Professor enlightens leaders of tomorrow

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Faces of Berkeley: Robert Reich

A well-respected political economist, author, and political commentator, Robert Reich is currently Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.

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For a man who has had to deal with serious business regarding public policy and the economy, public policy professor Robert Reich does not take himself too seriously.

Sitting among caricature pictures and seemingly endless stacks of paper in his office at the Goldman School of Public Policy, Reich chuckled to himself when he discovered he nearly forgot to include his stint as the Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the Federal Trade Commission as he rattled off his professional history over the last 30 years and his involvement in three national administrations for three separate U.S. presidents.

"You know, I either studied or practiced and dealt with issues closely akin to social justice," he said. "I continuously found myself dealing with the fundamental issues of who gets what in a society and why is it fair."

Reich knew from an early age that the world around him would impact the direction of his career and his life. Born in Scranton, Penn., Reich was raised in upstate New York, where he attended public school while his father worked in his women's clothing store.

Raised in an era that experienced deep domestic and international political conflict, including the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War, Reich said such issues deeply affected him during his formative teenage and early adult years.

Following an extensive education that led him from Dartmouth College to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and then back stateside to Yale Law School, Reich served as a law clerk and as an assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General before being appointed Secretary of Labor by former president Bill Clinton in 1993.

When his term ended, Reich returned to what he loved - teaching. Reich became a professor at Brandeis University in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where Provost Marty Krauss said he "fit the Heller School and the university like a glove" and that it was not uncommon to find Reich poking fun at himself.

"He is a strong public intellectual who cares deeply about issues of economic and social inequality in all of its dimensions," she said. "He is insightful and yet self-deprecating. "He was such an intellectual force and had to be one of the funniest and most engaging people on the planet."

Reich soon began sharing teaching time between Brandeis and UC Berkeley before making the permanent move to California in 2006.

In addition to teaching the popular "Wealth and Poverty" class, Reich is a favorite guest lecturer in other classes and events, from treating students in Political Science 179 to a coveted talk every year to speaking out in support of the September 24, 2009, protest.

"He has ... always been the students and my favorite," said UC Berkeley political science lecturer Alan Ross in an email. "He is that incredibly rare combination of brilliant, passionate, engaging, and hilarious."

Many students in Reich's "Wealth and Poverty" lecture said that in addition to his unique style of lecturing - he tends to walk up and down the aisles as he speaks - students thoroughly enjoyed Reich's ability to play devil's advocate on every topic discussed.

Sophomore Eva Zambrano and senior Trevor Sparks both said Reich's unique lecturing style is what keeps a majority of the 637-person class coming back every week.

"Oftentimes a class wants to get lost on what a professor's real stance is on something, but professor Reich says that what he believes is not important but that students need to push themselves to find what matters," Zambrano said.

Reich, however, said he feels he is just doing his job.

Between advocating on behalf of affordable higher education and educating the next generation of economists and policymakers, Reich said it is his goal to make his already "smart" students think even harder and question their assumptions.

"I tell people under 30 if you are cynical now, then this country is in deep trouble 20 or 30 years from now," he said. "Cynicism gives politics over to special interests who don't particularly care about the public interests."


Katie Nelson is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact Katie Nelson at [email protected]

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