being recruited to Arizona.
ZIERLER: You knew that there would be administrative responsibilities? This would be a new turning point in your career?
HOFFMAN: Oh, no. Oh, no. I did not know why he had told David Conn that he could recruit me because before he had told David that he couldn't recruit me. Well, the economics department wanted to recruit me, and the dean said no, the economic science laboratory visitors are off limits for recruitment. And so I went back to Wyoming. Wyoming had a brand-new dean who came from the Navy. He didn't come from academia, he came from the Navy, and he did things like his first day on the job he said faculty will be in their offices at 0800 hours and people went, huh? [laugh] We didn't pay any attention to him but that was the kind of approach he took. And so I came back from a year at Arizona to discover that he'd raised the salaries of all the other full professors by ten-thousand dollars and left mine the same. I was making forty-thousand dollars as a full professor when the going rate for full professors was in the sixty thousands. It's still low by today's standards, but that was the going rate for full professors, and I was making forty. He raised the salaries of the other full professors but not mine. I went and talked to him, and I said, "Why?" He said, "You weren't here." I said, "I had six articles and a book published with a Wyoming byline on them last year. What more do you want?"
ZIERLER: Ouch. [laugh]
HOFFMAN: Yeah, ouch. And he said, "I want you not to be a troublemaker." I said, "That's a tough one for me." And he threw me out of the office. And the next day Dave Conn called, and the rest is history. Actually, the dean didn't last very long either. But I'd had enough at that point. And Brian really encouraged me because I was so mad at the dean. It wasn't that I expected to make a lot of money but I did not expect to be treated like that, especially after I'd had six articles and a book published with the Wyoming byline the year before. [laugh] It was one of my most productive years.
But I loved the mountains. We owned that house for sixteen years, actually. We would go back every summer and we would look forward to going back there. Even when I was an administrator I would take a month off every summer, and we'd go back to Wyoming. It was something I really, really looked forward to. We ended up selling it after we moved to Colorado. We thought we would get it renovated. It was built in 1972 and it was decorated in the hottest styles in 1972 so it had orange shag carpeting and orange fixtures in the kitchen and mirrors on the walls. It was just a wild place. But what happened was it was so hard to get to I got snowed in in September and so we ended up selling it and buying a place, which I'm sitting on our porch in Colorado right now which we're about to sell it, but we owned that since 2003 so it's almost twenty years we've had that house. I love the mountains, but it was the right thing to do. Going to Arizona was the right thing to do at that time.
ZIERLER: Now, was it a dual appointment in economics and law at Arizona?
HOFFMAN: Yes. And the dean of the law school, Tom Sullivan, was very interested in moving the law school more in the direction of law and economics. I was hired as a full professor in economics, but Tom and I got to know each other, and he made me a courtesy appointment in law ‘cause he wanted somebody who could bridge the gap between law and economics just to be around, kind of like Lance Davis's comment that he wanted interesting students.
ZIERLER: Now, was that indicative of your current work at that time? Were you sort of moving more into legally oriented areas?
HOFFMAN: I was. I actually thought about going to law school at that point. Before I knew that I'd been hired to be on the dean's administrative team more than to be a faculty member I thought I might go to law school but, of course, once I became an administrator that was off the table.
ZIERLER: Tell me about that. Tell me about becoming part of the dean's administrative team. This was a surprise to you?
HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. Brian and I say that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. I always have a plan, but the fact that I've been willing to change my plan when something better comes along is indicative of my career and it is indicative of my not being willing to compromise when people tell me you should do something this way, and I say, no, I'm not going to do it that way. I'm going to go do something else. And I've always been able to make that switch. So, I accepted the offer from Arizona and that first year is when we started working on the ultimatum work which ended up being my most cited set of papers. And that was a similar kind of serendipity. Vernon came by my office one day and said, "You remember that work you did with Matt Spitzer?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Where you induced a feeling that people had a property right by making them win a game?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I bet we could apply that to the ultimatum game." And that was that. That was the beginning of that research project, so figuring out how we would adapt. And that research came about because Charlie Plott threatened to write a nasty comment to The Journal of Law and Economics that our original paper had not really tested the Coase theorem because we got too many equal splits. I called off the dogs for a while and I said, "Charlie, give Matt and me a chance to take care of this." We designed the Entitlements, Rights, and Fairness paper—we got together one day. We said, okay, why is that our subjects tended to equal split when economic theory says they shouldn't? And we thought, well, we used a coin flip to decide who got to have the right to pollute essentially, who was with the controller. The way we started thinking was at this particular moment in time you had two very wealthy people, you had David Rockefeller and you had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. David Rockefeller had inherited his money, so it's like a coin flip. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you could say it was a coin flip that he was seven feet tall and incredibly coordinated but people didn't think of him that way. They thought of him as working really hard at basketball. But he was maybe not quite as wealthy as David Rockefeller but in the same stratosphere of wealth as David Rockefeller, but nobody said Kareem didn't deserve it. And David Rockefeller spent his life trying to prove to the world that he deserved to have that much money and ended up giving away everything when he died.
So, we said, how can you induce people behaving, thinking that they have the right to be different like Kareem when with a coin flip they think you don't have the right. We started thinking about the way the experiments proceeded in the original Coase experiments. They flipped the coin, and somebody would be decided on the controller and the person who lost would say, he just won the coin flip and the other person would try weakly to argue that they deserved it and give in, and they'd end up equal splitting. We said, how do we get people to start by saying I have the right? So we thought, well, what if they won it? What if they had to work really hard? But it had to be a game that was simple enough that it could be played right away but that people didn't know well enough to know. Tic-tac-toe, for example, most Americans know how to win at tic-tac-toe by where you start, or at least most smart Americans, but there's a game called Nim that's very simple. You mark off hashmarks on a page and if you know how to play you can always win but nobody knows how to play. I've tried this on my students for years and years and years and nobody knows how to play this. They'll puzzle it. I'll even give them hints like backward induction. They don't get it. I had one student who got it. Actually, it was a football player last fall who got it. This kid was really smart. And I think it's the only student I ever had who actually figured out Nim, figured it out himself. But it's a pretty simple game, so that's what we did. We said we had to win the game of Nim and then we told the two of them that the one who'd won had earned the right and that switched it, so you went from equal splitting to going to the core of the game just by that very simple change. And that was the basis of my top five cited papers. All are built on that particular—either the original Coase paper, the Entitlements, Rights, and Fairness paper, and the ultimatum and dictator papers, all based on that very simple idea. And it's sort of become the standard for how you induce not the game of Nim but you have to win something hard and then be reminded and have everybody be reminded that the person who's won has earned the right. And it's that combination that sort of seals the deal that people then actually behave as though they do have the right. Otherwise, most American students certainly, and even around the world, people hate unfairness. That's one of the great insights of the ultimatum literature is that people hate unfairness. And of course, that then became the basis of my work on cooperation.
I sort of feel like this whole set of research that I've done ultimately taught me a huge amount about cooperation, that cooperation is face-to-face communication, a shared understanding, a hate for unfairness, all part of why people cooperate and why our species has actually been so successful. In fact, there's recent research on dogs and people and the hypothesis is that dogs chose people and that they cooperated with one another to hunt and the reason homo sapiens were so successful was because they knew how to cooperate with one another, as well.
ZIERLER: It sounds good to me! Betsy, once you got into administration and you recognized that you liked it and that you were good at it, did that make you realize that Arizona would not be a long-term proposition for you?
HOFFMAN: No. No, it didn't. It was really the provost's behavior. He had actually responded when other people had gotten outside offers and the fact that he didn't respond when I got an outside offer was very similar to my response to the chair of the department at Northwestern. It was like if you're going to treat me like that I'm going to go. And the fact that the provost that I was working for at Iowa State was willing to put in my contract that I could spend time at Arizona doing my research. I was not ready to give up my research and I was not ready to give up my work with Vernon but I was ready to leave Arizona because the administration was ridiculous and it still is.
ZIERLER: Was there anybody there who was a champion for you, that tried to get you to stay?
HOFFMAN: Vernon pretty much. Vernon and Mark Isaac were probably the two who worked hardest to get me to stay but, as I said, it wasn't until the last day that I had to respond to Northwestern that the provost called me in and agreed to match my offer from Iowa State.
ZIERLER: Were you happy about the offer from Iowa State? Was that a good opportunity for you at that point?
HOFFMAN: Oh, it was a great opportunity. It was a wonderful opportunity. I wouldn't have come back as provost if I hadn't loved the time I spent at Iowa State and the friendships I made. And even though it's in the middle of Iowa, Ames is a very pretty town and it's a very cohesive town. Given that I'm sort of housebound now I'm happy to be here.
ZIERLER: What was the game plan for you at Iowa? What did you have to do?
HOFFMAN: What did the provost want me to do?
HOFFMAN: Hmm, I'm thinking. I'm not sure he had a plan. Well, it was he was very focused on making sure that Iowa State stayed in the AAU. Since we left last year under threat that we probably would be kicked out—we really were at the bottom of the AAU and last year we were still at the bottom of the AAU. I think we were not at the total, total bottom. Nebraska was below us and then they left, and Clark was below us and they left. And one by one the institutions below us left. I think Kansas was below us. Kansas is a little dicey in the AAU, too. He wanted to shore up our AAU status so that was one of the things I worked very hard on first as dean and then as provost was to reward high intensity research departments and sort of nudge other departments to either get on the bandwagon or think about dropping their PhD programs. The history department is still thinking about dropping its PhD program which it should've done twenty-five years ago.
ZIERLER: How much teaching and research were you able to do at Iowa State?
HOFFMAN: I taught principles of economics one semester. I actually taught the introductory writing course one semester and that was because I was really angry that the English faculty, all of whom, of course, had taught writing somewhere before becoming English faculty members, professed to not know how to teach writing. They were hiring all these graduate students who couldn't get jobs anywhere because there were too many English professors just as there are too many history professors. They were just slave labor as far as I was concerned. And the faculty refused to teach writing. It was, like, come on! I can teach writing. And they said, yeah, you teach writing. Well, I did. It was really fun. I'm actually a good writing teacher. I still teach writing in my economics classes. I insist that students write. I never give multiple choice tests, for example. Actually, since I started teaching online all the time and testing online it's really awful. I don't even give tests anymore. I give weekly writing assignments and I grade them all myself, so I still teach writing. I did that. And I published some of my very best work when I was here as dean. I published the original ultimatum paper, the ultimatum paper with hundred-dollar payouts.
ZIERLER: Why do you think the original ultimatum paper was so significant? Why did it gain such traction?
HOFFMAN: Because it was the first time that we'd been able to show that you could get people to move in the direction of the Nash equilibrium by instilling a view that they had earned the right to be the first mover. When the position of first mover is decided by a coin flip, which is how all the previous ultimatum work had been done, they don't take advantage of their first mover status. It has a lot to do with this hatred of unfairness. But if you take advantage of your first mover status then you're an unfair person. We were not able to get people to go to the smallest unit of account but we were able to move people very significantly in that direction. And for both the first mover and the second mover to understand the position—unlike in the Coase experiments where we had actual communication there was no communication. You didn't know who you were playing against so you had to coordinate on this shift towards the Nash equilibrium. And even with a hundred dollars people said, well, okay, that's only ten dollars. It won't happen if you pay people more. It was even worse.
With a hundred dollars with a coin flip the lure of fifty was even stronger than the lure of five, so the distribution around 50/50 with the coin flip experiments was very tight—or the distribution, I'm sorry, 50/50, 40/60 was pretty much it with the coin flip experiments. And the way we think about it now is that if you know that there are people who hate unfairness, if you're an economic maximizer, even if you would like to offer the smallest unit of a count and you know it'll be rejected so that changes your maximization strategy. But if you know that 50/50 will always be accepted then the opportunity cost of being wrong increases with the amount to be divided. When you go from ten dollars to a hundred dollars the opportunity cost of being wrong was very high and so there's an even stronger pull to offer 50/50 because fifty dollars is a hell of a lot better than zero. Okay, so maybe you should get ninety and the other person should get ten but if you know that the other person is very likely to reject ten, as we found they do, and you know that fifty will be accepted it becomes a much stronger pull.
I actually had a graduate student who graduated in 2020 write a dissertation on the best strategy in the ultimatum game. He ran a bunch of ultimatum games with a strategy method. Rather than play them each person was asked, what is the minimum that you would accept if you're the second mover under various situations? And then he did a Monte Carlo simulation. He put in all the data. He did a Monte Carlo simulation and was able to show that under almost every configuration offering half is a maximizing strategy.
HOFFMAN: Basically, we changed the whole literature, the whole way that people study the ultimatum game changed as a result of that one paper. Anybody who's written about the ultimatum game since then has to cite our paper and that's why the citation count is so high on that paper. Now, again, if you compare me to Colin Camerer it looks like chicken feed but if you compare me to the average experimental economist it's pretty high. Even Rachel Crosen's individual papers don't get that—with one exception—don't get that high a citation rate. She's just written twice as many as I have. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Betsy, when the prospect came up to return to Chicago for the University of Illinois did your experiences at Northwestern, did that make that decision easier for you?
HOFFMAN: Yes, definitely, because I knew people. I knew Chicago. I knew I liked Chicago. I knew it was a great place to live. We were going to live in a very different place. We lived in Little Italy which was quite different. But yeah, definitely.
ZIERLER: Tell me about starting up there. What were your responsibilities?
HOFFMAN: Well, again, I was explicitly hired to put the University of Chicago in the position to compete to be a member of the AAU. That was the goal of the chancellor who hired me, and that's what he asked me to do. It was very familiar. It was a role I'd taken on at Iowa State and I knew exactly what to do. And the research profile at Illinois Chicago has improved so much since then. I really started the process which I did not get to finish. He got fired because the NIH shut down their research. At the turn of the 21st century there were a lot of medical schools which had not yet taken seriously the Belmont Report, had not taken seriously the need for a robust IRB program and Illinois Chicago was one of them. What happened was that there were a couple of rogue professors who were doing research without an IRB and the vice-chancellor for research who did not report to me was paying no attention to their complaints, so they went to the NIH and the NIH came and shut down all the research. It was only because she did not report to me that I didn't get fired. When the president of the system fired the chancellor he didn't fire me because I didn't know what had happened. The NIH shut down all of our research except a few research projects in the medical school which had been the culprit but because they were doing lifesaving work they were allowed to continue, whereas all the economists and marketing professors and psychologists, their work was all shut down.
I had to go through, and I had to hire people—first of all I had to hire a new vice-chancellor for research. I had to increase the budget, I had to hire more people in the IRB, and every IRB had to be re-reviewed before people could start. That year was a tough year but I learned a lot about the management of research that year which I was able to put to good work at Colorado because Colorado Medical School was having the same problems when I took over.
ZIERLER: Once again, you're called for a similar task.
HOFFMAN: Yes, exactly.
ZIERLER: What were those problems you mentioned at Colorado?
HOFFMAN: Well, they had not been completely shut down, but they were on warning by the NIH that they needed to get their act together because at that point they were not merged with another campus, they were standalone. They were not about to take down the social scientists the way that they had the University of Illinois at Chicago.
ZIERLER: What was it like stepping into the role at Colorado?
HOFFMAN: I was really ready for it at that point. I knew what I needed to do. I was good at fundraising. I'd raised a lot of money at Iowa State even though my job of University of Illinois at Chicago was not a fundraising job. I knew what I had to do. I actually got my first big gift in October of that fall. I got a 250-million-dollar gift to start a system-wide institute for cognitive disabilities which is still going on. It's one of the crown jewels of the University of Colorado. Another project I took on right away was the medical campus was in the process of moving from the downtown Denver campus where it had always been but was space constrained to a brand-new campus in Aurora, Colorado, that used to be Fitzsimons Army Medical Base. And when I started Fitzsimons Army Medical Base was an alfalfa field with the old 1941 hospital in the middle, which is where Eisenhower recovered from his heart attack, and the beginnings of an outpatient care center being built. By the time I left we were ready to vacate the old campus. We'd raised money for the academic buildings. We had a plan for the research buildings. And today it is one of the best medical campuses in this country. It is. That was another thing that I was hired to do which is to oversee this move of the health sciences campus to the new Fitzsimons campus.
That was one of the things I ran afoul of the governor with. He hated this. He saw it as a liberal boondoggle and he was going out of his way to try to keep the university from moving to this new campus to the tune of—when the outpatient care center was ready to open that following Christmas, I guess, he refused to come. Finally, the president of the University of Northern Colorado, who was my successor as president of the University of Colorado, told him he had to come and he did. He tried to accuse me of not being capable of doing this. I'm trying to put together how this happened. There's something called the Urban Land Institute that can be called in to evaluate whether or not the administration of a big project like this is capable of actually overseeing the management of the project. He was so convinced that I was incapable that he called in the Urban Land Institute who came, and they studied, and they talked to me. And they went back to him and said, "No, she's doing all the right things." He was furious, just absolutely furious he had not gotten me.
Another thing that happened was he was trying—so the University of Colorado is written into the Colorado constitution which means that the governor does not get to appoint the trustees. The regents, as they're called, are elected by congressional district with two at large. And he had finagled a bill to study whether the governance of universities in the state should be changed to give the governor more power. This study report was sitting on my desk when I started and I spent much of that year marshaling the alumni, the political will to fight this and in the end the recommendation that he be able to appoint the regents and he be able to appoint a separate board for each campus failed in the legislature and he was so mad at me.
First of all, the fact that I was a woman was just galling to him that I had bested him. Second was he thought he was going to be elected president in 2008 and I was thwarting his plans to be president. When there was what turned out to be a pretty mini scandal at the University of Colorado football team he took the opportunity to smear me nationwide; go on national TV and call my leadership into question. And then, for thirty-one days in a row, Bill O'Reilly on Fox News—well, that was a separate one. I'm sorry. I'm getting ahead of myself. [laugh] So he tried to get me fired because of this football scandal and I was actually surviving that when Ward Churchill—do you know who Ward Churchill is?
ZIERLER: I remember the whole scandal. I remember reading about it.
HOFFMAN: Oh, well, okay.
ZIERLER: But please tell me.
HOFFMAN: Well, he called me up one day. I was up at our house in the mountains and he called me on my cellphone and he said, "Fire Ward Churchill tomorrow." And I said, "You know I can't do that, Governor. He's a tenured full professor." I said, "I'll be sued." "Oh, just do it and be sued." I said, "No, I won't." He said, "Then I will unleash my plan." His plan was for thirty-one days in a row Bill O'Reilly on Fox News would put up a picture of me, a picture of Ward Churchill, and spend the entire hour excoriating the University of Colorado, Ward Churchill, and me. After thirty-one days of this I resigned.
ZIERLER: Betsy, what was the basis of your refusal to fire him? Was it simply academic freedom?
HOFFMAN: Yeah, it was academic freedom.
ZIERLER: What did you think of his politics?
HOFFMAN: To me that was not what was important. I really didn't think that was important. I thought what was important was he stepped down as chair of the ethnic studies department immediately. I told him he had to step down as chair. He said, "No, I know you have to step down as chair." He understood that he was accused of plagiarism and frankly I think that that was a trumped-up charge, too. People went to his footnotes and—I don't know. I don't want to get into it. But he did step down as chair of the department right away. He understood that his position as chair of the department was not guaranteed. But he was a tenured full professor. What I could argue is he probably should never have been a tenured full professor; he didn't have a PhD. There was some question about his academic background. Okay, fine. But that had happened years before so as far as I was concerned I was not going to be in the position of being an administrator who was going to fire a tenured full professor because I didn't like his politics or because the governor didn't like his politics.
ZIERLER: Betsy, I wonder if it ever raised the question in your mind—and I'm certainly not questioning your decision—but if not his comments, is there any red line as far as you're concerned in terms of where academic freedom is not an acceptable reason to retain a professor?
HOFFMAN: I don't know. I don't know. That's a question I've asked myself and I'm not sure I can answer it. I don't like racism, but would I fire somebody for it? I don't know. I kind of doubt it.
ZIERLER: What is so sacrosanct about academic freedom in your mind? You basically gave up your presidency for this.
HOFFMAN: Yeah. And I won the Defender of the First Amendment award for it, too. [laugh] I think it's a slippery slope. I see what's happening today—what Ron DeSantis is doing, for example, is just the—now he's going in a different direction. I might've said, well, racism or white supremacy would be the red line for me if I had a red line, not "wokeness." But to me to some extent it doesn't matter. If you want to fire somebody for being a bad scholar, fine, but there's a process you go through. When he eventually was fired, I don't necessarily agree with the decision, but they actually had an academic process. They had people read his work. They had people check his footnotes. They had people who decided that he'd plagiarized. Fine. Okay. I actually think they trumped it up because the governor was on their case and I know that the president who followed me was hell bent to fire him, but at least they went through the process. That's what I said to the governor, "I'm not going to fire somebody just because I disagree with him." I had fired tenured full professors for sexual harassment, for making up data. What the Stanford president is going through, I've been through that with a faculty member where somebody made up data. That I think you do fire people for but, again, you have a process. You don't just fire somebody at will. You have a committee that—here's the evidence—that makes a recommendation and then you can fire a tenured full professor. But yeah, I've probably fired more tenured full professors than most administrators. I took on people who were lifetime sexual harassers and got them fired at the University of Colorado.
ZIERLER: Betsy, I'm sure you've asked yourself the question, would you have gotten the level of pushback and heat from the governor and Fox News had you not been a woman?
HOFFMAN: Oh, no. The fact that I was a woman made me super fair game. No question. No, I know that. I'm a trailblazer. What can I say? I'm quite sure that that had a lot to do with it.
ZIERLER: Did you ever consider digging in and not resigning? Was that in the cards at all?
HOFFMAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I did. But I didn't have the support. See, when I went after the football coach, I lost the board chair who had been one of my biggest supporters. He had supported me through one fight after another for three years. He would tell me I was the best president he'd ever worked with over and over and over again but he was best friends with the football coach. And when I was the one who insisted the football coach go on at least paid leave for a time while we investigated the case I lost him, and he's hated me ever since. I lost my board. I had had the board up to that point.
ZIERLER: What were your emotions the day you announced the resignation?
HOFFMAN: Well, the day I announced the resignation I was calm. I was incredibly calm. I had made my peace. The Friday before I cried all day. The Friday before the board chair called me up and said, "You need to resign." Did I know I did? Yeah, I knew I did but I also knew that had I not done what I did to the football coach I would still have him, if I still had him I would still have the support I needed. I cried and I cried all weekend. And by Monday morning on the 5th of March—and I'm going to start crying any minute now—I had made my peace. And the most amazing thing is I resigned at eight o'clock in the morning. The board was going to have a special meeting at ten. Of course, that was over by then. I resigned at eight o'clock in the morning and people came out of the woodwork. People were crying into their computers; how could you do this? How could you leave us? I'm thinking, where the hell were you when I was being excoriated by Fox News every single night? So when somebody says to me, oh, I know who you are; I saw you on TV, okay, I know what station you watch, I say to myself. [laugh] Not the station I like to watch. But I watched it every day for those thirty-one days.
ZIERLER: Betsy, what was cut short? What was part of your agenda at Colorado that you never had a chance to finish?
HOFFMAN: Well, I've never gotten credit for the health sciences center. It was like all my accomplishments got shoved under the rug by my successors. I had two Republican successors who basically shoved everything I did under the rug. The second one, who actually stayed for ten years, tried to undo the consolidation of the health sciences center and the downtown Denver campus and I thought he succeeded. I had a chance to talk with a friend of mine recently and she said, "Oh, no. It's so solidified that the faculty at the health sciences center don't know it ever was not part of the Denver campus. They all think of themselves as being professors at the University of Colorado at Denver Health Sciences Campus. [laugh] They don't even know that it used to be a separate campus." She said, "That's how successful you were," which was really nice to hear. But I get no credit.
It was 2003, 2004, one of two times the governor and I teamed up. I wanted to get the academic buildings at the health sciences center approved and he wanted a new prison in Southern Colorado. Neither of us had the votes so we got together and we agreed we'll put it in one bill. And they had a single subject rule. We'll figure out a way to make this a single subject and I would lobby the Democrats for his prison and he would lobby the Republicans for the academic buildings. And we had great vote counters, it passed, and on a beautiful spring day in the spring of 2004 he came to the health sciences campus and we broke ground on the new academic buildings. And there are pictures of us sitting next to each other smiling. So, yeah, one of those should've been named for me. It's never going to happen. If I hadn't buried my pride and agreed to work with the governor and lobbied for his damn prisons, which I hate, but he lobbied for my buildings which he hated, it never would've happened.
ZIERLER: Betsy, what were your options at that point? Where could you go next?
HOFFMAN: Back to the faculty. That's what I did. I tell people having tenure is the greatest freedom in the world. That's another thing that I feel strongly about, the fact that I had tenure—and it was very interesting. When I was hired, they tried to say, well, we're not sure that the economics department will have time to vote for your tenure. I said, "I will not sign a contract without tenure. I need to know that if things go sour that I can go back to the faculty as a tenured full professor. That's what I need to know." So they made it happen. I actually had tenure on the Boulder campus. I was well known to the Boulder campus faculty. They didn't have any trouble voting me in with tenure. What time is it, by the way? 4:31, he says. 4:41. Yeah, so I had tenure and to me that gives me freedom in these jobs.
ZIERLER: Betsy, why stick around? Why not just leave Colorado entirely?
HOFFMAN: And go where? I didn't have another job. I interviewed for several jobs and I interviewed for several other presidencies and I probably would've gotten one but when the president of Iowa State asked me to apply to be provost I said, "You can't name me." I said, "I have to go through the process because if you just name me I won't have credibility." So I went through the process, I came to Iowa State, I interviewed, and I was chosen. As I said, I probably could've gotten another presidency, but this was the right thing for me to do. And he and I were just such a great team. Oh, man, we were such a great team. Too bad he retired early.
ZIERLER: It must've been a relief when that offer came in.
HOFFMAN: Oh, it was. It was. I might've gotten more credit for things if I'd stayed in Colorado, but I'm glad I went to Iowa State.
ZIERLER: How long did you stay in the provost position?
HOFFMAN: Five years. And the only reason I stepped down was this new president and I just did not see eye to eye. He was not going to listen to me and he was going to figure out how to get rid of me and I told him, "Don't even bother." I said, "I will indicate that I'm going to go back to the faculty when my term is up. I'll help you find a successor and you will look good." I said, "If you fire me you will not look good because I'm too popular on this campus." So that was the arrangement we made. I said, "Just follow my contract." And he said, "What does your contract say?" I said, "It says I get a year off with pay," which was part of my contract at Colorado, too. Although, no, I didn't get a year off with pay. This time I got a year off at full pay and then tenured full professor in the economics department at the average of the highest three salaries in the department. That was my contract. And he said, "Oh, I don't know if anybody's going to go along with that." And I said, "Well, I will sue you if you do not meet my contract." He said, "Well, how about if you're a special assistant to the president?" I said, "No. I'm going to go to our house in Colorado and I'm going to do nothing except apply for jobs and think about my future for a year. And if at the end of the year I don't have another job that I want to take I will come back and be a faculty member and I will never bother you again." [laugh] And that's what I did. I did apply for some jobs but, as I said, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's in the fall of 2012, which was during that year, and I realized I couldn't be a president.
ZIERLER: Betsy, in this last series of negotiations you sound battle hardened at this point.
HOFFMAN: Oh, I am.
ZIERLER: That's perfect.
HOFFMAN: I was battle hardened. I'm battle hardened now. [laugh]
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, I just wanted to ask a few retrospective questions, then we can wrap looking to the future. What do you see as your most significant contributions in economics and economic history? What stands out in your research agenda?
HOFFMAN: Well, I think the work on both the ultimatum game and the Coase theorem is probably my best work. And that's, like, twenty-five papers. That's not one paper or twenty papers, it's a whole bunch of papers on both subjects. I know that the ultimatum literature was forever changed by the work that Vernon and Kevin and I did on the ultimatum and dictator games ‘cause I've read a lot of the ultimatum literature since then and it all refers back to our work. We're kind of the seminal work on that. And in law and economics the work that Matt and I did on the Coase theorem has become kind of the seminal work, as well. And they, of course, fit together. That's the best body of work in economics that I've ever done.
ZIERLER: How has your academic expertise influenced the kind of academic administrator you have been?
HOFFMAN: Oh, no question. I am an economist through and through as an administrator. Plus, everything I've learned about cooperation I've put to good work in managing teams of people in administration. I never disciplined somebody by email, for example. I had face to face meetings. If I have to have a hard conversation with anybody it's always face to face. I've never fired anybody over email. I've never promoted anybody over email. Everything has to be face to face and I learned that from my research.
ZIERLER: What are the main takeaways from your life in academic administration; for people who want to learn from your career, what do you think they are?
HOFFMAN: First of all you've got to have very thick skin. You've got to be able to sleep. I go to sleep the minute my head hits the pillow no matter what I'm going through and you've got to be able to sleep. You've got to be able to manage stress and you've got to be incredibly organized. I've seen too many disorganized administrators. You've got to be able to keep a schedule, you've got to be able to be on time, and you've got to be able to think on your feet. And you can't look back. You've got to be willing to make decisions, to take the time if you have the time, but if you don't have the time to make a decision, make it stick, and never look back.
ZIERLER: Meaning that even if given the opportunity you wouldn't take any do-overs?
HOFFMAN: Nope. Nope. Nope.
ZIERLER: What are you most proud of in academic leadership?
HOFFMAN: In academic leadership I am most proud of that health sciences center. That and the consolidation of the health sciences and the campus and the amount of money I raised at Colorado. I'm also very proud of what I did to facilitate better research agendas at both, particularly at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which really moved up several notches. It isn't in the AAU yet but it's moved up several notches in its ranking relative to the AAU and I think what I did was set in motion the process by which you reward good research and you sort of steer people in the direction of investing in good research. I think I was able to do the same thing at Iowa State, but I don't think I made as much difference in the overall portfolio at Iowa State as I did—and also the fact that I have championed intercampus research my whole career. When I started economists didn't even work together. There was an expectation that everybody would have individual papers. I have one or two individual papers and it's not the best work that I've done so I think I've made a big difference in the acceptance of team research and interdisciplinary research.
ZIERLER: Betsy, what has stayed with you from you Caltech days? Has it shaped your worldview?
HOFFMAN: What has stayed with me? If Lance Davis had not offered me the opportunity to go to Caltech I would not be where I am. I might not have married Brian to whom I've been married for forty-seven years. I wouldn't be an economist if I hadn't gone to Caltech. I can't even sort out what was important and not important. Being at Caltech was such an important turning point in my life. Everything about Caltech is important in determining who I am today.
ZIERLER: Finally, Betsy, last question. Looking to the future, you're still active, you're still engaged; what's most important to you as you look to the future?
HOFFMAN: Mentoring. I see my legacy now as the students I mentored. Mentoring students to be great scholars, to be able to think for themselves whether they're undergraduates or graduate students, to understand how to do research, how to work together, and also how to roll with the punches. How to build a career. To me that's what keeps me going. It's not whether or not I ever make another great breakthrough, it's whether my students become successful scholars.
ZIERLER: Betsy, on that note, this has been a phenomenal conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this.
HOFFMAN: Thank you.