Butler University Business Professor Peter Z. Grossman thinks of his life as “an unstructured research project.”
Grossman, who is retiring from Butler after 25 years as the Clarence Efroymson Chair/Professor of Economics, has been, at various times, an actor/playwright, a journalist, and, of course, a professor. He has taught courses as varied as music appreciation, philosophy, and economics, and written books about topics that include energy policy, the history of the American Express company, law and economics principles, and a history of the major blackouts of the Northeast.
A student once asked him, “How do I get into the kinds of things you have done?” To which Grossman responded: “I have no idea, because almost all of it was serendipitous.”
“Peter is a lifelong learner,” says Butler Professor of Economics Bill Rieber, his friend and colleague. “As an example, Peter has offered many different courses in Economics since being at Butler, including Mathematical Economics. When Peter first offered the course, he was already a full professor and a well-established scholar, teacher, and commentator in the media. It had been a while, though, since Peter had gone through the mathematics necessary to offer the course, yet he spent the time and effort to do so.”
David Phillips ’07 took that very course with Grossman as an independent study, and also studied International Economics and Comparative Economics with him. For the independent study, Grossman would give Phillips a set of problems to work out, then they’d get together to work through them on a whiteboard in the Holcomb Building.
“I’m a professor now, so I probably appreciate better than I did then how generous it was of him to offer to do an independent study with me,” Phillips, who’s a Research Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in an email. “It’s a lot of a work, and I’m sure he didn’t get any credit or recognition for it!”
Phillips added that when he went to graduate school, he needed to know how to combine economic intuition and heavy duty mathematics. Having the one-on-one opportunity with Grossman helped greatly.
The independent study also allowed them to get to know each other personally, and that’s where Phillips got a taste of Grossman’s understated, self-deprecating humor.
One story Grossman told was how during his dissertation defense at Washington University in St. Louis, one of his professors asked a relatively easy question. Grossman froze, couldn’t come up with an answer, but his main advisor, future Nobel Prize winner Douglass North, chimed in.
“Peter, I don’t understand your problem. I asked you that same question last week in my office and you gave me a good answer,” North said.
Grossman’s response: “Really? What did I say?”
When his answer was recited back to him, he said, “Oh yes, that’s a good answer.”
“His sharing those experiences with me was incredibly valuable,” Phillips says. “A Ph.D. in economics is very different from undergraduate economics, and American students from small schools often struggle to wade through the technical material of the first couple years. Picking an advisor is an intimidating thing. Both the time I spent with him working out problems on the whiteboard and the time hearing about his own experience in graduate school helped me a lot as I became an economist.”
Grossman grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, the child of a textile worker dad from Hungary (who gave him the middle name Zigmund) and a piano-teacher mom, both of whom insisted that their sons get an education. They wanted their children to become doctors or lawyers, but in high school, Peter gravitated toward theater.
There was no drama club at any of the high schools in town, so he started a citywide drama group. He performed at the Waterbury Civic Theatre, did summer stock in Cape Cod, and generally thought of himself as an actor.
When he got to Columbia University, he transitioned to playwriting. He wrote plays that were performed in New York, including at the Public Theater, and studied philosophy, then earned a Shubert Fellowship to study playwriting at Columbia’s School of the Arts.
After earning his Master of Fine Arts in 1972, Grossman was working a nominal job at Columbia, hoping to become a writer,when he bumped into a former classmate who told him about a trade magazine looking for writers. Grossman pursued the lead and ended up writing about fast food and kitchen design.
“Writing about food always made me hungry,” he says. “But I was getting experience. I was learning how to write. I never took a journalism course, but I knew I had to be self-critical in order to be able to write something I would want to read. Essentially, I was teaching myself journalism.”
A few years later—around the same time he met his future wife, Polly Spiegel—one of his brothers invited him to a party where he was introduced to someone who called the publisher of Financial World on his behalf. The editor gave him a tryout, assigning him a story about the commodities market.
“I had no idea what I was talking about, but I wrote it pretty well,” he says.
It earned him $500 and the chance to write more. It also led him, a year later, to his first teaching job—as an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Polytechnic Institute of New York (Brooklyn Polytechnic)—and his first salaried position, primarily to teach journalism.
His first class, an Intro to Literature and Writing course, was a disaster.
“I came into the classroom the first day and was going to talk about Beowulf and the origins of the English language but I quickly saw that nearly everybody in the class was a non-native speaker,” he says. “And whatever I had planned to say only confused them.”
At the same time, he was getting more assignments from Financial World, and from Money magazine. At Financial World, he became the commodities expert, and he also wrote about that topic for Money.
One day, he got a call from an analyst at a brokerage house who wanted an independent view of where interest rates were going. Grossman had no idea. He’d never taken an economics course. He needed to learn, so he signed up to take a second-level macroeconomics course at Pace University. At the same time, he got his first major book contract—to write a history of the American Express company.
He had unrestricted access to the company’s archives and found that he loved doing the research. American Express: The People Who Built the Great Financial Empire came out in 1987.
By this point, he was married, and he and Polly had the first of their two sons. He also found out that he wasn’t getting tenure at Brooklyn Polytechnic because they were thinking of eliminating the journalism program.
But the school got a grant to create a Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program, and Grossman was teamed with an electrical engineer, Ned Cassedy, whom he’d known since the late 1970s.Together, Grossman and Cassedy wrote Introduction to Energy: Resources, Technology and Society, which became the textbook for the STS curriculum.
While he was teaching, Grossman also started taking classes in City University of New York’s Ph.D. program in Economics. He decided to go back to school full time in 1988, and ended up at Washington University in St. Louis, where his mentor would be Douglass North.
“That was the best decision I ever made, and I made it very stupidly,” Grossman says. “I knew about his work, but some of these senior professors are horrible to work under. Doug North took the attitude that (as I was already 40) I needed to get in, get out, and get into the world and use my new-found skills in economics along with my writing and research skills as quickly as possible.”
Grossman finished in three and a half years, but had trouble finding a job. It took him three years. Then, at once, he had two opportunities—one at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the other at Butler.
“I was a visiting assistant professor at Washington University, two years past my Ph.D., and I kept looking at this ad for an endowed chair at Butler,” he says. “It said someone with an affinity for the liberal arts, the fields they listed were my fields, and I had my three books and I’d just published a couple of scholarly papers. I said, ‘What do I have to lose?'”
He sent a package—”and it did help that I had a Nobel Laureate as one of my recommenders”—thinking that nothing would happen. Shortly after, Bill Rieber called. Grossman started talking about himself and mentioned his theater background, and Rieber said, “Why didn’t you put that on your CV?” Grossman responded, “My CV was confusing enough to people.”
But Butler was interested and brought him in for an interview.
“It was a beautiful spring day in 1994, I loved the campus—which has only gotten better since I’ve been here—and I gave a presentation,” he says.
Before that presentation, he came face to face with a senior professor who knew and revered Clarence Efroymson—the professor for whom the Chair in Economics is named—and he didn’t want the position going to someone who was “a moron.” His definition of “moron” was people who weren’t reading things other than books in their disciplines.
The most recent book Grossman had read was On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin, which established that he wasn’t a moron.
Then the professor asked: What are your fields?
“Economic history and law and economics,” Grossman said.
The professor asked: Isn’t law and economics kind of a b.s. area?
“At that point, I thought, ‘Maybe you should just drive me back to the airport,'” Grossman says. “Actually, what he wanted was for me to defend myself, which I did.”
Butler offered him the position. Then Illinois also called, offering a tenure-track position.
“As I’ve thought about it over the years,” Grossman says, “I made absolutely the right decision. I was much better placed here just because of who I am and the work I do. I follow that unstructured research plan. I start writing and studying things that interest me. At Illinois I would have been put in a box and all my teaching and research would have had to fit that box. Here I’ve been free.”
At Butler, he wrote four more books, and made use of his journalism background by publishing 140-plus op-ed columns, which gave additional visibility to the University.
Over the years, he taught 14 different courses—several he created, some he revived, all for undergraduates.
“It’s been great—the kind of thing I like to do, which is exploring new ideas in different areas,” he says. “I never would have been able to do that in Illinois—even if I’d gotten tenure.”
And now, going into retirement after 25 years at Butler, Grossman says he’s unsure what’s next. He’s likely to continue writing, he says, but in a life that’s been an “unstructured research project,” you never know.
“The research will go on,” he says, “even though I will no longer be at Butler.”