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Decorated Economist Raj Chetty Returns to Harvard

Littauer Center
The Littauer Center of Public Administration, which houses Harvard's Economics department.
Decorated economist Raj Chetty ’00—recipient of a 2012 MacArthur “genius grant” and the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal—will return to Harvard this summer after three years at Stanford University.

Chetty—who, at age 29, became one of the youngest tenured professors in the history of the Harvard Economics department—currently studies inequality and upward mobility.

He co-directs the “Equality of Opportunity Project,” which studies U.S. population data to examine issues related to upward mobility. He also co-authored a widely publicized study, published earlier this year, showing stark disparities in economic outcomes for black boys and white boys born into families with similar income levels.

Upon his return to Harvard, Chetty will hold the inaugural William A. Ackman chair in the department. Ackman, a graduate of the College and Harvard Business School, is a billionaire hedge fund manager.

Economics Professor Edward Glaeser, who was on the committee that hired Chetty the first time he taught at Harvard, called him “one of the most extraordinary social scientists in the world today.”

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“It’s not just about academic excellence,” Glaeser said. “He is a tremendously generous colleague, a tremendously generous mentor. He is valuable along almost every dimension.”

Chetty attended Harvard for both undergraduate and graduate school, and, despite leaving for the West Coast, continued to collaborate with many Harvard professors, including Nathaniel Hendren, his “Equality of Opportunity Project” co-director.

Chetty wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard is a “natural hub” for data-driven research on “economic and social issues.”

“Harvard’s distinctive commitment to addressing major social challenges such as declining economic mobility makes it an ideal environment for this next phase of our work,” Chetty wrote.

Glaeser said Chetty’s departure three years ago left a “gaping hole” in the department.

Economics Department Chair David I. Laibson ‘88 said Chetty was the last of a series of “significant losses” to the department. Several of these departing professors went to Stanford.

“I think Raj’s departure was the culminating event that led the University to recognize that one of our crown jewels was at threat of being lost,” Laibson said.

In the wake of the departure, Laibson said University President Drew G. Faust, Dean of Faculty Michael D. Smith, and Dean of Social Sciences Claudine Gay all helped to “revitalize” the department.

The department has promoted five professors to tenure internally and hired two other senior faculty—Xavier Gabaix and Isaiah Andrews—in the three years since Chetty’s departure.

In 2016, Economics Professor Oliver Hart won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to contract theory, adding yet another Nobel laureate to Harvard’s Economics department. Many have predicted that Chetty will one day join the ranks of Nobel-winning economists himself; the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to a leading American economist under 40, is often referred to as the “baby Nobel.”

“I see Raj’s return as part of a larger picture of the Economics department turning a corner, building its faculty, and building a department that is worthy of the many, many students who come to us for courses and mentorship,” Laibson said.

Chetty cited “renewed support” from administration, including President Faust and incoming President Lawrence S. Bacow, as one incentive for his return.

—Staff writer Cecilia R. D’Arms can be reached at cecilia.d'arms@thecrimson.com.

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