For Liz Schmitt, students have 'unlimited capacity to surprise, delight'

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet Elizabeth “Liz” Schmitt, professor of economics and recent co-chair of the Middle States accreditation review, as well as the faculty lead for a student-retention project and often involved in other part-time administration tasks—but satisfied, for now, that the classroom is “exactly where I should be.”

Q.  What is your academic background?
A. I was born and raised in St. Louis, the daughter of an English professor, so it runs in the family a little bit. I went to Truman State in Missouri for my bachelor’s in economics, then went on to the University of Iowa. I was finishing as a graduate student at Iowa when I was hired by SUNY Oswego.

Q.  When and how did the SUNY Oswego offer come about?
A. The summer of 1995. In the market for economics professors, every January the American Economics Association has its annual meeting, and there’s a job market associated with it. I had probably 25 interviews that January, and Oswego was one of them. It clicked; it was a good interview. Later in January, I flew out to Oswego. Everything about the campus and the department (showed) a collegiality, a sense of humor. The area reminded me of the Midwest—students that are sincere, thoughtful, genuine.

Q. So you’re almost at the 20-year mark with the college.
A. I’m at the big 2-0 this year. It went so fast. All of a sudden you’re the veteran as the younger faculty come in, and you wonder, “How did that happen?”

Q.  What is your area of expertise within economics?
A. I was hired and mostly specialized in what we call monetary economics. The course I teach most is “Money and Banking.” I’ve taught a variety of other courses to support the department, but that would be the bread and butter.

Q.  You’re in a field that constantly gives you fresh teaching material.
A. It’s been an exciting ride the past six or seven years. I taught “Money and Banking” in the fall of 2008 as institution after institution was failing, and the students were thinking, “I’m never going to get a job.” The field has really changed; the text has substantially altered to talk about how the Federal Reserve handles these crises, why the existing regulation wasn’t enough and what was the core problem of financial institutions. So it’s a matter of getting students to understand that no system is truly safe.

Q.  Have you nurtured students to careers in economics?
A. I’ve seen many students go on to financial analysis, financial planning. There are a couple that are vice presidents at investment firms who once upon a time took courses from me, others that have gone on as traders in the futures and options markets. Others have gone off to graduate school.

Q.  How do you fit in with the current emphasis on experiential learning?
A. I’ve supervised a number of internships, sometimes through local brokerage houses and in banking. I really like the experiential learning because it helps reinforce soft skills that I’ve been telling them about. By soft skills, I mean you need to write well. You can’t send me an email where “u” is one letter, because it’s not. By practicing professional communications with me, it becomes second nature when you’re on the job. Professional behavior also reflects on you. So does how you deal with setbacks. Those soft skills behind economics or any other discipline that we teach can be the hardest to drive home. But that’s what distinguishes those who move up from those who stay put.

Q.  What are your current research interests?
A. One thing I ‘ve liked in this career is my research interests have become eclectic. Often I’m partnering with other faculty and I’m doing things that weren’t necessarily what I pursued in graduate school. Currently, I work as faculty lead on the Starfish (student retention software) project. I’m also working on a data set involving police discretion, a rich data set of student interactions with police, gathered in psychology, so I’m working with someone in that department to see if we can test a model about factors that affect police discretion.

Q.  What are you proudest of in your academic career?
A. I received the President’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2008. I was nominated by a former student, and I think that was really a proud moment. I am also very proud of the Middle States review, what we were able to do as a campus. It’s a group effort. You cannot have a successful accreditation without all hands on board, inside academic affairs and outside. I thought the report evolved into a tone that was confident about what we do and what we have to offer, but also very candid about what we can do better.

Q.  What characterizes the students you’ve met at SUNY Oswego?
A. Earnest. Friendly. I mentioned that they’re thoughtful. Sometimes people degenerate to a “kids today!” lecture. I remember in my early days on campus when I would have a baby in a stroller on campus—and this was long before the disability buttons (for doors)—and students would never fail to stop their conversation, walk to the door and open it for me. Just yesterday, I was carrying a big box of exams and the same thing happened. Those kinds of things tell you about someone’s thoughtfulness and character. ... The increasing diversity of this campus is very exciting. Students today show just a wealth of different experiences. At Commencement, the students all walk across the stage, but some climbed a mountain to make that walk. It’s an honor and a privilege to be the Sherpa for those who had to climb the mountain. Our top students, I’d put them against students anywhere—Harvard, MIT. I try to tell students that polish and sophistication does not make others smarter.

Q.  What are your off-campus interests?
A. I’m much of a homebody. But I’ve volunteered a lot through my kids’ schools. I’ve actually written the questions and been the quizmaster for trivia-night fundraisers through the school. At home, I really love to read, and my kids love some board games, so I love family night with board games. It’s just a beautiful night.

Q.  What can you tell us about your family?
A. I’ve been married for 19 years this summer to Ed Schmitt, who works at Time Warner Cable—I married the cable guy. (Laughs.) We have two sons, Patrick and Timothy, 12 and 16. Once a year we go back to St. Louis. We both come from large families, we’re each one of five siblings. We always try once a year to have everybody in the same place.

Q.  What’s next for Liz Schmitt?
A. It’s shocking to be mid-career. I joke with my students and say, “I’ll be here all week ... and another 20 years after that.” (Laughs.) We begin to think about administrative opportunities. My nest is not empty and I just can’t imagine not being with students in the classroom every week. I embrace a lot of these part-time administrative opportunities, but I’ve pushed away at a full-time administrative position, because I just think I would miss teaching too much right now. I don’t know how I can describe to you how much different it can be each semester—the unlimited capacity of students to surprise and delight. Midcareer, you look at this classroom and you step back with some satisfaction and say, “I’m exactly where I should be. I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.”