Interview with Lisa Cook

Embracing economics after an iconic mountain climb, a daughter of the Deep South takes an optimistic outlook to promoting racial progress

October 14, 2021

Lisa Cook is professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University. She previously held academic posts at Harvard and Stanford universities and served as an adviser to the Biden-Harris presidential transition team.

Where and when were you born?
Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1964.

How has this shaped who you are?
Milledgeville then was a town of 13,000 people. We grew up on the campus of what is now Georgia College & State University, where my mother, Mary Murray Cook, was the first black tenure-track faculty member. When my sisters and I needed a paediatrician, my parents took us two hours away to Atlanta because they did not want us to experience segregated waiting rooms in Milledgeville.

Were you brought up with a spirit of anger, or resignation, or something else?
My parents were very steeped in the civil rights movement, and they were participants in it, and preached non-violence. My father, Payton Cook, was a clinical chaplain who integrated Central State Hospital as the first professional black person hired there. Their non-violent approach was one of optimism – that no-one ever needed to resort to violence, that all problems can be solved with education.

Even when you were attacked as a toddler?
I was hit over the head and eyebrow and I was called the N-word by another child at age three when I was desegregating our nursery school. There’s still a scar on my eyebrow, a permanent reminder of it. I went home crying and bloody, and I asked my parents what the N-word meant, because I’d never heard it before. They told me it was a bad word, but indistinguishable from any other bad words. So I didn’t understand the racial ramifications. I think that was their optimism – the civil rights movement was filled with optimism. We were going around singing This Little Light of Mine a lot.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment?
Several. I was a philosophy and physics major at Spelman College – a rejection of the four generations of Baptist ministers in my family. I was interested in African philosophy, and later went to Senegal, because top US universities had no specialties in that. The first day I was in Dakar, I went to the supermarket and saw they charged $10 [£7] for a Bic pen – the ones we get 10 for a dollar. And I knew the median income of a family in Senegal, and wondered how they could afford this; how could they even afford to go to university. Something stopped computing right then and there. That was an epiphany – that there’s something really distorted about this economy.

And another?
That also happened in Africa, while I was in the middle of my studies at the University of Oxford, as a Marshall scholar. At Oxford, I was just trying to figure out what was interesting, and took a mathematical economics course. It was just like non-stop word problems in calculus, and I thought it was too much fun, too easy. My impression from my education-focused relatives – I have quite a few in higher education, including an uncle who was president of a university and aunts and uncles who were deans – was that you should master something that is difficult for you, not easy. Economics came really easily, so I thought maybe it’s not what I should do. Traveling at the end of my time in Senegal, I wound up climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. As a single hiker, I got paired with somebody else, and he turned out to be a Cambridge-trained economist. During our five-hour climb, he convinced me that I really needed to do economics, because I wouldn’t be able to answer the questions I was interested in with just the tools of philosophy. This guy knew both sides of the Atlantic, as his son graduated from a top economics department in the US, and he discouraged me from going back to Oxford because I would need to do more quantitative work, especially econometrics, if I decided to go into the US market. He gave detailed guidance on course strategies. There was no value judgement about whether women could do this, or black folks should do it. It was like he was in Plato’s Republic and he was just a midwife with these ideas.

Who are some people you’ve always admired?
One is Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who went to Spelman College like I did, became the first black person to pass the bar in Mississippi, and felt there was nothing about racism or sexism that cannot be undone. Another is Garrett Morgan, the inventor of the gas mask and the traffic light, who used every tool imaginable to defeat desegregation and consumer-side discrimination – from pretending to be a Native American, to using white actors, to running for city council. And Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the founding president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the historically black sorority, and the first African American to receive a doctorate in economics in the US. All three of them showed an optimism in response to oppression, and an optimism to educate themselves and do something.

What research question are you going after now?
I’m working with partners on a project that involves digitising The Green Book – the black travellers’ guide to Jim Crow America – and we’re asking questions about businesses that operated under segregation, whether typical rules of competition held, how they were constrained, and which businesses may have thrived under segregation.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Calm down. I suspect that this is true for anybody who grows up in a small town. I kept having to be told to calm down and to slow down. Because I wanted everything done yesterday. I wanted this whole integration thing to be over, to happen and happen quickly.


Yogesh Singh has been appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi. He is currently vice-chancellor of Delhi Technological University and previously served as director of Netaji Subhas University of Technology and vice-chancellor of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Professor Singh told local media that he would be “a vice-chancellor for everyone” and that he would “take all necessary steps which are essential for the growth and development of the university”.

Simon Biggs will be the next vice-chancellor of James Cook University. Currently senior deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia, Professor Biggs will join JCU in February, succeeding Sandra Harding on her retirement. Professor Biggs was also executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology at the University of Queensland, and a leading researcher in colloid and particle technology. Chancellor Bill Tweddell said Professor Biggs “will provide strong leadership for JCU during a time of great opportunity and challenge for the university sector”.

Bob Nichol is joining the University of Surrey as pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences. He is currently pro vice-chancellor (research, innovation and external relations) and professor of astrophysics at the University of Portsmouth.

Nicola Rollock has been appointed professor of social policy and race at King’s College London. An internationally recognised expert in racial justice in education and the workplace, she was previously reader in equity and education at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The University of the Witwatersrand has promoted Thokozani Majozi to become dean of its Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. He is currently a professor in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering.

Joel Curran will be the University of Notre Dame’s next vice-president for public affairs and communications. He is currently vice-chancellor for communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles