Campus & Community

Nobelist Amartya Sen to return:

7 min read

Economist to resume Lamont University Professorship

Nobelist Amartya
President Summers said of Sen (above), “Amartya Sen is an incredibly prolific and insightful scholar whose research has forever transformed the way social scientists and others think about a wide range of economic and moral issues.” File photo by Stephanie Mitchell

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen will return to Harvard in January 2004 as Lamont University Professor.

Sen, considered the world’s top expert in welfare economics and a leading global voice for the alleviation of poverty and inequality, is currently head of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Last week, Sen informed Trinity’s governing council and Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would step down from the post of master, the college’s top post, which he has held since 1998. The master of Trinity, the largest and most famous college in Cambridge University, is nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the British monarch.

“I am greatly looking forward to returning to Harvard and resuming normal teaching and research,” Sen said.

Harvard colleagues praised Sen and said they were excited about his return.

“Amartya Sen is an incredibly prolific and insightful scholar whose research has forever transformed the way social scientists and others think about a wide range of economic and moral issues,” said President Lawrence H. Summers. “We are indeed fortunate that Amartya will be returning as a University Professor to our community to offer his colleagues and students the benefit of his extraordinary intellect and personal example. As a member of the Economics Department, I am particularly pleased to be able to welcome back such a distinguished colleague.”

“Amartya’s return to Harvard is deeply gratifying,” said William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “He is a brilliant man, and a moral one. He is that rare combination – a piercing intellect harnessed, by choice, to the most pressing of humanitarian concerns. He has redefined welfare economics, the ways we measure poverty, understand famine, and form collective decisions. His work bears the stamp of a mind in tune with a heart, the practice of scholarship rooted in ethics. I am very glad that our students in economics and philosophy will have Amartya’s example to learn from.”

“We are absolutely delighted that Amartya Sen will be returning as a member of the Economics Department,” said Oliver Hart, Andrew E. Furer Professor of Economics and department chairman.

“It is very exciting news that Amartya Sen is returning to Harvard. There is no one like him,” said Thomas Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity and chairman of the Philosophy Department. “He has made important contributions to both economics and philosophy at a high theoretical level while also addressing important social problems in a useful and productive way. Any class or discussion in which he participates is enlivened by his theoretical brilliance, his knowledge of real world problems, and his compassionate concern for those who suffer as a result of these social ills.”

Sen, 68, was Lamont University Professor at Harvard from 1987 to 1998, when he stepped down to take the post at Trinity, where he had received bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Harvard honored Sen with emeritus status, making him the Lamont University Professor Emeritus.

In resuming the post of Lamont University Professor, which has been vacant since 1998, Sen plans to teach primarily in the FAS departments of Economics and Philosophy. The Thomas W. Lamont University Professorship was established in 1935 by Lamont, AB 1892, for “a scholar pre-eminent in the field of political economy.” The professorship was established in connection with the 300th anniversary of the College.

As a University Professor, Sen will rejoin a select group who hold Harvard’s highest professorial posts. These special endowed positions were established in 1935 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for “individuals of distinction … working on the frontiers of knowledge, and in such a way as to cross the conventional boundaries of the specialties.”

Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics shortly after moving from Harvard to Trinity. The Royal Swedish Academy specifically mentioned the excellence of his work in welfare economics and social choice theory. Despite his responsibilities in England – and international demand to hear him speak – Sen has returned frequently to Harvard.

In June 2000, Sen gave Harvard’s principal Commencement address. In April 2001, he was the concluding speaker in the Radcliffe Institute Inaugural Lecture Series celebrating the founding of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and spoke on “The Many Faces of Gender Inequality.”

This past April, Sen and Summers discussed the problems of terrorism and globalization in the post-Sept. 11 world before a standing-room-only audience during the 2002 Harvard Colloquium on International Affairs, “Globalization After September 11: Has Anything Changed?”

To Sen, overarching problems can be sensibly analyzed through the lens of social choice theory, a field in which he has initiated some of the major developments. In his Nobel Lecture, delivered in December 1998, Sen described the difficulties of trying to make societal judgments in a diverse world. “If there is a central question that can be seen as the motivating issue that inspires social choice theory, it is this: How can it be possible to arrive at cogent aggregative judgments about the society (for example, about ‘social welfare,’ or ‘the public interest,’ or ‘aggregate poverty’), given the diversity of preferences, concerns, and predicaments of the different individuals within society?”

Sen, a citizen of India, graduated from Presidency College in Calcutta and did further studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. He taught economics at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, Trinity College, the Delhi School of Economics, and the London School of Economics. He was appointed professor of economics at Oxford University in 1977 and Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1980. Sen became professor of economis and philosophy at Harvard in 1987 and was appointed Lamont University Professor shortly thereafter.

Since 1998, Sen has also held adjunct and visiting appointments at Harvard based in the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and in the FAS.

Sen served as president of the Econometric Society in 1984, the International Economic Association from 1986 to 1989, the Indian Economic Association in 1989, and the American Economic Association in 1994. He is a fellow of the British Academy and the Econometric Society.

He is also a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Association. He has received more than 60 honorary degrees and been awarded many prizes, including the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Award; the Edinburgh Medal; the Catalonia International Prize; the Eisenhower Medal; the Honorary Companion of Honour, awarded by the monarch of the United Kingdom; the Presidency of the Italian Republic Medal; the Senator Giovanni Agnelli International Prize in Ethics; the Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award; the Brazilian Ordem do Merito Cientifico, Grã-Cruz; and the Bharat Ratna, the highest honor awarded by the president of India.

Sen’s books have been translated into all the major languages of the world. In addition to economic and social choice theory, Sen has contributed to political, moral, and legal philosophy; the causation and prevention of famines, inequalities related to class and gender; development economics; axiomatic choice theory; and decision theory.

His next book, “Rationality and Freedom,” will be published in November by Harvard University Press as a Belknap Book.

Some information for this report was drawn from previous Gazette articles by Alvin Powell and Ken Gewertz.