CSMGEP Profiles: Marie T. Mora, Texas-Pan American

A Room of One's Own

Marie T. Mora, Professor of Economics, University of Texas--Pan American

Lisa D. Cook Portrait“I had absolutely no interest in economics,” says Marie T. Mora, professor of economics at the University of Texas–Pan American. “As an undergraduate, I literally took classes to avoid economics because of the terrible things I’d heard about it—it was boring, confusing, too many graphs. And I associated it with business.”

It wasn’t long, however, until her head was turned. While taking an anthropology class, then her major, on the modernization of traditional societies, the connection was made. “I saw how economics is a very real part of most aspects of life, and how interesting and wide-ranging the field really is. I changed my major at the end of that semester, took my principles classes in the summer, and then took 18 hours of econ the next fall, which I wouldn’t advise, by the way.”

Since then, she has never turned back.

It’s hard to imagine a more dynamic and relevant setting in which to apply economics than at University of Texas– Pan American, which sits just 25 minutes from the U.S.–Mexico border. Mora’s research, in fact, focuses on border relationships and labor, two topics in nearly every headline of the day.

“We’re really one community that just happens to be separated by a border,” she says. “I find it interesting that so many policies that affect minorities—as well as women—are designed by people who do not have a personal perspective on the consequences of such policies. This whole issue of building a fence along the U.S.–Mexico border seems to be pushed by non–Hispanics in Washington who are quite unfamiliar with the dynamics of the border region. Our metropolitan area here of McAllen depends a lot on Mexican nationals crossing the border for leisure day or weekend trips for shopping, eating out, and quite a few Americans work in Mexico as well. Many U.S. natives here have family directly across the border, so the whole idea of building fences goes against what this community is about.”

Mora regularly conveys such realities to her students. “I bring in current events and show them that economics is not done in a vacuum.” Another reality Mora conveys to her students, in this case the growing numbers of women in her classes, is the amount of hard work that lies ahead and the hard choices that career and family present.

“As economists, we talk about scarcity,” she says. “We can’t have it all, so of course, we all make sacrifices. But, given how important publishing is at the beginning of the tenure-track clock, it seems like one of the worst times to be distracted by marriage or children. I expect that some people will criticize me for saying this, because I don’t have any children myself. Unfortunately I have seen several promising female economists who essentially give up their careers to get married and have children.”

Mora finds that disheartening at times. “When women drop out, it’s so hard to make up that lost time, especially with publications. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. What we need is a stronger support network so that women can continue publishing even if they leave a tenure-track position, to keep their options open.”

Mora’s own early history was one of furious writing and publishing. Her successful publications and teaching led to tenure and a full professorship by age 36. Most recently she has assumed the presidency of the American Society of Hispanic Economists (ASHE)—a professional association of economists who are concerned with the under-representation of Hispanics in the economics profession at a time when Hispanics represent 15% of the U.S. population.

Her early accomplishments can be attributed to her own determination and focus, and perhaps the fact that her now-husband (and frequent coauthor), Alberto Dávila, didn’t live in the same city. For the first seven years, they managed a long-distance relationship. “It was hard,” she said, “but it worked because I had my own space and no expectations on my time. I would teach and do research, and then go home and do more.”

“We can’t have it all, so of course, we all make sacrifices. But, given how important publishing is at the beginning of the tenure-track clock, it seems like one of the worst times to be distracted by marriage or children.”

Her advice to those in new tenure-track positions is “to completely work over time on your research during the first few years. While a six-year tenure clock sounds like a long time, it goes quickly, and it is very easy to fall behind.” In other words, “crank out the journal articles. The process is slow.”

To graduate students, she urges them not to lose perspective. “The things we do in courses—workbook problems, theory— are not the usual things we do in research. It helps to know that this isn’t what you’ll be doing the rest of your life. Research buys you that.”

She also urges graduate students not to be shy. “I was too shy to even introduce myself to Professor Finis Welch, a noted labor economist, even though he was the reason I had applied to the program. Faculty want to help you, especially if they’re interested in what you’re doing.”

Today, Mora still finds economics extremely satisfying. It even comes in handy while killing time in an interminable line in Hungary, where she and her husband found themselves recently on one of their many and frequent travels. Frustrated with the slow pace and perhaps even more bewildered by the lack of impatience of the Hungarians, it dawned on Mora just how imbued economics is in our psyches.

“To an American, standing in a long line drives us crazy, because in our world, time is money. But there, everyone was waiting patiently. It’s probably a vestige of the Communist regime. If you’re not market oriented, the value of time might not appear as important.”

Clearly, the value of time isn’t lost on Mora.

Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What is your idea of a perfect day?
A perfect day is one when I go wine-tasting with my husband, after spending the morning walking among ancient ruins in Europe.

What’s on your nightstand?
Some Argentine and Uruguayan pesos that, for some unknown reason, I haven’t put away from a trip I took last year, and the book, Commanding Heights, How the Scots Invented the Modern World.

How do you treat yourself?
By traveling abroad three or four times a year. There’s more to life than working—there’s inexpensive wine and good food.

What’s your favorite indulgence?
Flying business class on international flights.

What trait do you most deplore in others?
Lack of curiosity—when they believe what they’re being told without questioning

Whom do you most admire?
My grandparents, because they always stressed the importance of doing the right thing and of always being willing to help out those who needed it.

What’s your favorite sport?
Soccer (in fact, that is the only sport I like).

What’s your most annoying/bad habit?
Rearranging the dishes in the dishwasher to be more space-efficient after my husband loads it; it drives him crazy.

What’s your favorite movie?
Spirited Away, which is a wonderful Japanese animation by Hayao Miyazaki. I also enjoy Vertigo andCabaret.