After Jonathan Levin was awarded the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal in 2011, a journal noted one of the many things that made the economist stand out from his peers: His exposure to economics started not in the classroom “but at the dinner table.” The newly appointed dean of Stanford GSB is the son of Richard Levin, an economist and former president of Yale University, and Jane Levin, PhD in English literature. The younger Levin had a seat at the table during recruiting dinners at his New Haven home. This included one attended by Barry Nalebuff, says the 2012 article in Journal of Economic Perspectives. Not only would Nalebuff (an author, game theory guru, and the cofounder of Honest Tea) become a professor of management at Yale, but he also soon recruited Levin as a research assistant. The paper they wrote about vote-counting schemes became Levin's first academic paper.
“I grew up in a family with two academics, and my father was an economist, so it was not a radical stretch,” Levin, 43, says of his decision to become an economist.
“Then I went to Oxford, and I think I fell in love with economics reading Stanford GSB Professor David Kreps’ textbook,” he says. “It’s this extraordinarily lucid explanation of microeconomics. It got me really excited about the field.” As an industrial economist who studies auction theory, Levin has worked on U.S. patent reform and informed a solution to a quintessential Silicon Valley challenge: accommodating the explosion in broadband demand. Taking advantage of the increasing availability of data that is making research easier, especially for economists, he studies U.S. health care costs and has brought new perspective to practical issues for firms about how to design their policies around compensation and incentives.
“My ideas can come from anywhere, from students or colleagues or newspapers,” he says of what inspires his research. “I’ve always loved the way the great mathematical statistician David Blackwell explained what motivated him. He said he just wanted to understand things.” And, in the case of research, if you want to understand things, “sometimes you have to figure it out yourself because no one else has figured it out already.”
As chairman of the economics department at Stanford from 2011 to 2014, Levin is no stranger to the campus nor to working with faculty and students. He was honored with teaching awards in 2004 and 2005 at Stanford. “Teaching is a combination of persistence and innovation,” he says. Sometimes, it goes great, and other times it does not. “You just have to keep iterating to get things to work,” he says. “And then you have to switch up what you’re doing before you get tired of it.”
In some cases, he has even worked with professors before they came to Stanford GSB, including Susan Athey, who was teaching at MIT when Levin was a doctoral student there.
His passion for the design of auctions and marketplaces — the topic of his master’s thesis at Oxford University — led him to collaborate with a team of economists to help design the Federal Communications Commission Broadcast Incentive Auction with the goal of trying to repurpose the broadcast television spectrum for wireless broadband. “Technology has changed so that the most efficient use of radio spectrum is for people to use mobile devices and wireless broadband, rather than broadcast television, which was traditionally a large user of prime radio spectrum,” he says. “It’s one of the most interesting auction problems I’ve encountered.” The auction provides incentives to persuade more traditional licensees such as television stations to give up spectrum to wireless demands.
Technology, he says, also creates the opportunity to open up access to the educational experience in places like Stanford GSB. “In principle, online teaching is a transformative change in education,” he says. “The question is how to educate in an effective way, how to create an economic model for it, and how to make sure the experience of the students is really fantastic.” Students at Stanford GSB not only have access to exceptional faculty and peers, he says, “they have opportunities all around the campus and across Silicon Valley to take advantage of all of the excitement and innovation in this area.” It creates an amazing educational experience for the students from the MBA and PhD programs to its MSx and executive education offerings, he says. “Programs like Seed, the Ignite program, the online LEAD program are opportunities for Stanford GSB to reach a much broader audience and to bring that audience the sort of special mix of entrepreneurship, innovation, and scholarship that students here get.”
When Levin was an undergraduate at Stanford, his favorite class was freshman math. “It was where I learned that there were so many people who were much, much smarter than I,” he says.
“In the time that I’ve been at Stanford, I’ve had the chance to see what a great experience people have here at Stanford GSB,” he says. “It’s such a phenomenal institution, with such a great faculty and exciting students, a cohesive and tight-knit community.” That strong bond continues after students graduate. The alumni demonstrate a remarkable allegiance to the school and to each other, says Levin, who will start his new role in September. “Who wouldn’t want to have the opportunity to be part of this community?”