Elzinga: 50 Years of Service

By Shreyas Hariharan

Professor Kenneth Elzinga is considered a legend among many at the University of Virginia. This year, he will complete 50 years of teaching economics at UVA. Since 1967, he has taught nearly 47,000 students in “Principles of Microeconomics”, the largest course at the University. He was an expert economic witness in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., a Supreme Court antitrust case that reversed a nearly century-old precedent that was economically misguided. He is the author of four mystery novels in which the protagonist uses economics to solve crime. He serves on six boards, consults for several companies, and constantly travels. However, Elzinga will be remembered as not only a great economist, but as a generous and kind man.

Over the past 50 years, Elzinga has not left his office until he has seen the very last student waiting to meet him. Since he teaches a course that has 1,000 students, this is no easy task. Elzinga acknowledges this difficulty, saying “Luckily, my wife is very understanding of my calling to my students.” Although scheduled office hours are from 2:30 to 5 pm, he often does not head home until 7 or 8 pm.

 
Dr. Kenneth Elzinga

Dr. Kenneth Elzinga

 

During office hours, Elzinga will give students his undivided personal attention. He is open to discussing a wide range of topics. He explained, “When you have a thousand students, there are many who have serious problems. In some cases, their mother has cancer, or their brother is in jail. UVA attracts so many good students. If the student is having trouble academically, particularly in a principles class, it is usually not because the material is too difficult. It is probably because of something personal in their lives, like a bad break-up, that is keeping them from being focused. If that is the real reason they are having trouble in Econ 201, it does not make sense for me to go over Chapter 11 with them again. They can understand the material in Chapter 11, but it is about how they get focused on it. That is the best I can do.”

Elzinga’s office is intentionally designed to be an inviting and welcoming place for students. He makes sure that his fridge is stocked with cookies and soda. Samyak Dixit (UVA ‘17), an international student from India, described Elzinga as an extremely genuine person who related to every student on a personal level. He said, “Professor Elzinga asked me questions about India and cricket. He listens patiently to every problem that someone has, not just course related issues.” Elzinga also gives his students his personal phone number in case they want to contact him. According to Elzinga, “If it is important to them, it is important to me.”

So, what motivates Elzinga to dedicate himself to students so deeply? A professor during Elzinga’s college years changed his life. Elzinga was a first-generation college student who was planning to become a fishing package salesman after graduating from college. “I was naive and had no clue what I was doing”, remarked Elzinga. He recalls that he wondered in college why ‘Dean’ was such a common first name among faculty. It took him the whole year of college to realize that ‘Dean’ was an academic title and not a name. He said, “I had a professor who was very kind to me. He invited me home. He was not curt. He didn’t slam his office door, or think that he was too busy to talk to a kid like me who did not have a clue on what was going on. He gave me direction and had more confidence in me than I had in myself. So I had a role model when I became a professor.” That professor, Sherrill Cleland (1924-2015), taught economics at Kalamazoo College and later served as the President of Marietta College.

 
Dr. Sherrill Cleland

Dr. Sherrill Cleland

 

Elzinga has a unique 40 year-old tradition of inviting all his students home for a Thanksgiving dinner. When asked how this started, he is quick to deflect praise. “I give full credit to my wife on suggesting that”, he said. Doris Yuan (UVA ‘17), a student from New York who stays in Charlottesville during Thanksgiving, received a personal email from Elzinga inviting her to his home for dinner. She said, “He remembers my name - I didn’t expect that. He and his wife were very welcoming. He never seemed impatient when I kept asking him questions. We talked about economics, dogs, and cars.” Besides students who live far away, Elzinga’s Thanksgiving dinner also attracts students with dysfunctional or nonexistent home lives. Elzinga explained, “These students are either not welcome home, or their parents are getting divorced. They are always welcome. We are happy to have them at home.”

Elzinga also invites groups of students to his house for dessert throughout the year. Students who visit Elzinga’s home get a sense of his personal interests. He has two English bulldogs named Oligopoly (“Ollie”) and Monopoly (“Pollie”). He also loves vintage cars; he owns a ‘68 Mustang Flashback, a ‘32 Ford, and a ‘49 (Mercury) Street Rod with “ECON 201” on its license plate.

What inspires Elzinga to continue to do good after so many years? He points to a picture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples. He said, “If you put that in historical context, people who washed feet were servants, the menial class. I put that picture on my wall to remind me everyday that the students who come to my office are the people whose feet I’m supposed to wash. Not literally, I don’t think. But in many ways, it is important that I serve them.” Connected to this message of humility, when asked what he would do if he could bring one change to the world, he instantly replied with “world peace.”

Whether it means not leaving his office until he sees the last student waiting to meet him, advising a student going through a personal issue, or opening his house for meals with students, Kenneth Elzinga, over the past fifty years, has demonstrated an inspiring level of selflessness, generosity, and humility.

Shreyas Hariharan