7/08/2010

Obituary - Juanita Kreps, James B. Duke professor of economics

Juanita Kreps was one of the most amazing people ever to grace the Duke campus, and it's a miracle that she ever got here at all.

She was born in the little town of Lynch, Kentucky, born into poverty and tension and uncertainty and unhappiness. Her father was a struggling coal mine operator.

At age 4, her parents divorced and she lived with her mother until 12 or 13, when the Great Depression forced her into a state boarding school. For most of her generation, that would be the end of their education.

But somehow Berea College entered her life, a school dedicated to the rescue of bright children in the bleakness of southern Appalachia. She flourished and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. And she came to Duke -- the precise story of her admission and scholarships lost in time. -- receiving a masters (1944) and doctorate (1948).

During her years as a Duke student, she became the wife of another promising young economist, Clifton H. Kreps Jr., and for a while she allowed his career to whipsaw hers. They went from Denison University to Hofstra to Queens College, which is a division of the City University of New York. He was hired. She was an adjunct.

By the mid 50's, Clifton moved to UNC in Chapel Hill, where he began his ascent , becoming Wachovia Professor of Banking. He passed away ten years ago.

Juanita Kreps returned to Duke in 1955, and went steadily through the academic ranks, reaching the top rung as James B. Duke Professor of Economics in 1972, the first woman in an endowed chair. This was no small achievement at a school where -- for most of her years -- just about every prominent faculty member -- save Anne Firor Scott -- was a white male.

Kreps was notable on campus for her liberal views. In one class she said the size of the federal debt did not matter (it was only a few hundred million at the time), because it was money that Americans owed to other Americans. Alzheimer's robbed us of the chance to hear any update.

On a predominantly conservative campus, she was one of the first to speak of the right to choose abortion. In death, her family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to Planned Parenthood or the Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill.

Her specialty was the labor demographics of women and older workers.

Consider her articles and books:

“Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work” (1971), about how women were excluded from top jobs and settled for low salaries, while still being expected to be responsible for housework.

“Lifetime Allocation of Work and Leisure: Essays in the Economy of Aging” (1971);

and “Women and the American Economy” (1976).

Kreps entered the administration of Duke, and was last Dean of the Women's College (then occupying East Campus) from 1969 until 1972. She presided over its devolvement, with female students (co-eds in the contemporary term) gaining full status in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering.

By 1972, her national stature was such that the New York Stock Exchange did the unprecedented, naming her a director. Talk about sitting amid conservative white men!!

In 1973, President Terry Sanford made her a vice president of the university without specific portfolio. In 1976, Sanford mentioned her to the Democratic Presidential candidate and his staff, and after winning, Jimmy Carter named her the fourth woman ever to sit in the cabinet, and the first to be secretary of commerce. There were some ripples beyond sex; this post traditionally went not to an economist but to someone immersed in private business.

Announcing her nomination, President Jimmy Carter said it was hard to find qualified women. Asked if she agreed, Ms. Kreps replied, "I do think we have to do a better job of looking in the case of both women and minorities."

"I think she disagrees with me," a smiling Mr. Carter said.

"I don't think you have to shy away from the idea of tokenism," she told the Washington Post in 1977, soon after being confirmed by the Senate. "It's just a stage we have to go through."

Kreps defined her ambition: "a new era, in which corporations would boast of how much they had spent on socially desirable activities and corporate executives would be esteemed by shareholders and their peers for the same reason."

The New York Times, in an unusual 1100 word obituary written by a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, said she sought new laws to ensure privacy for millions of consumers, requiring insurance, financial and credit card companies to tell customers about information collected on them, to explain adverse decisions affecting them, and to accord them rights to challenge erroneous data in their files.

She championed minority owned businesses, female and elderly workers, the unemployed, and urban areas starting to wither from outsourcing of jobs.

Inside the Carter administration, she battled Treasury over trade-regulation enforcement, the State Department over commercial attach├ęs who help American businesses overseas, and with the national security adviser over sensitive technology exports to Communist countries.

She undertook notable trade missions world wide, including the Communist nations of China and the Soviet Union.

Above all, Washington was a lonely experience. Her husband was unable to leave UNC and she commuted most weekends. She left the Cabinet after three years when her husband tried to commit suicide.

Her evaluation of her Carter years included the remark that she was never part of the "Boy's Breakfast Club" that met regularly at the White House to advise the President on domestic economic policy.

Corporate America knocked loudly at Krep's door at Duke. Over time, she became a director of J.C. Penney, Eastman Kodak, R J Reynolds Nabisco, Citicorp, United Airlines, AT&T, Armco, Zurn Industries, John Deere and Company, Chrysler Corporation, and TIAA-CREF, which is the giant pension fund specializing in serving educators.

Oh yes, she was also chair of the company which brings us the College Boards and other exams, Educational Testing Service.

In the academic word, she received 15 honorary degrees, plus other awards and recognition.

Berea College put her on its board, as did UNC-Wilmington. And so did The Duke Endowment, a separate charity founded by James B. Duke that is often confused with the University.

As for the name Juanita, Kreps just shook her head. She was of Scottish-Irish heritage, and said "My mother liked the name and she claimed she might have some Spanish ancestry," she told the Washington Post in her soft spoken way. "But I don't think I'm the Juanita type," she said. "I should have been called Emily."

At Duke Kreps is memorialized with the Juanita and Clifton Kreps chair in economics. She received the Duke University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service—considered the University’s highest honor.

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