Although Aarthy Thamodaran ’09 was well aware that her “Debating Globalization” professor was the former president of Mexico, it took both Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart for the notion to hit home.
Sitting in his seminar with 19 others this fall, Thamodaran said she remembered Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 discussing the 50-billion dollar loan that his administration received from the United States during the 1990s. But his prominence as a former statesman struck her later, outside the classroom, when she heard Bill Clinton allude to this loan on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. After taking office in 1994, Zedillo rescued the Mexican banking system from economical difficulties and moved the nation toward democratization. And now, 14 years later, that same man was pacing before her, asking a follow-up question on the homework assignment.
“There’s definitely a ‘wow’ factor in taking a class with Professor Zedillo,” Thamodaran said. “The debate is at the level of actual global policymakers.”
But Zedillo does not spend all his class time reminiscing over his past experiences and achievements, she said. In recent years, Zedillo has remained a leader in globalization, working on relations between developed and developing nations. Two weeks ago, on Oct. 6, Zedillo was appointed to chair the World Bank’s new commission on internal reform. This High Level Commission — the latest on his long list of engagements — will focus on fundamentally overhauling the infrastructure of the World Bank. But despite his global acclaim, many students and faculty members said they remain assured that Zedillo will stay grounded at Yale.
With large-framed glasses and a soft voice marred by a slight Spanish accent, Zedillo blends into the sea of intellectuals at the University. But his disposition transforms, Thamodaran said, when he discusses his favorite subject, globalization.
“His words are never spoken loudly, but they definitely fill the room,” she said. “It really compels all of the students to bring the same intellectual energy and integrity to class.”
Along with teaching the weekly seminar “Debating Globalization,” Zedillo — who was awarded the Wilbur Cross Medal and an honorary doctor of laws degree from Yale in 2001 — is the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
This long list of achievements can make some students feel overwhelmed, Stephanie Friend ’09 said. She added that while she now finds him approachable, some students had initial inhibitions.
“If you think too deeply about the famous politicians Zedillo knows and the important discussions he has made, it’s easy to be intimidated,” Friend admitted.
Juan Rebolledo, Zedillo’s Research Assistant, agreed that Zedillo makes his students and interlocutors feel comfortable. Zedillo personally answers all his e-mails and reads all student work, more so than the average Yale lecturer, he said.
“He can be intimidating, yet this has more to do with who he was and who he has lunch with on any given day than with his demeanor,” Rebolledo said.
Zedillo usually puts students on the spot and challenges their every point, Friend added, But she said she found this style to be thought-provoking rather than daunting.
“He talks for 20 to 30 minutes about the reading and then leads discussion,” Friend said. “If you try hard and do the reading, he’ll respect your point.”
And the small, intimate setting of the seminar, Thamodaran added, has allowed students to see his sense of humor.
“He usually has the class in fits of laughter,” she said.
While the World Bank is now expected to take up a significant part of Zedillo’s time, there is little worry that this position will impact his accessibility to the Yale community.
History professor Gilbert Joseph said Zedillo has continuously attempted to be actively involved in the University programs since his arrival in 2002.
“When he came, he immediately got in touch with me,” said Joseph, then the director of Latin American Studies. “We sat in his office to talk and he wanted to know how he could contribute. Over the years he has been a good ally in collaborations with the YCSG.”
Friend agreed that Zedillo was accessible to his students — though his class last week was rescheduled and his class this week was canceled.
“Professors not on World Bank commissions can be inaccessible.” Friend wrote in an e-mail. “He’ll be busy but as long as you have a reason to talk to him, he’s accessible.”
World Bank President Robert Zoellick expressed his confidence in Zedillo during his speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“I am delighted that Ernesto Zedillo has agreed to lead this work,” Zoellick said. “I have asked Ernesto to work with colleagues looking at governance issues at the IMF.”
The former president’s reputation is defined by his academic credentials as well as his lasting political influence on the democratization of Mexico. While some have criticized Zedillo for being too cerebral in his leadership, others like Joseph said Zedillo is an “unsung hero” who played a pivotal role in changing Mexico’s political atmosphere.
“He found himself at one of the most difficult times in terms of hemispheric affairs and transitions,” Joseph said. “But he put Mexico’s democratic future ahead of his party’s future and presided over a free and fair vote — even when it meant the defeat of his party.”
Joseph, who collaborated with Zedillo through the University’s Latin American Studies department, said Zedillo was not a high-profile aspirant for the presidency during the 1994 elections. The assassination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party standard-bearer Luis Donaldo Colosio propelled Zedillo, his then campaign manager, into the spotlight.
In August 1994, the Yale-educated economist from the Bank of Mexico led his party to the cleanest win in Mexico’s history.
But when Zedillo and the PRI were defeated in 2000 by Vicente Fox and the National Action Party, 70 years of the PRI’s dictatorial, one-party rule concluded. Zedillo’s concession before election day set the stage for a peaceful transfer of power, which was unprecedented in Mexican politics.
“He’s different from many Mexican presidents and politicians in that he started out as a scholar,” Joseph said. “It was his academic idealism that allowed him to play a statesmanlike role and introduce democratization to Mexico.”
John Williamson, who works closely with Zedillo at the Peterson Institute — a private, non-profit and nonpartisan think tank on international economics — agreed on Zedillo’s strength as both a scholar and a politician.
“The two are not necessarily complementary, but one certainly needs some ex-politicians who become scholars,” Williamson said. “There are not many people with such a record of accomplishment while in office.”
As the chair of the Bank commission, Zedillo said he expects to be directly involved in the drafting of the commission report, which should conclude near the end of next summer.
“I hope that we will not restrict our analysis and recommendations to the narrower issues of internal governance of the World Bank,” Zedillo wrote in an e-mail. The institution, he added, must play a role in a strengthened multilateral system capable of confronting today’s global problems.
At the same time, Residential Advisor Juan Rebolledo GRD ’12 said Zedillo personally responds to all his e-mails and reads all homework responses and papers that his students produce. A commitment which, Rebolledo noted, is beyond the college duties of typical professors at Yale.