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In memoriam

Professor Emeritus Marcus Alexis is remembered for his passion for economics and his dedication to his students

By Rebecca Lindell, Ryann Plinska & Johanna Rosenbohm

5/28/2009 - As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the 1950s, Marcus Alexis dreaded the required course in economics.

“I tried every ruse to escape it,” Alexis later recalled. “But Brooklyn College had its standards, and if you didn’t like them, you could leave. I took a labor economics course my junior year under duress, but it was a turning point in my life.”

In fact, the course opened the door to a career as a faculty member at Northwestern University and the Kellogg School of Management, as well as to important roles in government and with the Federal Reserve Bank.

Alexis, a former chairman of Northwestern’s Economics Department and a professor emeritus at the Kellogg School, died May 27. He was 77.

Alexis led a distinguished 29-year career at Kellogg and Northwestern before retiring in 2005. His research interests included management strategy, regulation, urban economics and public policy, with a focus on race and poverty.

The day after his death, Kellogg colleagues recalled Alexis’ dedication to his students and his passion for economics, as well as his sense of humor. “In the classroom, he was known for his ability to distill complex subjects down to their essence, communicating difficult material in an engaging and effective way,” Kellogg Dean Dipak C. Jain said.

“He was a wonderful, personable, incredibly bright and sensible individual, who always had the best interests of Kellogg and Northwestern at heart,” added Kellogg Senior Associate Dean David Besanko, a colleague of Alexis’ in the Management & Strategy Department. “You could always count on him to reflect the good of the school.”

Years after that first undergraduate course in economics, Alexis remembered how the field first inspired him.

“My interest in economics stemmed from my belief that it was an effective way to change the world around me,” Alexis said in a 1994 interview. “My neighborhood was blue-collar and had lots of immigrant families. When I was in school during the post-World War II years, many veterans returned home depressed and unemployed. Economic issues were very much on people’s minds.”

Alexis grew to love the field for its discipline as well as for its practical applications. “Economics has a logic and rigor that leads you to focus your thoughts,” he said in 1994. “It instills discipline, yet can still be very creative. There are constantly new ideas on the horizon, growing and becoming more diverse. You can use economics every day. It explains society and people’s lives in direct and tangible ways.”

Alexis received his doctorate in economics from the University of Minnesota in 1959 and joined Kellogg in 1970 as a professor of economics. In 1985 he became dean of the School of Business of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He returned to the permanent Northwestern faculty in 1991 as the Board of Trustees Professor of Economics, as well as a professor of management and strategy and African-American studies.

From 1979 to 1981, while on leave from Northwestern, Alexis served as commissioner, vice chairman and acting chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In 1985, he was appointed a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and became chairman five years later.

While at Northwestern, Alexis served six years as chair of the Department of Economics. He authored or edited seven books and monographs and more than 60 articles and book chapters, making major contributions to his academic area. He was also a member of key Northwestern governance bodies.

Alexis also was active on many professional committees and boards. He was a director of the National Bureau of Economic Research and a member of the American Economic Association and the National Economic Association. He served on the boards of CILCORP, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, and was a director of the Economics Club of Chicago and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society.

But it was in the classroom that Alexis felt he made his greatest contribution. “Nothing I could have done would have given me the joys I have experienced in teaching,” Alexis said in 1994.

That joy was palpable to Alexis’ students.

“Professor Alexis is a role model to every Kellogg student,” said one of those students, Dawn Skelton, in 1994. “He reminds us of what we are and what we could become with effort. He’s astute, smart, funny, but real and tangible. He shares his gifts through his words and his humor. Every time I’m in his presence I learn something.”

Alexis credited his own teachers for instilling him with that same passion for learning — a passion he was delighted to share with generations of Kellogg and Northwestern students.

“I have been fortunate to have had magnificent teachers at all levels of my schooling, people I admired and adored, people who understood, appreciated and encouraged me,” Alexis said. “From them I learned the excitement of the intellectual life and the lasting rewards of imparting knowledge and passing the torch to a new generation.”

Alexis is survived by his wife Geraldine; daughter Hilary; two sons, Marcus Alexis II and Sean Alexis; and three grandchildren. Visitation will occur June 5 from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California. The funeral will be held at Mills College Chapel in Oakland on June 6 at 10:30 a.m.