CSMGEP Profiles: Peter Blair Henry, New York University

A Unique, Dual Perspective

Peter Blair Henry, Dean, New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business; Dean Richard R. West Professor of Business; William R. Berkley Professor of Economics & Finance

Peter Blair HenryPeter Blair Henry’s first lesson in international economics came when he was only eight years old and his family moved from rural Jamaica to the comfortable Chicago suburb of Wilmette. Henry didn’t understand why his neighbors in the United States were better off and had much more disposable income than the middle-class families he knew in Jamaica. The elusive answer to the question of why the average standard of living varies from country to country has been the focus of his work and still drives him today.

As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Henry got hooked on economics, which seemed to offer him a perfect way to combine his love of math, science, and problem-solving with his interest in social issues. Professor William (Sandy) Darity, Jr. encouraged him to explore the field of economics and gave him a few of his own articles to read, which Henry found fascinating. He had trouble understanding some of the math, however; at Darity’s suggestion, he took several math classes during his last two years at UNC.

Darity also encouraged Henry to apply for Marshall and Rhodes fellowships. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from UNC, Henry became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. In 1997, Henry received his PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From MIT he went to the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, where he was the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of International Economics.

About his experience, Henry has said, “I was born in Jamaica but was educated by, and now serve, prestigious first-world institutions, so I believe that I have a unique, dual perspective.” Perhaps because of that perspective, Henry was tapped in 2008 by then–U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to lead the Presidential Transition Team in its review of international lending agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank. In June 2009, President Obama appointed Henry to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

In 2010, Henry was appointed Dean of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business and joined the NYU Stern Faculty as the William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Finance. At the age of 40, he became the youngest dean in the school’s 115-year history. Since becoming dean, Henry has introduced topics into the business school that once seemed unrelated to business—such as urbanization and human rights. While Henry believes globalization has greatly influenced business and business education, he points out that it also provides an opportunity to interconnect, to apply business tools to benefit society and to solve some of the larger problems with which economists struggle. “We have to have a different way of thinking about the role of business in society,” he says. “Some 2.9 billion people will move into cities over the next 30 years, almost all in the emerging world. How are we going to finance the infrastructure needed to make that happen? If we get it wrong it will be a huge problem.”

Henry is the author of several path-breaking studies, including “Institutions versus Policies: A Tale of Two Islands,” which he co-authored with Conrad Miller while he was at Stanford. In this study, Henry and Miller challenged conventional wisdom about the role of institutions versus policy in determining economic growth. Comparing Barbados and Jamaica, former British colonies that had inherited almost identical political, economic, and legal institutions, they argued that the divergence in the countries’ standards of living (Barbados’s standard is much higher than Jamaica’s) was the result of the policy choices made by each government, not the nature of their institutions. This study generated a lot of interest not only from economists but also from sociologists such as Orlando Patterson.

Henry remains deeply interested in economic development, the topic of his first book, published in 2013: Turnaround: Third World Lessons for First World Growth. In his book, Henry argues that advanced nations (and developing ones) can learn valuable lessons about economic policy and reform from the experiences of countries formerly labeled “third world.” “If we would only have the humility to observe the lessons that much of the third world provides, there’d be a more prosperous future for us all,” Henry says.

Firmly believing that strong mentorship is a key element of success, Henry encourages young minority economists and business students to find as many allies as they can. For those who struggle with “outsider status,” he suggests that they leverage their natural ability to perceive themselves as others do. This, says Henry, can be useful in a world where clients and customers are ever more likely to come from countries and cultures not their own. “I would encourage anyone, of any race, to hone the ability to bridge different experiences, to use identity as a source of insight and, therefore, advantage.”  In Henry’s own personal and professional experience, his unique perspective has brought him advantages he might not have had otherwise.

“The most important thing,” he continues, “is simply to do the work, to excel in whatever you choose to do. And take care to retain and nurture your intrinsic curiosity, your love of good questions.”

Today, Henry enjoys the combination of research, teaching, and leadership. He is proud that NYU Stern is providing greater access to higher education for high-achieving, low-income students. He is grateful that he is able to “pay forward to the next generation” — through his position at NYU Stern and also his own mentorship of young minority scholars via the Ph.D. Excellence Initiative, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — some of the advantages he has received through his family, his education, and the support of mentors and colleagues.