On Oct. 9, President Barack Obama nominated Yale alum Janet Yellen GRD ’71 to be the first-ever female chair of the Federal Reserve — a choice that colleagues and classmates have applauded.

Yellen, who has served as vice chair of the Federal Reserve since 2010, will fill the role that is currently held by Ben Bernanke, who will soon step down from the organization he has led since 2006. Before her nomination, Yellen was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers for the White House and an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Since the announcement, the University community and Yellen’s Yale contemporaries have responded to her appointment with enthusiasm and support.

School of Management professor Sharon Oster said Yellen’s analytical abilities and common sense qualified her for the position. Oster added that Yellen may be influenced by the school of thought present in the Yale economics program during the 1970s, which valued an active role of government in the economy.

“Many people think this is a good time to have somebody of that [background], given the fragility of the macro-economy,” Oster said. In early September, Oster signed an open letter to Obama in support of Yellen, along with other Yale professors including Robert Shiller, William Brainard GRD ’63 and Ray Fair.

Yellen’s former classmates interviewed said they remember her presence on campus fondly. All three alumni interviewed said they remember her as exceptionally bright.

Jon Peck GRD ’71 said Yellen was famous for her class notes in a course taught by James Tobin, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1981. She even distributed them to her fellow students to help them study, he said.

Even former students who did not personally know her said that they were aware of her presence on campus. Jill King, another classmate, said Yellen was diligent and studious.

“She really seems to have an understanding [of] what it takes to grow an economy and the need for policy that focuses more on employment and jobs,” said Edgar Francisco III GRD ’71. “She has been my candidate all along, since she is the perfect person to grow the economy.”

Some former classmates said Yellen seemed to be the obvious choice out of all the potential nominees, whose names had been floated in the media before the formal announcement was made. Peck said he believes Yellen is intelligent, experienced and has demonstrated her ability to work at a large institution like the Federal Reserve, adding that he thinks “Larry Summers would have been a disaster.”

Some professors said Yellen’s nomination has been yet another reflection of the success of the Yale Economics Department as a whole, especially coupled with Shiller’s Nobel prize this week.

In addition to being a graduate student at Yale, Yellen had also served as a member of the Yale Corporation from 2000 to 2006.

“Her service to the Corporation shows her willingness to give back to organizations that are important to her,” Oster said.

Former classmates noted that Yellen will likely need all of the experience and knowledge from the course of her career to handle the current challenges of the U.S. economy. Peck said he believes Yellen knows “what she is getting in for,” but that she will still have her hands full.

But Oster noted that Yellen seems prepared for the role, since she has already faced a level of adversity common to women studying economics during her time.

“She always spoke with authority, but with a sense of humor, and I believe that those traits will come in handy as Fed Chair,” Oster said.

Yellen received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale in 1997, which honors distinguished achievements in scholarship, teaching, academic administration and public service.

  • Nancy Morris

    “Sharon Oster said Yellen’s analytical abilities and common sense qualified her for the position. …. Oster noted that Yellen seems prepared for the role, since she has already faced a level of adversity common to women studying economics during her time. ‘She always spoke with authority, but with a sense of humor, and I believe that those traits will come in handy as Fed Chair,’ Oster said.”

    A curious set of comments from the able Sharon Oster. Yes, Yellen’s analytical abilities and common sense are critical and certainly more than sufficient for that position. Her predecessor, the current Chair, seems to have run low on those qualities in recent times.

    And I’m willing to believe that it’s better to always speak with authority, but with a sense of humor, as Fed Chair, although in my experience if one knows what one is doing (including the limitations of one’s understanding), the authority and humor follow naturally. So, much (arguably all) of the substance of this comment by Oster seems implicit in her prior focus on the importance of analytical abilities and common sense for that position.

    But Oster’s suggestion that Yellen seems prepared for the challenges of being Fed Chair at this difficult point since she has already faced a level of adversity common to women studying economics during her time is just embarrassing. I am not aware of any substantial additional or different difficulty a female Chair is likely to face that a male would not, and I challenge Oster to come up with one. If Oster is insinuating that disagreement with Yellen by other members of the Fed should be presumed or suspected of sexism simply because of Yellen’s sex, then Oster should come out and say that, although such a claim would already approach the libelous. And if Oster’s point is that overcoming adversity induces a kind of relevant personal toughness (a species of cross-training), I know of no assertion that any prior Chair failed to perform to expectations or needs because of a lack of “toughness,” but this kind of thinking could easily result in dangerously distracting rancor. Yellen would be well advised to leave any specious pseudo-feminist tri-suit at home.

    • Seth

      A female fed chair might or might not face more adversity than a male chair.

      But that’s fairly clearly not what Oster was trying to say. Oster is saying that Yellen’s experiences as a woman working in male-dominated field will prepare her for the challenges *any* fed chair will have to deal with.

      • Nancy Morris

        If Oster is saying that Yellen’s experiences as a woman working in male-dominated field will prepare her for the challenges *any* fed chair will have to deal with, then, to be frank, Oster is displaying almost inconceiveably bad judgment. This would amount to an extreme version of the “cross-training” construction of Oster’s comment. As I noted in my original comment, there is to my knowledge no evidence that Fed Chairs require “toughness” or some form of identity politics. What they need is a deep understanding of central banking.

        Further, Yellen would be a particularly inappropriate person about whom to make such a comment. I know of no evidence (although I am prepared to be educated if anyone knows otherwise) that Yellen has ever been a victim of serious sexism in her career as an economist, or has had to persevere in the face of any such injustice, despite the many airy but unsubstantiated references to this “male dominated profession” imposing special burdens on her. There are no rumors of her ideas being ignored or stolen. Nobody alleges the existence of papers that languished unpublished or unappreciated on sexual grounds. She has never lacked for male advisors or supporters, nor are there rumors that she was ever unfairly criticized or demeaned in her economic career. There seems to be no evidence that Yellen ever suffered from “a level of adversity common to women studying economics” (whatever that is supposed to mean). I certainly know of no claim by Yellen to that effect.

        Quite the contrary: Yellen and her thoughts and talents seem to have been fully appreciated and rewarded from the beginning, and there is no evidence she had to fight for that. She graduated summa cum laude from Brown with a degree in economics, and was immediately admitted to and later received without undue delay her PhD from Yale, where James Tobin, a future Nobel prize winner, was her adviser. Tobin and the Yale department did not exactly ignore her merits: She left Yale to become an assistant professor at Harvard in 1971–76. Harvard also did well by her, and she departed to be an economist with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 1977–78. Beginning in 1980, Yellen has been conducting research at the Haas School and teaching macroeconomics to full-time and part-time MBA and undergraduates students. She is now a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where she was named Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Professor of Business and Professor of Economics. Twice she has been awarded the Haas School’s outstanding teaching award. Yellen served as chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers from February 13, 1997 to 1999, and was appointed as a member of the Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors from 1994 to 1997. She has taught at Harvard University and at the London School of Economics. Yellen serves as president of the Western Economic Association International and is a former vice president of the American Economic Association. She was a fellow of the Yale Corporation. From June 14, 2004, until 2010, Yellen was the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She was a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) in 2009. And she has long been married to George Akerlof, a Nobel prize-winning economist, who has not exactly been a drag on her career, which includes many more indications of professional appreciation and rewards than is contained in the above summary.

        So if Janet Yellen has been persecuted and toughened, or her career impeded or threatened, by this “male dominated profession,” exactly at what point and by what male hand was that supposedly effected? People who make this kind of comment should keep in mind that it implicitly smears people like James Tobin and the many other (apparently, all male) people who have mentored and supported Yellen and those like her. If you are correct in interpreting Oster’s comment, then Oster has a good deal of explaining to do.

        Also, the meaning of Oster’s comment is not fairly clear. You are entited to your construction, but that’s what it is: Your construction.

    • attila

      Oster is permanently bitter that she did not get tenure in the Yale economics department and was passed off to the second team at SOM.