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Cecilia Rouse: Economist, Presidential Adviser, Dean, and Mom

Princeton’s Rouse recalls policymaking and parenting in the White House

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Cecilia Rouse

Cecilia Rouse, Woodrow Wilson dean and Princeton professor, recalls the art of balancing work in the White House and family life with IPR Director David Figlio.

How does one advise the president of the United States, deploy research in policymaking, and find the time to supervise violin and cello practice with a 5- and 7-year-old every evening?

Economist Cecilia Rouse, dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, answered these and other questions about her experiences working in the White House as IPR’s spring 2013 Distinguished Public Policy Lecturer on April 8 at Northwestern University.

In introducing her, Penelope Peterson, dean of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy and an IPR associate, pointed to Rouse’s interdisciplinary ability to marry seemingly unconnected interests, such as her passion for music with labor economics. This was the case with her oft-cited American Economic Review article “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” a risky choice for a young, untenured academic.

“So we are delighted to have such a leader with us today, and a risk taker,” Peterson said.

An Economist Goes to Washington, Twice

IPR Director David Figlio, who moderated the event, started by asking Rouse to compare her experiences working in the National Economic Council (NEC) for President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 1999 to those as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011

Clinton created the NEC, Rouse explained, to coordinate economic policy across the Administration. While she was there, she worked on a relatively “small portfolio” of issues as a Special Assistant to the President, focusing on issues such as H-1B visas, adult literacy, and job training.

Cecilia Rouse
Figlio, Rouse, and SESP Dean Penelope Peterson (right).

Rouse arrived at President Clinton’s NEC in February 1998 during the high-tech boom, when it looked like the number of H-1B visas was going to hit the cap. H-1B visas are three-year employment visas, which can be renewed once for a total of six years, and are used to hire high-skilled workers. At the time she was working, only 65,000 such visas were available each year.

Then a leak appeared in The New York Times revealing that the administration was considering raising the number.

“So I arrived just as it was becoming a policy issue,” Rouse said, noting that she was able to work on the issue “soup to nuts.” She helped negotiate the final legislation that Congress eventually passed, increasing the limit to 115,000.

By contrast, her experience in the Obama administration as one of the three members of the Council of Economic Advisers was much broader but less hands-on.

“I didn’t have full responsibility on an issue, but I got to weigh in on a wider variety of issues,” Rouse said.

Research, Intuition, and Negotiating

A challenge coming from academics is that she had to learn how to “leap off” the research and rely on intuition to devise policy during negotiations over an issue. On the issue of H-1B visas, she explained how many studies looked at how low-skilled immigration affected labor markets, but very few had considered the effects of highly skilled immigrants, who are the recipients of these visas. While the total number of visas was just a “drop in the bucket” for the entire U.S. labor market, little empirical evidence meant resorting to one’s view of the world and intuition.

Rouse meets with IPR graduate research assistants before
her lecture to discuss research and policymaking.

“The first thing I learned—and I think they know this in medicine, too—is that the empirical evidence … to back up all of the many, many decisions that have to be made in policy—is not really there,” Rouse said.

Though she felt her time in Washington did not greatly change her research agenda, she did come to a deeper understanding of the many constraints policymakers face. Many economists who trek to Washington, she noted, find it hard to leave behind their discipline’s abstract notion of efficiency as the only goal. She pointed to their difficulty in designing policies that account for political objectives, constituent concerns, funding, implementation, or other issues.

Her White House jobs also increased her appreciation for the importance of translating research for policy consumption, like what is done in The Future of Children. The mission of the journal, where she is a senior editor, is to translate the best available research on children and youth for a wide audience.

She also pointed to the satisfaction of having her own research used to set policy. Her research on community college students showed that a sizeable percentage of them do not finish even their first year. She used this as a basis to argue for setting aside some funding in President Clinton’s FY2000 budget to help postsecondary institutions focus on completion rather than just access. She also focused on the issue, and community colleges more generally, during President Obama’s efforts in postsecondary education and job training.

She cited the Obama administration as being very “research friendly” but noted that research can be a hard sell in politics. In pitching the value of studying the effectiveness of efforts to improve postsecondary student success to a legislative staffer, she was told, “But we want to do something with that money now.”

“The fact is that research is an investment,” Rouse said, indicating that for a public official who is up for re-election, the payoff can be too far in the future.

All the President's Advisers, But Only One Mom

“What were some of the challenges you faced trying to help save the country from another Great Depression, while at the same time trying to parent Nidal and Safa?” Figlio asked, referring to Rouse’s two daughters, who were 5 and 7 years old when she started at the CEA.

“One of the things I always felt is that there are many, many people that can advise the president, but Nidal and Safa only have one mom,” Rouse said.

Cecilia Rouse
Rouse chats with IPR  economist Jonathan Guryan (far left),
Lisa Barrow, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve 
Bank of
Chicago, and IPR graduate research assistant Zach Seeskin.

This became the guiding principle for her life in the nation's capital. Rouse took her two young daughters with her to Washington while her husband stayed in Princeton for his job, visiting on weekends. Others took different approaches, she said pointing to her colleague and mentor Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton political scientist and former Woodrow Wilson dean, who was working in the State Department at about the same time. Slaughter wrote about her experiences leaving behind her two sons and husband in Princeton each week to work in Washington in her much-debated 2012 article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

“I was essentially a single parent working in the White House,” Rouse recalled of her demanding job. “This meant that child care was critical.”

In her first months, she had to deal with losing her child care provider suddenly, calling her parents to stand in, hiring an au pair, and then taking a hard line on certain commitments, like violin and cello practice every night with her daughters.

“It was hard and it was stressful, and my kids were angry a lot of the time, but I also felt that it was important for my kids to learn some adaptability,” Rouse said.

Despite one of her daughters declaring in frustration, “I wish Obama hadn’t won!” when told they were moving to Washington, Rouse said she is grateful for their “very different” experience of living in a bustling metropolis where her daughters took public transportation to school. She also signed them up for all the White House activities that she could—participating in the Easter Egg Roll, bowling in the White House alley, seeing Air Force One take off, and even meeting the president a couple of times.

“That still doesn’t take away from the day-to-day of mom coming home at 8 o’clock and you’ve got to practice when everyone’s tired, or that mom’s not taking you to school, and all that other stuff,” she said. “But it at least made it a little bit more fun for them.”

In getting back to life as a civilian and as dean of one of the nation’s leading policy schools, she underscored the impact that working as a presidential adviser on policy broadly conceived has had on her work as an administrator in a “a microcosm of policy.”

“I actually find myself using a lot of what I learned in Washington and the White House in this new role,” she concluded. “And I think that has been the best preparation for me.”

To watch a video of Rouse's lecture, click here.

Cecilia Rouse is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Katzman and Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education at Princeton University. Penelope Peterson is dean of Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and Eleanor R. Baldwin Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and Learning Sciences. David Figlio is IPR director and Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

IPR Distinguished Public Policy Lecturers are prominent individuals who straddle the worlds of policymaking and academia and can speak on the use of research in policymaking. 

Photos: Jim Ziv

Published: May 13, 2013.