What it’s like taking a class with the 76th U.S. Treasury Secretary

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew, serving under President Obama’s second term, joined Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in Spring 2017 as Visiting Professor to teach the new course INAF U6092: “Leadership and Policy Development.”

How did I find out about the class?
Early in the semester, Dean Janow made an announcement to students welcoming Secretary Lew as a visiting professor and about a month before the class started, I received an email from SIPA Academic Affairs revealing Secretary Lew’s first course.

Did the class have any prerequisites?
Yes, to be eligible, students had to have taken SIPA U6401 Macroeconomic Analysis taught by Professor Andrea Bubula, which is now offered in both semesters of the academic year. An online application was also required including a resume and a statement of interest. The class was capped at twenty students as a seminar which allowed an intimate setting for candid questions and discussion.

What did the class cover?
The special five-week, one-unit course entitled “Leadership and Policy Development” aimed to familiarize students with current issues in economic policy development and the domestic and international factors influencing public sector decision-making.  The class discussed a number of contemporary issues including those in which the US has played a significant role or has a substantial interest:

  • Policy Practice and Business Tax Reform
  • Ukraine and IMF Quota Reform
  • Managing the US Debt Limit
  • Exchange Rate Management and Financial Stability Coordination
  • Financial Crisis in Puerto Rico

In the class, we discussed the types of dilemmas leaders can be expected to face: unavoidable issues with looming deadlines; managing to avoid a potential crisis and affirmative initiatives where policy leaders choose a policy objective to advance. Students also learned lessons of leadership, hearing stories from behind-the-scenes including from Secretary Lew’s moments in the White House sitting with President Obama.

What assignments were required?
As with most SIPA courses, Secretary Lew assigned required and recommended readings each week. Readings ranged from expert reports drafted in the White House, the US Treasury, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to analysis offered by pieces in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and academic journals including articles authored by Secretary Lew himself in the Harvard Journal on Legislation.

Students also drafted a concise 4-6 page policy memorandum addressing one of the course topics. To prepare for this assignment, Secretary Lew met with every student in a one-on-one meeting to discuss and flesh out key points and to formulate an argument.

Why did you take the class?
Why not? It is not everyday one gets to sit down with a former U.S.Treasury Secretary.

What did you enjoy from this experience?
Secretary Lew’s course provided the opportunity to apply what I had learned in SIPA courses to today’s issues. Prior to taking this class, I had taken courses driven by theoretical framework and models including Economic Development and Macroeconomics, acquiring the tools to understand problem solving and policy making processes. I had developed a background in how economies function in China, Japan, Latin America, the United States and Europe. When I took Secretary Lew’s course, I heard him speak about real life scenarios that require a policy maker to grapple with theory over practice and how to work toward feasible policies. These nuances of leadership, strategy, and practicality are the real treasurers from his class. No pun intended.

[Photo courtesy of Katarina Luz Mayers | Class photo with Jack Lew in the center, and Amir Safa on the far right.]
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