For New Econ Chair, Challenges are Why He Took the Job

Black and white headshot of new chair James Roberts

In a pandemic world, everything looks a little different. As of June 1, James Roberts is the new Duke econ chair. I spoke to him by phone while he was making lunch for his kids. “Like everyone else these days I'm just trying to do it all. I just realized that the bagel I told my daughter she could have for lunch doesn't exist,” he laughed. Even though working from home is the new normal, Roberts is still excited to take on the challenges that come with being department chair.

A Chicago native who moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, as a child, Roberts did his undergraduate studies at Davidson College and his graduate studies at Northwestern University. He and his wife returned to the Triangle when he joined the department as an Assistant Professor in 2009. “Duke was a combination of a great research institution and also being close to our family and friends,” Roberts said. He knew he would be able to pursue his research interests alongside other great economists at Duke.

Much of Roberts’ research centers around Industrial Organization. He shared how he became interested in the field. “I ask my graduate students, ‘when you read the newspaper, what are the articles you're most excited to read?’ When I was in college, I gravitated towards firm strategy and what firms were doing to respond to a new policy, how they were marketing, how they were setting priorities, how they were innovating. These are some of the topics related to Industrial Organization.” More recently, Roberts is exploring this area in the context of healthcare providers and how their organizations are structured and evolving. 

On top of research, Roberts also teaches several classes. In addition to being recognized for being in the top 5% of undergraduate teaching evaluations more than once, Roberts has also won teaching awards throughout his time at Duke. He received the Howard D. Johnson Teaching Award in 2014 and was named a Bass Fellow in 2016. Roberts is confident he will be able to continue to provide a valuable education for his students while being chair. “My plan will be to compartmentalize and plan certain times of day to focus just on teaching, research, and my departmental service.”

Roberts is looking forward to taking a more active role in the department. He cites previous chairs as having done an excellent job in setting him up for success, and inspiring his goals. “The department has evolved over time,” Roberts said. “Undergraduate and graduate programs have shot up in the rankings. We’re at the next stage of our evolution where we're going to be deciding what we’re going to look like five, 10, 15 years from now.” He explains that he didn’t want to become chair despite the challenges it may bring, but because of them. “I was ready to take on a new adventure,” he said. “My goal is to make sure that we can respond to all the challenges that come our way and come out a stronger department.”

When it comes to being chair, Roberts hopes to inspire everyone who works within the department to take a sense of ownership in what they do, whether it be teaching, research, or service. “We all have ownership of this department, and with that ownership comes a lot of responsibility,” he said, “This is an aspect of our lives as members of the department, faculty and staff, where we are all part of something bigger than what we do individually.”

Roberts feels working in academia has prepared him for the challenges of continuing to teach and conduct his own research while chair. He cites graduate school as helping him learn how to balance different priorities when there isn’t much guidance. “I have worked a lot on my time management skills because it’s one of the difficulties about working in academia. To be successful, you've got to figure out how to solve abstract problems without any regular deadlines.”

Roberts takes the helm at a unique time in Duke history. Because of the current pandemic, fall classes will continue to be conducted partly online. Roberts is more than up to the challenge of integrating these new ways of instruction. “I feel like econ is very well-positioned for online learning,” Roberts said. “We have a number of our faculty who have gotten very, very good at online education. And we're also doing a really good job of sharing best practices among our faculty.”

Besides balancing his teaching, research, and chair duties, Roberts is also working on how to best balance his home life. His wife also works and they have 10-year-old twins. “I think that's good for my kids to see their parents having pressing responsibilities with their jobs,” he said. “But I'm also really protective of family time.”

Roberts will be taking advice he commonly gives his children and applying it to his work as chair. “I tell them, ‘with the right amount of energy and enthusiasm, you can do anything that you put your minds to.’”