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 Professor James J. Heckman

93rd Congregation (2024)

Professor James J. Heckman

Doctor of Social Science


Back in the early 1960s in the US a young college student participated in the social upheaval of the America of his day. Among other life-influencing activities, he witnessed the extremes of inequality in his country, on a road trip from Colorado to the deep south, with his Nigerian roommate. He was startled to see the fear among shopkeepers and hoteliers as the pair ignored the Jim Crow rules for racial segregation, when blacks and whites in those areas could not share the same park bench, bus or hotel, let alone education. He saw the effect of poverty and discrimination on the communities they passed through.

That experience became a key motivation for his lifelong concern about the status of African Americans and a determination to fight against the barriers to social mobility that many have faced, long after the formal end of racial segregation. It led to a 10-year research project that definitively established the importance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the status of African Americans.

Fast forward 60 years, that student continues to build on his passion and determination for understanding and addressing the causes of inequality, in black communities and beyond, in the U.S. and around the world. He is today’s honorand, Professor James J. Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the field of microeconometrics.

For the many in policymaking or philanthropists holding purse strings that he has influenced, such as the former US President Barack Obama, this is no dull, esoteric science but something that is vitally important for the robust evaluation of public policies, and for identifying initiatives that will reap the greatest returns, for the individual and society. It provides necessary tools for all modern governments that are accountable to their populations, concerned with social justice yet constrained by limited budgets.

The difference Professor Heckman has made for public policy was globally acknowledged in 2000, when he shared the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the microeconometrics of diversity and heterogeneity within populations, and for establishing a sound causal basis for public policy evaluation. This is just one of numerous awards he has received, such as the Dan David Prize for Combatting Poverty, the Frisch Medal, and the Chinese government’s prestigious Friendship Award.

Longitudinal studies of individuals’ life journeys, from their pre-school years in the late 1960s and 1970s to the present, along with evaluations of various interventions, identify a clear root cause – and solution – for greater equity of opportunity. It lies in the earliest years, when the foundations for crucial cognitive and non-cognitive skills are laid. The data Professor Heckman has analysed from the Perry pre-school intervention programme and others demonstrate that with a sound start in life, children are more likely to flourish as adults, and contribute more to society. They also cost significantly less to the state in being more likely to avoid lives of crime, and having fewer health care needs, related, for instance, to obesity or the consequences of alcohol and tobacco dependence. Two of his latest projects, the China Reach that he has helped lead, and his novel analyses of the Jamaica Reach Up and Learn programme, build on this evidence, support the development of less advantaged communities in both nations, and act as models for others.

Professor Heckman is hence now renowned as a leading champion of early childhood education and development, in both pre-school and family settings. He has calculated that the return on public investment can be as much as 14 per cent, in terms of economic benefits for the individual and community. These advantages can be seen to be passed on through generations as the Perry pre-school children have become parents.

As a result of such evidence, pre-school education is no longer the Cinderella of schooling systems, including locally in Hong Kong where its professional upgrading and funding support, targeting in particular the less privileged, have been an important element of education reforms.

However, Professor Heckman’s studies extend beyond educational service provision. We also need to nurture effective parenting and child-care from birth, before inequalities – in particular in the non-cognitive skills that will beget more skills – set in. On this, tennis star Novak Djokovic is a disciple, unbeknown to Professor Heckman. The Novak Djokovic Foundation cites his research, and has chosen quality pre-schooling and parent education and support in disadvantaged communities as the focus for its work.

Professor Heckman has been highly vocal in his critique of policy obsessions with narrow academic scores and national rankings derived from the PISA study – the Programme for International Student Assessment run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – as measures of the outcomes of education. The OECD seems to have heard and responded to his concerns, by inviting him to contribute to the study’s new measures related to broader non-cognitive abilities, in his role as Senior Advisor for the PISA 2021 Questionnaire Expert Group. With Tim Kautz, he wrote the working paper, “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success”, and advised the PISA board on the need to collect new character-related data.

Among the non-cognitive abilities that Professor Heckman has shown are at least as important as academic scores are motivation, perseverance and conscientiousness – character skills developed through childhood that are essential for a young person to build more skills and knowledge through their education, secure and retain a job, and go on to lead happy, more stable family lives. They would also have been key ingredients for his own achievements, across his life.

Professor Heckman was born into a humble and devoutly Christian family in Chicago before the end of World War II. At the age of eight he was already a “child minister”, expecting the church to be his life calling. But during his high school years, in Lakewood, Colorado, he began turning towards more earthly academic interests. His intellectual curiosity was sparked by Frank Oppenheimer, whose brother Robert directed the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Frank was barred from working alongside his brother because of his Communist Party membership, and he retreated to a cattle ranch in Colorado from which he was initially persuaded to teach at a nearby school. Later, when he moved to Boulder, Jefferson, he became part of a programme to offer advanced teaching to a county-wide cohort of selected students.  Bird and Sherwin’s masterly biography of Robert Oppenheimer details the tensions between expertise, security and politics that led to this exclusion and to the post-war treatment of the Oppenhimer brothers. But one detail that does not emerge is that amongst the bright students who learned physics from Frank Oppenheimer was James Heckman, who has written of how he was inspired by his tutor to appreciate the power and beauty of experimental science, and that theories – however beautiful – must ultimately tie into empirical evidence.

While the Manhattan Project spawned Nobel Prize winners, its leader, Robert Oppenheimer was never one. Frank Oppenheimer is widely admired for having founded the San Francisco Exploratorium, to spread the public understanding of science. But it’s good  to know that in a period that he must have thought of as exile he also helped inspire another extraordinary mind who eventually won a Nobel Prize too.

Liberal arts education at Colorado College further sparked that student’s curiosity, in subjects ranging from philosophy and history to mathematics – the discipline for his bachelor’s degree – and eventually economics. He gravitated towards the latter because of its practical power to address socio-economic challenges in society, he has said. He went on to complete his MA and then PhD in economics at Princeton University. His thesis focused on labour supply and the demand for goods.

After spending early periods of his career at New York and Columbia universities, the University of Chicago has been his academic home, since 1973. There, he was one of the founders of the Harris School of Public Policy and in 2014 launched the Center for the Economics of Human Development, which he continues to direct. He also holds an appointment with the university’s law school.

Professor Heckman’s work is grounded in economics but to get to the heart of major socio-economic problems he well understands that it is essential to draw in other disciplines, a lesson learnt, in part, from his late wife, the sociologist Lynn Pettler, who he married in 1979. Together they raised a son and a daughter, who have followed in their parents’ footsteps by both becoming successful academics.  In 2010 he set up the Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group, now an international network of over 500 scholars that he co-directs, as the platform for collaboration in fields ranging from genetics and epidemiology to psychology and neuroscience. In this and his many other appointments, he has been extraordinarily prolific, the obvious measures being the more than 370 academic papers and nine books, such as The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life, and Giving Kids a Fair Chance, to his name.

Professor Heckman has also shared his expertise with this university in Hong Kong, as Distinguished Professor-at-Large with the Lau Chor Tak Institute of Global Economics and Finance, while he and the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development have particularly fruitful on-going collaborations  with researchers in mainland China.  Work with Jinan University’s Institute for Economic and Social Research and the China Development Research Foundation helps guide Chinese policies in strengthening early childhood education and development, and addressing other areas of inequality. This has been developing initiatives in impoverished rural areas, and contributing further evidence of conditions for human flourishing, a partnership that has made him a special friend of China as reflected in the Friendship Award he received in 2019.

Professor Heckman is a friend, of the numerous students, colleagues and collaborators who have benefited from his extraordinary wisdom, energy and support; of the decision-makers and many in public policy who use the fruits of his work; and of the children whose lives he has improved – particularly those born into more disadvantaged circumstances. Mr Vice-Chancellor, it is my great honour to present Professor James J. Heckman, who has given so much as a most eminent friend for humanity, for the award of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.  

Citation is presented by Professor Nick Rawlins, Pro-Vice-Chancellor / Vice-President (Student Experience) and Master of Morningside College