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Prof. Alicia Munnell Delights In Her Work for BC

Alicia Munnell Made Her Name As an Economist. Now She Successfully Heads the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

12/01/11
Prof. Alicia H. Munnell
Prof. Alicia H. Munnell

December 1, 2011

Prof. Alicia H. Munnell, the Peter. F. Drucker Professor of Management Sciences at the Carroll School of Management, has had an impressive career. She heads a think tank on retirement issues and topics named the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Munnell blogs regularly for Smart Money Encore about retirement issues and, as a veteran economist, is frequently profiled by the media regarding financial topics.

Prior to joining Boston College in 1997, Munnell belonged to the President's Council of Economic Advisers and was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy. She spent an amazing two decades at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where she climbed the ranks quietly but steadily to become senior vice president and director of research. Her writing work is extensive and impressive, of course, and sometimes controversial. A major study she led for the Boston Fed in 1992 looked at whether banks in Boston discriminate with mortgaging lending. “This offended many, but also helped society on multiple levels,” she says.  

Early beginnings
When speaking with the professor, her success seems to have come as a surprise and completely unexpectedly. Munnell grew up in a wealthy Manhattan family and it wasn’t until school that she realized other people's parents worked at all, she says. She had considerable freedom and when attending Wellesley College as an undergraduate she preferred partying over studying, she says. Munnell earned a Master of Arts degree in economics from Boston University and gained excellent early jobs.  

Her first mentor was Joseph A. Pechman, an economist at the Brookings Institution, a major public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Munnell was his research assistant in the 1960s. She says Pechman was the first person she'd met who was supportive of women doing things and the person who got her interested in public policy. Pechman also encouraged Munnell to pursue her Ph.D. degree in economics at Harvard University, which she did while married and raising her two young children. She says the experience was eye-opening and amazing. “There were more women attending than you would think because of the Vietnam War and the faculty and students were incredible and very bright.”

Joining BC
Munnell never expected to become an academic, but once she began working at Boston College she knew she’d found a home. "Boston College is a special place. It says you are a valued member of society and we are so glad you are here. It also allows you to relax," she says.

In her early days as a professor, Munnell taught monetary and fiscal policy theory and practice. Her office had only one phone line and within months of starting the job she pursued an opportunity to establish a center for retirement research. "I’d never asked for a grant before or applied for one. One of my students and I put together the work proposal and budget in October that year," she says. Several million dollars of grant money resulted and today the organization has grown to employ 22 people.

The group produces numerous publications, including a bi-weekly issue brief on all topics to do with retirement, and interest in their work continually grows. Retirement has become much more topical to politicians and society as Baby Boomers approach retirement age. Munnell is delighted to work for the Carroll School and thrilled that the center is thriving. "I find it all so intrinsically interesting," she says.