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News, University News

Janet Yellen ’67 to be nominated as Treasury Secretary

Yellen studied economics at Pembroke College, will be first woman in role if confirmed by the Senate

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2020
Janet Yellen standing at a podium

Former Federal Reserve chair and University alum Janet Yellen ’67 will be nominated to head the Treasury Department, President-elect Joe Biden announced Monday. During her time at Pembroke College, Yellen also served as a member of The Herald’s business team.

Yellen, 74, will be the first woman and first University alum nominated for the position. After chairing the Federal Reserve under President Barack Obama and the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, Yellen will take over the Treasury Department if confirmed by the Senate, amid overwhelming economic turmoil resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Janet Yellen is a brilliant choice to be the secretary of treasury,” University President Christina Paxson P’19 said in an interview with The Herald. “She’s a fantastic economist, an incredibly effective leader. She has a long track record of public service. She is perfectly qualified for the job.”

Yellen attended Pembroke College, Brown’s previous all-female coordinate college, from 1963 to 1967, before it merged with the University in 1971. The late Professor of Economics Jim Hanson told The Herald in 2013 that Yellen was the “best undergraduate student” he had ever taught. Hanson died in 2019. 

Though she initially intended to concentrate in philosophy, Yellen switched concentrations after taking her first economics courses at the University, she told Brown Alumni Magazine in 1998, citing economics as a way to translate a “systematic way of thinking about the world” into “policy prescriptions with real social impact.”

In a 2013 email to The Herald, Yellen wrote that she developed a “lifelong passion for economics in general and macroeconomics and international finance in particular” while at the University. 

Paxson, as a female economist herself, noted the significance of the moment in a field that has historically been inaccessible to women.

“Seeing people like Janet move into these amazing positions — as a woman who’s an economist — is very gratifying,” Paxson said, also noting Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ milestone as the first woman in the job.

Yellen — who would oversee the treasury, which manages debts and collecting taxes — would likely face sharp opposition from deficit hawks as the Biden administration enters office and attempts to pass a new stimulus package. 

In August, Yellen told the Washington Post that Congress needed to take “urgent” fiscal action to rescue businesses and individuals. She additionally wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that congressional inaction could lead to the suffering of “millions of needy Americans,” noting that low inflation limited risks of adding to the national debt.

Responsibility for the fiscal side of the economy, Paxson noted, will lie with the United States House and Senate, the power balance of which hinges on two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Still, the Treasury Department will have significant agency over the credit market and credit policies, and Yellen would maintain agency in terms of how she works with the Federal Reserve on monetary policy, Paxson said.

Along with overseeing the Treasury Department’s responsibilities, Yellen would also advise Biden on economic policy. Biden, in his campaign, emphasized the need to address historical economic inequities and take decisive action on climate change. 

Paxson compared Yellen to labor economist Cecilia Rouse, Paxson’s successor as dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. Biden will nominate Rouse to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, he announced on Monday.

“They have some of the same qualities,” Paxson said. “They’re both incredibly smart, not ego-driven, very humble people. They’re there to get the work done, and they do it with this great combination of compassion and raw brain power.”

Those tendencies, Paxson said, would serve Yellen well in the collaborative relationships that the Treasury Department maintains with the White House, the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Yellen’s appointment “draws great attention to Brown,” Paxson said. “Having alums in positions like this just adds to the luster of the University.”

The University, Paxson said, would welcome Yellen’s involvement in any capacity — from a speaker role to that of an “engaged alumna,” though her schedule has precluded her from significant engagement with the University recently. 

Most recently, Yellen spoke at the 125 Years of Women at Brown Conference in 2017, where she discussed the history of women’s participation in the economy, citing specific examples of Brown alumni in her speech.

Professor of Economics Gauti Eggertsson, who worked as a researcher at the Federal Reserve during Yellen’s tenure as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, wrote in a Facebook post that Yellen, in his few interactions with her, came across as “unassuming and friendly for somebody as well known and powerful.” Still, he noted that Yellen “could be incredibly tough and fierce, and very sharp when it came to arguing about policy.”

Yellen, he added, is likely to be “the most progressive person in that role we have seen.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Yellen has been nominated as Treasury Secretary, and it implied that she will be confirmed into the role. In fact, she will not be nominated until Biden takes office, and she will not assume the role until confirmed by the Senate. The Herald regrets the error.

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