Newest Pamplin professor focuses on urban economics

Newest Pamplin professor focuses on urban economics

Although he is the author of the nation’s best-selling textbook on urban economics, Arthur O’Sullivan’s career itinerary never included a stop in a bona fide metropolis. Until now.

“Maybe it was about time,” says O’Sullivan, who moved to Portland last fall to become the Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Professor of Economics at Lewis & Clark.

O’Sullivan, 48, is a Eugene native who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oregon, where an urban economics professor ignited his interest in his field. Economics, O’Sullivan says, “is a framework for explaining the world,” and cities pose a unique set of problems to examine using that framework. His textbook on the subject, Urban Economics, is about to be printed in its fifth edition.

After graduating from Oregon in 1975, O’Sullivan served two years in the Peace Corps in the Philippines before earning a PhD in economics from Princeton in 1981. From Princeton, he took a teaching job at the University of California at Davis before going to Oregon State University, where he worked from 1992 until last year.

To Lewis & Clark, O’Sullivan brings an engaging teaching style and a reputation as a top-notch researcher—two qualities highly sought in the extensive search to fill the new post, according to Eban Goodstein, associate professor of economics and the department’s chair.

O’Sullivan also brings expertise in a desirable field, Goodstein adds. Urban economics fits nicely with Lewis & Clark’s location in a city well-known for its thoughtful urban planning and creative public policy. “Art filled the bill perfectly,” says Goodstein.

For his part, O’Sullivan says he was drawn to Lewis & Clark by its caliber of students, its commitment to teaching, and its small class sizes. Together, those attributes allow O’Sullivan to maximize use of his interactive teaching style, which relies heavily on group discussions and role-playing exercises.

His portfolio of teaching techniques includes more than a dozen group exercises designed to give students a better grasp of economic concepts. For example, he illustrates the fragility of economic cartels by separating students into several oil companies and asking them to collude. Similarly, he stresses the perils of market entry and the principle of sunk costs by leading students through an exercise in which half of the class acts as lawn-mowing firms and the other half portrays yard-owning consumers.

“It’s possible to do it with a skillful lecture, but there’s no better way to impart the information than by letting students make choices and see the consequences of those choices,” says O’Sullivan. His approach helped him win three outstanding Teacher Awards at the School of Management of the University of California at Davis and become a finalist for the honor at OSU’s Honors College last year.

After his first few months in Lewis & Clark’s classrooms, O’Sullivan says he is impressed with his students’ ability to think and communicate. He says he also enjoys the added exposure to undergraduates that accompanies his role in the Pamplin Society. As a faculty member, he helps select and mentor the prestigious Pamplin fellows. “It’s a nice opportunity to interact with bright, articulate students,” he says.

In the realm of research, O’Sullivan tackles complex urban public-policy issues from an economist’s viewpoint. Topics of his research have ranged from how to reduce stolen guns to the effects of property-tax limits to the economics of siting toxic-waste facilities.

Currently he is looking at how urban neighborhoods segregated by income and other socioeconomic factors affect educational achievement. He’s also investigating the phenomenon of “giant” cities, which seem to form only in less-developed countries. In undertaking his inquiries, he enjoys not only analyzing problems but fulfilling what he sees as the economist’s role by offering up a menu of solutions. “It’s fun because you get to think about problems and their solutions,” he says, “without having to push the policy.”

Away from work, O’Sullivan’s hobbies include hiking and playing squash, a game he picked up in graduate school. He’s currently looking for a local squash court and a worthy partner—and, given the breadth of his work in urban economics, most likely will begin searching for a new research topic soon, too. “That’s one of the luxuries of being an academic,” he says. “You can pick your projects and learn from the process.”


—by Dan Sadowsky