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Dr. Rodney Andrews, RIP
Rodney Andrews was a professor in the economics department at University of Texas Dallas. He was a father, a husband, a son and more recently, a grandfather. He had an iconic aesthetic — glasses with massive salt and pepper dreadlocks and a NFL players physique. You couldn’t miss him. He radiated intelligence, seriousness and a manly steadiness. He died this week of a heart attack. He is survived by his wife, his four children, his grandchild, his extended family — a beautiful family who he loved and who loved him. They lost a big irreplaceable part of their family. They’ve set up a GoFundMe to cover short term costs related to his death and I encourage anyone to give if they can.
Rodney was blessed not only because he had family who loved him. He also has friends and colleagues that did too. The outpouring of grief by his countless friends both within and outside of the economics profession is a testimony to how much he was loved and how far this is affecting people. To say he was loved would be an understatement but I wanted to nonetheless share my thoughts because I was one of the countless who did love him and I will miss him.
I don’t remember when I first met Rodney. We were both assistant professors at the same time at Texas universities so probably it was during those tenure track years. I was down the street from him at Baylor in Waco, Texas, and he was up from me in Dallas at UT. So we did meet in person in seminars when I invited him down or he invited me up. My guess is those trips were how we first start met.
But I knew of Rodney before I ever met him. He was a member of NBER in their Labor Studies group, so I saw his name regularly on the working paper series, and I was always intrigued by the kind of work he did. It was as I used to say (and still say) “real economist”. Rodney’s work was steeped in the long tradition of labor economics, public finance and education. The big applied micro fields with deep discussions about inequality, discrimination, income and wages, work, and the structuring of American education whose role had become not merely to learn but also to distribute higher consumption through higher earnings and increased skill. He wrote with a serious mindedness, like the topics mattered, like the research mattered, like the fights mattered. Ways of scholarly life that I tended to associate with the classic labor and public folks — he was careful, tight, sharp, deep, and rigorous.
I had planned to interview Rodney for my podcast, which is an oral history of the profession told through personal stories, but I was still doing a lot of interviews on causal inference, econometrics, the tech industry and Gary Beckers students. I use hooks, as I call them, to select folks and was going to see if we could talk for my Public Policy series, but I wasn’t ready yet so didn’t set it up. How I wish I had; I would’ve given anything to have an hour with him so that everyone could see what we all saw — a man equal parts brilliant, hilarious and loving. So here’s some facts, the little I know.
Rodney did his doctorate at Michigan. After he graduated, he did a postdoc fellowship with Robert Wood Johnson at Harvard. His papers were mostly labor and education though sometimes he might write about other topics like family health, discrimination and sports. Though it seemed his core interest remained higher education. He ran something called the Texas School Project which helped researchers gain access to rich admin data in our stata on students and schools. I don’t know if he loved education, but he definitely saw its importance in changing lives given it had become, good or bad, a source for skills, survival and higher standards of living. It was and is a noble task to work on the channels by which consumption is distributed and as old as Adam Smith himself.
Like I was saying, I got to know Rodney the first time when I invited him to come down to speak to us. Yes he was smart — smarter than most. And yes he was serious and yes he has courage. But man could he make me laugh. He kept me in stitches. He had wit, not jokes. Wit that followed every idea and word he said, wit that was wrapped in his intelligence and seriousness so that somehow no matter what he was saying, he had a way of being funny and killing it. His batting average on humor was as high as anyone I knew.
He seemed to especially be good at hating every professional and college sports team I liked which were Baylor, Georgia and the Dallas Cowboys. When the Baylor was on its run with RG3 and Art Briles, he had no trouble simultaneously playing the part of sports critic, who always seemed correct, while telling me what trash Baylor was. He was a master trash talker. I am not so I just laughed and tried to set him up by making small talk. “Did you see Dak’s game last week?” To which he would mock the Dallas News radio that after every good game the Cowboys had, opine that this was the year they’d win the Super Bowl and whoever player was good at the moment was likely a Hall of Famer. “Dak is not only the greatest QB in Cowboys history,” he would joke, pretending to be a morning radio show, “he might be the greatest QB in NFL history.” To which another fake announcer would reply, “I know. He should win the Nobel Peace Prize — I know he gives me peace”. I don’t know if he loved being funny or if he just was unable to not be funny. Brilliant people who are also funny will be the center of every group and he was too.
But god did he despise the University of Georgia. If they were having a good year, he would treat them with absolute disdain knowing full well it was my Alma mater. He wasn’t ribbing me — as far as he cared, he was just sharing facts. They were trash, he felt. To say otherwise was to live on some obviously bizarro planet where unicorns dances and wishes came through. He was from Georgia and attended Georgia Tech. He played the part of the rival like it was a job to watch the fence line separating two enemies.
He was good people.
Professionally, I shared his love of labor theory. But he knew it better than me, and only a fool would pass up a chance to learn from him, so when he came to my office, I listened intently as he shared how his dissertation had had problems with acquiring administrative data from the University of Michigan. From what I remember, he had a project that needed cooperation from Michigan administrators and he got it. It was sensitive because it had to do with major affirmative action reforms at that time but he had buy in from all the right people, including the Provost. That was something that struck me about by the way — his common sense. He knew that to get from point A to point B meant working with people. His mind was absurdly smart and sharp but so was his emotional intelligence and his social intelligence. I would’ve trusted that guy in a hostage negotiation. He was a mature man who could talk to people and they could talk to him because he respected people. He didn’t kiss ass — he respected them. There is a difference.
But somewhere in the process of getting that data, best I could decipher, the data just couldn’t come through. Best I could tell, it maybe had something to do with the weak link in the long link of chains that describe every project needing an organization to freely give you data — it requires someone in the organizations information systems unit to actually do it. And I think that’s where it got stuck. A call to general counsel from a link in the chain and despite support from the Provost, the project died or languished. We had him out at Baylor and I was picking his brain about that experience. And I went away from the meeting thinking how important it was to build relationships when working with organizations. How crucial it was that they respected you. How critical it was they did not think you were exploiting them for data. But sometimes, shit still happens, and you just move on.
When I was with him, it’s like he knew what the social and economic stakes were in the world around him, he knew that policy wasn’t a game, and maybe most of all, he knew his gifts and skills were valued so he allocated his time, attention and love to studying policy and conducting research. He carried himself with controlled courage and I admired him for that too.
Rodney could’ve been intimidating for all those reasons but strangely he wasn’t. At least not to me. He accepted me immediately and boy did that make an impression on me. If there was a room, and he was in it, I made a beeline to him and he welcomed me no matter who was around. I wanted to just listen to him and laugh and be pushed and prodded to think. I wanted to hear what he was thinking about. I wanted to ride that roller coaster of his where one minute he’s talking about economics, the next entrenched problems in many communities, and the next his humor. God did he made me laugh. His humor was for me his best attribute. It was so different because it was sandwiched inside and alongside his seriousness. So interconnected were all parts of his mind that it was like a roller coaster when he got going. Was he making these jokes up right then, right in front me? Surely not. Was I being irresponsible not writing them all down? Wasn’t I supposed to write down these perfect lines so I could email them to my friends? There was no way I could reproduce it. His flow was not reproducible. He was flow. He had no ego.
I will just end with this. Yea, he was a Zen Master at absolutely despising my beloved Alma mater, the University of Georgia Bulldogs. He saw the darkest lining in every good thing that happened to that team and did not even think twice to tell you what an absolutely horrible team they were. I was honored to be around him when he got going. He played the part of the college rival better than anyone Id ever seen. But he was serious minded, courageous and saw through the bullshit. He knew the stakes in the good society and how it took constant vigilance.
I haven’t quite felt his loss. I usually don’t feel things for a while. While I was not in his inner circle of close friends, I was a friend. We each had our shares of hard knocks. He knew mine and was compassionate and cared. He had me at hello after that.
His loss will be felt all throughout the applied microeconomics community — not just education, not just labor. He was a force to everyone, everywhere. He will be missed here in Texas, especially UT Dallas. I thought the world of him. He was a powerful man and a good man and a powerfully good man. You don’t always get the large and statistically significant coefficient on the interaction of good and powerful but you did with Rodney.
I am a spiritual optimist and so was he I think. So I will believe that whatever happens next, I’ll be able to track him down. I’ll just follow the laughter, most likely to a big crowd of friends and family already there. I’ll have to wait my turn to spend time with him and listen to him complain about the irrational Cowboys Nation media in Dallas who he thought were so obviously insane that mocking their every word was the only socially responsible thing to do.
Death is horrible and is also unavoidable. Rodney went next and it felt too soon, but that is because death is also too soon for those who love him. We remember our friends. I hope in the hope that I will see him soon. And I count down to those days. Take care for now man. There’s no one like you.