The University Record, April 15, 1998

Golden Apple Lecture traces history, pays tribute

Jim Adams (left) was called 'a great teacher' and a 'nurturer by nature,' by Lee C. Bollinger (right), longtime friend and colleague. Here, Adams and Bollinger greet each other before the lecture begins as Jean Magnano Bollinger looks on. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Paula Saha

Jim Adams did not think his time would come so soon.

He'd always envisioned, he said, that the person who told him it was time to give his "last lecture" would have two characteristics. One, that he would come too soon, and two, that "he would wear the face of some disagreeable university administrator."

While Adams admitted there was some truth to the first characteristic, "I must report that the second characteristic is utterly false," he said happily when Heidi Lubin, LS&A sophomore and chair of Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching (SHOUT), presented him with the 1998 Golden Apple Award at Rackham Auditorium on April 6.

"Rather then resent an administrator for sending me an unwanted letter, I can thank Ms. Lubin and all of her colleagues at SHOUT for allowing me to savor a moment I had expected to be sadly free of pleasure."

The Golden Apple Award is given by U-M students to "teachers who consistently treat every lecture as if it were their last and strive to not only disseminate knowledge but to inspire and engage students in its pursuit." At the award presentation, recipients have the opportunity to deliver their "ideal last lecture."

Adams, professor of economics, was introduced by long-time colleague and friend President Lee C. Bollinger, who confirmed students' sentiments on Adams' teaching.

"He is always working on lucidity--always looking for the analogy that will clarify as well as enrich," Bollinger said.

From Microsoft and the State Department to beer in Germany, such analogies abounded as Adams delivered his ideal last lecture. Titled "Beginnings of the End," he shared events both personal and professional that brought him to this so-called end, and shaped his academic interests in industrial organization and European economy.

A year with his family as a visiting professor at Aix-en Provence, France, said Adams, changed his life.

Taught in primarily the neo-classical tradition, Adams had learned that the methods used to study one's own country's economy would "fit other rich market economies with trivial alterations at most." His experience in Aix-en Provence, however, forced Adams to ponder a new question that he still grapples with today. "To what extent is the French economy, or indeed any economy, exceptional--the product of history and culture, of public policies and social institutions--and to what extent can it be explained in terms of the same fundamental factors that shape any rich market economy?"

Adams brought that question back to the U-M and launched a course on the European economy. He still asks these questions in his classes, expecting the answers to "reveal a great deal about the virtues and the varieties of public policy," both for America and Europe.

To wrap up his lecture, Adams went back to an experience that first convinced him to commit to the professorial life. At the age of 11, he attended the Salzburg Seminar on American Studies with his father, also a professor of economics. There, he watched as his father and Sidney Fine, professor of history and 1993 recipient of the Golden Apple Award, engaged in an intellectual interchange that Adams called "the most stimulating, the most exciting show I have ever seen."

Forty years later, Adams admits there has been more to the academic life than he originally had expected. "But for me," he said, "professorship has been ideal. It has offered me a life of the mind, but also a life of action; a life devoted to understanding, but a rich set of opportunities to persuade...I cannot imagine a better life."

Having traced his own journey to this ideal last lecture, Adams gave students one line of advice: "It is never too soon to start reflecting on the beginnings of your own end."