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Alvin Roth at Nobel ceremony

Alvin E. Roth, MS ’73, PhD ’74, received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in December 2012. PHOTO: Alexander Mahmoud (© Nobel Media AB)

How to Bring a Nobel Laureate to Stanford

Susan, '84, and Craig McCaw, '72, and Leatrice Lee, '45, helped attract Alvin Roth to Stanford. Then he won academia's highest honor. 

Craig and Susan McCaw

Winter 2013

Stanford is currently home to 19 Nobel laureates, 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, 24 MacArthur "genius" Fellows, 3 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and hundreds of other distinguished scholars. Why do so many great intellects make their scholarly homes on the Farm?

The quality of peers and students are attractions, as is Stanford's idyllic campus. But even lofty minds have practical considerations when evaluating offers. Although the details tend to be the province of deans and department chairs tasked with luring the best of the best to Stanford, sometimes it takes a village.

In 2010, Stanford trustee Susan McCaw, '84, and her husband, Craig, '72, heard from Richard Saller, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences (and the Kleinheinz Family Professor of European Studies), about the challenges of recruiting established scholars to Stanford, particularly in the Department of Economics.

They decided to endow the McCaw Senior Visiting Professorship in Economics, with the idea that it would attract distinguished scholars to Stanford for extended residencies—perhaps a year or more.

It worked even better than they expected.

"I had wanted to recruit Alvin Roth since my days as dean at Chicago," says Saller. "He has been a pioneer in not just one, but two fields of economics—the design of matching algorithms and experimental economics."

An economist specializing in game theory, Roth, MS '73, PhD '74, is best known for creating matching systems for kidney transplants, for assigning medical residents to hospitals, and for public school choice.

Saller's ambition was realized, and Roth decided to move to Stanford—for good—as the Craig and Susan McCaw Professor of Economics in fall 2012. 

Leatrice Lee

Meanwhile, former trustee Chien Lee, '75, MS '75, MBA '79, had also been thinking about faculty recruitment and retention, especially with regard to the Bay Area’s high cost of living. 

"I became aware of the faculty housing shortage when I was on the Board of Trustees, and it has always stayed with me," Lee says.

He shared his concern with his mother, Leatrice Lee, '45, who in 2010 was getting ready to move from her home in Menlo Park, near campus, to a senior living community. With the approval of the Stanford development and housing offices, she donated her home as an attractive housing option for new faculty.

It was in this home on October 15, 2012, that Alvin Roth would receive a 3:30 a.m. call from Sweden. He had won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. (Roth shared the prize with Lloyd Shapley, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles.)

How does it feel to help bring a Nobel-quality scholar to Stanford?

"We are delighted that he is part of the Stanford family," says Susan McCaw. "Al is an extraordinary scholar and one with whom we are proud to have our name associated. But the kudos must go to Richard Saller and economics chair Jon Levin who knew how to marshal the resources, identify the key talent, and successfully recruit a talented professional."

The McCaw chair will be associated with Roth for the long term, fulfilling its purpose of adding strength and luster to the economics department. Eventually, it can again be directed toward attracting senior visitors.

The next chair recipient will have big shoes to fill, though, and perhaps strong feelings about where to live. With a record of academic good luck, the former home of Leatrice Lee will be in hot demand if Roth and his wife, Emilie, someday decide to buy their own place.

"In no way could we have imagined it would lead to this," says Chien Lee. "Even if a promising junior faculty member had moved into the house, we would feel good about it.

"When you do a good deed, something good happens!"