Omari Swinton—Duke economics alumnus and associate professor of economics at Howard University—wants to break down barriers.
After being recently elected president of the National Economics Association, which "promote[s] the professional lives" of minorities in the field, Swinton—M.A. '03 and Ph.D. '07—wants to combat factors that discourage people of color from pursuing careers in economics.
“As a profession, if we don’t improve the way that we recruit students, we will always have a problem with diversity,” Swinton said. “I think that we struggle with diversity as a profession on several different levels and a lot of it is what people see when they are first exposed to economics.”
In his own research career, Swinton has focused his attention toward the impact of race on success in academia. In a paper co-written with Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, founder and president of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity and Race, Swinton used data to investigate patterns in degrees awarded to black individuals and their success in academic fields.
They found that black women earned twice as many bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees as black men, and black female professors now encounter fewer barriers to success in academia than those who came before them.
In a news release, Swinton said that it is important for universities to value diversity.
“Many universities have a commitment to diversity, but don’t always put it into practice,” Swinton said.
For Swinton, this new role at the helm of the NEA is the result of a lifelong interest in a field that he describes as more than just an academic discipline.
“Economics is useful in many different facets of life...It’s a way of thinking, a logic to approach problems in a different way," Swinton said. "It’s a way to solve things in a way that has defined values."
Recognizing the way systems of defined value emerge in different areas and experiences, Swinton has explored ideas such as the conceptual economics of school grades in his research.
After the historically black Benedict College initiated an effort-based grade scale for those in first-year and second-year-level courses in 2004—entitled Success Equals Effort—Swinton found that effectively assigning a system of value to effort led to a strong positive correlation between "effort" and "knowledge." With certain restrictions, this can "be interpreted as 'effort producing 'knowledge.'"
As the son of an economist, Swinton can trace his interest in economics back to his early years.
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“My dad was an economist," Swinton said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been surrounded by economists. My father was actually in the NEA...and I used to go to the conferences with him as a kid, and I knew then that I wanted to be in this field.”
For Swinton, one of the most rewarding parts of his role as a professor is seeing his students pursue graduate degrees in economics.
“I had two students who I taught in my intermediate microeconomics class that went on to get Ph.D.'s in economics,” Swinton said. “And that’s something that I’m proud of, that I was able to help guide them in the decision to become economists.”
According to Swinton, the field can provide students with a variety of outcomes due to its broad application.
“Whether students get a B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. [in economics], they have many different opportunities because they are taught to think about things in a systematic way,” Swinton said.
During his time as NEA president, Swinton hopes to create initiatives that will continue to help the organization after he is no longer president.
“My goal as the NEA President is to help grow the NEA and hopefully start some initiatives that continue, that push the NEA to continue to exist for fifty more years, as we’re celebrating our fifty year anniversary this year,” Swinton said.
Colleague Gaminie Meepagala, associate chair of economics at Howard University, noted that Swinton encouraged graduate students to complete their Ph.D.'s while serving in his position at the university.
“In the past, the department didn’t graduate that many Ph.D.s over the years," he said. "Dr. Swinton was able to work with them and help them finish their degree and graduate on time."
Meepagala believes that Swinton’s new position with the NEA reflects positively on Howard University. He noted that many faculty members and alumni of their economics department are members of the organization.
“It’s a real honor to select him into that position. He is energetic and committed to improving the department,” Meepagala said.