Rice’s economics department influences Mexican policy, business

Special to the Rice News

Rice University’s Department of Economics has had an influence in Mexico in recent years, largely because of Ph.D. graduates who landed high-level positions in the country’s government, academic and business sectors. Rice economics faculty members also have made considerable contributions.

• Dagobert Brito, the George A. Peterkin Professor of Political Economics at Rice, is a corresponding member and the lone foreign economist on Mexico’s National Academy of Science, an association of distinguished members of the scientific community. For more than 10 years, he has been an economic adviser to the Mexican government.

• Herminio Blanco, an assistant professor of economics at Rice in the 1980s, returned to his native Mexico and became a top economic adviser and chief negotiator during deliberations that led to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He served in key posts under several Mexican presidents, culminating with a six-year stint as secretary of commerce and industrial development under President Ernesto Zedillo. He now leads an international consulting group.

• Peter Hartley, professor of economics, has presented seminars at the Mexican Central Bank, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas, an economics “think tank” in Mexico City, and a conference organized by the Energy Regulatory Commission for members of Mexican Congress. He has also published research on reforming Mexico’s electricity industry.

• George Zodrow, professor of economics, participated in preparation of a report on tax-reform proposals under the auspices of a Mexican national research institute.

Several Ph.D. graduates of Rice’s economic program are making careers in Mexico.

• Hector Olea, who received his doctorate from Rice in 1989, was part of Blanco’s team during NAFTA talks. As director general of Mexico’s Energy Regulatory Commission for five years, Olea was one of the most powerful men in Mexico while still in his 30s. He is the founder of Gauss, a business development firm specializing in the Mexican energy sector.

• Juan Rosellon, who received his master’s and doctorate degrees from Rice in 1992, is professor of economics at Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas. He was director general for economic policy at the Mexican Energy Regulatory commission from 1995 to 1997. After leaving Rice, he won an international competition to be a visiting professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

• Jose Luis Negrin ’77 is coordinator of research on financial regulation at the Mexican Central Bank.

• Joyce Sadka ’99 is on the economics faculty of Centro de Investigation Economico, one of most prestigious universities in Mexico.

• Eduardo Martinez-Chombo, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees in 1996 and 2002, respectively, and Jose Murillo Garza, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees in 1997, are both executives at the Mexican Central Bank.

The history of the connection between Rice and Mexico began with Blanco, who specialized in macroeconomics and international economics during his five years at Rice.

“In addition to Blanco’s scholarly efforts, he had a deep interest in and knowledge of the ‘real world’ of policymaking, especially in his native Mexico,” said Zodrow. “It was not surprising his career skyrocketed after he left Rice for a series of important positions in the Mexican government.”

After Blanco returned to Mexico, he began to recruit students to attend Rice, with the aim of having them return to important policymaking posts in Mexico. Blanco became influential and powerful in Mexico, and he was Rice’s entrée into the Mexican power structure, Brito said.

In addition, Rice students recently have performed well in dissertation competitions that pit them against students from top-tier programs like Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. In a competition sponsored by Banamex, a major Mexican bank, Olea and Negrin won first-place awards, and Martinez-Chombo and Garza also placed in top positions. Rosellon won a prestigious Mexican Economics Association award.

“These awards have improved Rice’s reputation in Mexico substantially, especially within government and academia,” Hartley said.

Besides contacts inside Mexico, other attributes make Rice a stellar training program for ambitious students who want to return to their native country.

“Rice is a very good hands-on program,” Brito said. “It is small, so we are able to give students personal attention. Also, we have adopted an informal policy of arranging internships in Mexico for Mexican students who finish Ph.D. coursework. We help them come up with interesting thesis questions on topics that are important in Mexico. Thus, they write something useful, and when they go on the job market they know something about a topic people in Mexico care about.”

Students are impressed with the program’s personal nature. “One of the best characteristics of the Rice Ph.D. program [in economics] is the low student-professor ratio that permits such a fruitful relationship as the one that I have had over the years with Dr. Brito,” Rosellon said.

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