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News and Events

Miller invested as Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor in Finance

Oct 9, 2019, 11:29 by Aaron Bennett
Gies College of Business celebrated the investiture of Nolan Miller as the Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor in Finance.

To acknowledge his expertise and experience in business and public policy, Gies College of Business celebrated the investiture of Nolan Miller as the Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor in Finance on October 4, 2019. Miller has served a professor of finance at Gies College of Business since 2009. He is also the director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Business and Public Policy and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nolan investiture 3 final“We are proud to recognize Nolan’s pursuit of developing and applying cutting-edge economic theory to important public policy problems,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, the Josef & Margot Lakonishok Professor of Business and Dean of Gies College of Business. “We also celebrate the passion he brings to teaching our students.”

Most recently, Miller’s research has focused on a five-year project funded by the National Institute on Aging to study the impact of environmental factors such as temperature and pollution on health outcomes using Medicare data. Prior to joining Gies College of Business in 2009, he was an associate professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He earned his PhD in managerial economics and decision sciences from Northwestern University in 1999 and bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1994.

Miller has regularly appeared on the “List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students.” He received the Teaching Excellence Award from the Illinois Student Government in 2016 and the Arnold O. Beckman Award from the Campus Research Board in 2014.

“I’m honored to be part of a College that promotes rigorous research about how market forces and public policy shape one another,” said Miller. “How society chooses to address today’s major public policy challenges will fundamentally shape the future of the US economy.”

This professorship is made possible through a generous donation to Gies Business from the Helle Family Foundation. It enables the College to fulfill its mission of pursuing excellence, innovation and accessibility in higher education.

Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle both graduated from the University of Illinois in 1984. Cynthia earned a BS in Finance, and Daniel received an MS in Finance. He worked at Continental Bank and Citibank before joining CIVC Partners LP, a Chicago-based private equity firm, in 1989. He has shared overall strategic and operating responsibility for the firm since 1994. Cynthia worked at ad agency Leo Burnett Worldwide and now leads the Helle Family Foundation’s efforts to make impactful investments in education and wellness.

Investiture of Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor in Finance

Nolan Miller remarks
October 4, 2019

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming today.  It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be named the Daniel and Cynthia Mah Helle Professor in Finance.   It means a lot to me to see you all here. I’d like to thank, in particular, today’s speakers, Dean Brown, Vice Provost Pitts, Finance Department Chair Louis Chan, and my long-time friend and collaborator, Rob Jensen, who made the trip out here today from Connecticut.  Of course, I wouldn’t be here today without my wife Elizabeth, who put her own career on hold when we moved to Illinois, and my son Will, who possesses a startlingly keen economic intuition for someone who has always insisted he wants to be an engineer.  Also here today are my parents, Elaine and Burton Miller, my sister Cheryl, brother Scott, [my sister Robin and her husband Michael], and my nephew Tim, who is a senior here at Gies.

Let me begin by thanking the donors for their generosity.  Beside this professorship, the Helles support the college in many other ways. There are currently eleven undergraduate students at the college receiving Helle Scholarships. In addition to their financial support, the Helles are also incredibly generous with their time, contributing to the college and returning regularly to meet with the Helle Scholarship students.  Earlier today I had the opportunity to join the Helles for lunch with the scholars.   This is an impressive group of students, and I firmly believe it would be more entertaining for you to hear their stories than mine.  But, here we are, so bear with me.

I don’t know if the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is unique in holding investiture ceremonies, but I have never heard of them happening anywhere else.  This is a shame, because in academia we all too often fail to celebrate positive milestones, and while the event itself focuses on the invested professor, I believe it is really best thought of as an opportunity to reflect on the institution overall.  When students graduate, we spend time at commencement reflecting on the role of the institution in shaping lives.  As I prepared these remarks, I found myself doing something similar.

As one of the nation’s great public universities, the University of Illinois is dedicated to improving the lives of the people of the state.  The profound effect that public higher education can have on individuals and families is apparent in my own case. My father attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, the first person in his family to go to college.  He went on to the University of Illinois medical school, and two of my siblings attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for their undergraduate degrees. Collectively, my siblings and I sport 5 undergraduate degrees and 4 graduate degrees. We would not be where we are today without the University of Illinois.

And this isn’t just true for me.  It is an obscure fact of family trivia – rivaled perhaps only by the fact that we got married in Las Vegas – that my wife Elizabeth was actually born in Urbana while her father was a student at the University.  Thus it was with a strange sense of coming home that we returned to the University in 2009. My return to Illinois began with a conversation I had with Jeff Brown in mid-1998.   At that time, Jeff was starting the Center for Business and Public Policy at Illinois.  I recall that we walked around Cambridge on a summer evening, and I explained to him what I was working on, which consisted of a scattered group of projects ranging from nutrition in developing countries to U.S. health policy to international security theory.  

Now, while there are many areas of human endeavor where breadth is appreciated, academia is generally not one of them.  But, I had, and still do, have a way of working on topics that I find interesting and with people that I find interesting, inadvisable as that might be. One of the things that particularly attracted me to Illinois is that when I explained this to Jeff, his response was “Yeah.  We get that.  As long as it is related to the relationship between businesses, economics, and public policy, just come here and do it well.”  That willingness to take a bit of a risk and to focus on doing good, relevant work is one of the great things about Gies and Illinois.

So, I accepted the job here in the winter of 2008/2009, at the height of the financial crisis.  Depending on who you ask, the deal was sealed either moments before or moments after a university-wide hiring freeze was put into place.  According to urban legend, my offer was about to be pulled when our former department chair stormed into some administrator’s office and threatened to quit if the university reneged on its commitment.  The administrators caved, my offer went through, and the rest is, as they say, history.

While I arrived at the College of Business at a time of crisis, we have never stopped growing.  During my time here, we’ve hired new faculty, put on great public events, and produced important research.  It has been particularly gratifying for me to watch the young group of scholars we hired develop, and as much as I have enjoyed the events of today, the most fun I have is when I go to a conference or professional event and people say “Wow!  You guys have really put together a great group there at Gies.”

One of my experiences here that has been the most enjoyable is working with the students, especially the undergraduates.  I grew up outside of Chicago, and I very nearly was one of them. If you spend enough time around universities, you tend to forget what it was like being an 18 or 19 year old, struggling to learn economics -- and feed themselves and do laundry at the same time.  Our students are not only bright, but driven to succeed, and it has been a pleasure working with them, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

They said to speak for 8-10 minutes, and I’ve got time to kill, so let’s talk about research.  Four quick anecdotes and then off to the reception.  I’ll try to keep them the kind of stories you can share with your friends at cocktail parties.  But, as I tell my students, I have strange friends and go to strange cocktail parties. The first paper I ever published was in 1997 while I was still a graduate student at Northwestern.  The article was originally written as a final paper for a course in information economics.  I worked hard on it, and I thought I had done a good job, but writing papers is difficult.  I still remember the comment the professor had written on the paper when I got it back.  It said, “if you think what you’ve done is right, revise and publish.  I can’t follow what you’ve done.”  Little did he know, but that was some pretty good advice right there. Quality ideas are important, but it is even more important to clearly communicate them to your intended audience.  (It took me most of a year to revise, but I eventually did revise and publish.)

Story number two: when you go on the academic job market, you have a 5 minute prepared pitch of your research.  So, back in 1999 when I was looking for my first academic job I prepared to interview with Richard Zeckhauser at Harvard’s Kennedy School (where, incidentally, Jeff Brown, Rob and I were all on the faculty together). For those of you who don’t know, Richard is a famous, important guy, and was one of the founders of the Kennedy School.  So, I got all ready to give him my prepared presentation, and I got about three words into it, and he said “Look.  I know you can do theory.  That’s fine.  But, how do you explain why what you’re doing is important to one of our Kennedy school colleagues who isn’t a theorist or even an economist.”  With that, the interview went off in a completely different direction than I had anticipated, as did much of my career.  But, that’s lesson number two: work on questions that are important, and always be thinking about how you can convey that importance to a world beyond the specialists in your field.

Third story, which may or may not have been told already today.  In my early days at the Kennedy School I was teaching students in the international development program about one of the standard results in economic theory known as the Giffen good, the idea that demand for a good might increase when its price increases. The students were interested, but not quite in the way I expected.  They kept asking about the origin of the theory (answer: it goes back to Alfred Marshall, 1895), and whether there were any good real-world examples (answer: no), and I had just spent a bunch of time reviewing the history of the theory.  One afternoon I ran into Rob, whose office was across the hall from mine, and he started talking about work he had been doing on consumption and food choices in China.  I said “have you thought about Giffen goods?  Because that would be the perfect place to look for one.”  And so began a research project that would take us the next six or seven years to complete.

There are a couple of lessons in this one.  First, listen to your students. What they find interesting is a good guide to what others will find interesting. Second, it’s important not to silo yourself and to work with people who have complementary approaches and skill sets.  In the case of the Giffen goods project, I thought about it as a theorist, and Rob thought about it an empirical researcher.  If it weren’t for the merging of these two distinct approaches to the problem, the paper never would have been written.  If I had spent my time hanging around economic theorists, this project, and many of the most rewarding ones I’ve worked on, wouldn’t have happened.

Last story.  Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great doctoral students.  One of the conversations we have as they prepare to go on the job market is how to deal with questions.  There is a delicate balance to be struck between defending your work and being defensive, and sometimes the questions can come across as a bit hostile.  The advice I give to them is to take the approach that I try to take not only in research but in many things: presume that we’re all here to collectively try to figure out the right answer to the question of the day.  Assume people have good intentions, take questions at face value, and think about how you can work with them can improve the project and add to what we  know about the world.  This is true in research, and it is true in life.

Having filled my allotted time, let me end today as I began it, by thanking all of you for coming out today.  Thank you once again to the Helles for their generous support of the college.  Thanks to my wife Elizabeth and son Will, who have been my source of strength throughout my time at Illinois and before, and to my collaborators old, and new.  Thanks to my parents and siblings, and to my friends, all of whom came out today despite, I am convinced, not knowing exactly what it is I do all day. And, lastly, thank you to my colleagues and friends at Gies and at Illinois, who make it a pleasure to come into work most days, and make it easier to come in to work on the days that aren’t a pleasure.

Thank you all for joining me on this occasion.