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Faculty News January 22, 2024

Orley Ashenfelter: Highlights from 50 Years at Princeton

After more than fifty years at the front of the classroom, Orley Ashenfelter taught his final class at Princeton last semester.

Ashenfelter, the Joseph Douglas Green 1895 Professor of Economics at Princeton University, first started teaching at the university as a Ph.D. student in 1968. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1970. A leading figure within Princeton’s famed Industrial Relations Section, he served as the group’s director from 1999-2005.

Within the field of economics, Ashenfelter is widely celebrated for helping launch the “credibility revolution”a movement that encourages the use of experiments and other methods often used in the hard sciences to improve the robustness of social science research. Ashenfelter’s work in that area dates back to his 1974 paper on evaluating training programs with randomized trials and has inspired the work of countless other economists, including two of Ashenfelter’s students who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

To celebrate Ashenfelter’s many contributions to the university and the field of economics, we asked him to reflect on the last fifty years and what he’ll remember most about his time at Princeton. 

Q: You’ve been teaching graduate and undergraduate students at Princeton for more than 50 years. Can you remember a favorite moment or two from your time teaching?

For many years I taught an undergraduate course in econometrics. I had developed an example of regression analysis predicting wine prices with the vintage’s weather. It was credible and the product was interesting. Eventually this “Bordeaux Equation” was published on the front page of the New York Times, and Good Morning America came to film the lecture (watch the segment here)!

Another memory: I had many now-famous graduate students as Assistants in Instruction (AI) in this econometrics course. Among many others, Josh Angrist, Bob Lalonde, Gary Solon, as well as Janet Currie, the first woman AI I had. Janet is of course now on the Princeton faculty. 

This was not long after co-education had started, but long enough that it shouldn’t have happened: A few male undergraduates came to see me and complained about Janet’s teaching. This seemed odd to me, as Janet is among the best organized people I know. So I snuck in the back of her class one evening. She was brilliant, clear, precisely what a good class should be. I later spoke with students about this and (bless them) I think they understood the point: econometrics is not easy and they were getting terrific instruction in a difficult subject.

Q: Often, a researcher’s most cited paper isn’t their favorite. What piece of research or writing are you most proud of?

You are right, my favorite papers (there are two) are virtually unknown to most economists, even those in labor economics. One is unknown because it settled an empirical issue: were trade unions helpful or harmful to the wages of black workers? This was a hot question in the 1970s, in part because there was very little micro data. I had estimates of union membership by race and wage data. It turned out that, to the surprise of some, black and white workers had equal representation in unions and the black/white wage differences were smaller in the unionized sector. In short, unions were helpful for black workers. Published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1972, this paper settled the issue, and so far as I know there has not been another paper on this topic in the 50 years since it was published. 

My second favorite is even less well known, probably because it appeared in such an obscure place that I think still has not been digitized (it is on the Princeton website, however). Published in 1974 in the Proceedings of the Industrial Relations Research Association, it provided the first estimates of the effect of training programs on earnings, proposed a randomized field experiment for estimation, and showed how to design such an experiment. Even that association’s name has been changed! At the time proposing a randomized field trial to study a social program was heretical. Today economics journals are full of them!

Q: Tell us something about yourself most people wouldn’t know.

Although I was born in San Francisco and grew up in California, I lived for several years as a child in North Dakota! And I loved it.

Q: You are the co-editor of the Journal of Wine Economics and serve as the President of the American Association of Wine Economists. What got you interested in the economics of wine?

Two things, I had once been given an outstanding bottle and it shocked me into trying to find more, but on a professor’s budget. And then I found data that permitted me to fit a very credible example of regression analysis with non-experimental data which, as I noted earlier, I used in teaching undergraduate econometrics. 

That equation is now often called the “Bordeaux Equation.” I was actually awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Bordeaux last year, and that equation really created a sub-field of economics, and I imagine the city and University of Bordeaux like having their own equation!

Q: You recently launched a podcast called The Work Goes On, in which you interview some of the biggest names in the field of industrial relations over the last half century or so. Two questions: Do you think you missed your calling as a radio host? And what’s one thing you learned from your interviews that truly surprised you?

To the first question: Yes!

To the second: I had no idea that labor economist Ray Marshall, former Secretary of Labor in the Carter Administration, grew up as an orphan in Mississippi. And that when he left the orphanage he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Navy in World War II.

Q: If you could go back in time and do anything about your career differently, would you? 

I’ve thought about this, but I don’t think I would change a thing!

Q: Describe your time at Princeton in one word.


More about Ashenfelter

Over the last half century, Ashenfelter has contributed to the field in innumerable ways. He has served as President of the American Economic Association, the American Law and Economics Association, and the Society of Labor Economists. He has been an editor at several journals including the American Economic Review. In 1972, he served as director of the Office of Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Labor.

In 1976, Ashenfelter was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. He is also a recipient of the IZA Prize in Labor Economics, the Mincer Award for Lifetime Achievement of the Society of Labor Economists, and the Karel Englis Medal awarded by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

The Economics Department extends its heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for everything Professor Ashenfelter has contributed as a member of our own community. Congratulations, Orley, on your retirement from teaching.

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