Argus Leader: Augustana to Establish Prestigious Faculty Position

Augustana Can Thank Cheese for Creation of Economic Chair

Brenda Wade Schmidt, Argus Reporter

A donation from the owners of a small town cheese factory will establish a prestigious faculty position at Augustana College.

Robert E. Wright, an economic historian, will start at Augustana in September holding the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, the second fully funded endowed faculty chair at Augustana.

The new position is paid for by Rudy and Marilyn Nef of Milbank, who provided a gift of an undisclosed amount that will allow the endowed chair to exist permanently, Augustana President Rob Oliver said. The Nef family is one of two families that started Valley Queen Cheese in 1929.

Wright will work in economics, business, sociology and political science, teaching four classes a year while also doing research and writing, Oliver said.

Wright, 40, is an associate professor in the economics department at New York University's Stern School of Business. He also is the author of several books, including "One Nation Under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson and the History of What We Owe," published last year.

His introduction to the community will take place June 3 when he is the keynote speaker at The Sioux Falls Business Conference's "Ready to Rebound" seminar at Augustana. The event also is sponsored by Argus Leader Media and the Sioux Falls Business Journal.

"For some time, we have spoken internally about our obligation to the greater community and how it is Augustana can reach out and collaborate with other resources and provide value to the community and to the region," Oliver said. Augustana's new position was well timed with the idea of a seminar for local business people, he said.

Entrepreneurial interest
Wright is interested in researching entrepreneurship, which long was ignored by economists, he said: "We're just starting to study in depth why some areas are more entrepreneurial than others."

He also hopes to learn from the Sioux Falls area, which has noticeably low unemployment and home prices. "I'm thinking about learning from it and fixing other areas," he said.

Wright said it is a good time to be an economic historian because people are interested in knowing perspective on the economic downturn. "This is really the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression."

But the inflationary 1970s were formative in his decision to study economic history, he said.

His father ran a small farm and had to rent equipment from a larger farmer.

"I remember them arguing about the price that was going to be paid. My father wanted to pay the price he paid the previous season," Wright said. "That really stuck with me."

An endowed chair is a position paid for by an endowed fund. The new chair at Augustana allows the college to grow, said Oliver, who has known Nef for years while he was in banking before joining the college.

Milbank cheese plant
Rudy Nef's father, Alfred, and his partner, Alfred Gonzenbach, two Swiss immigrants with a knack for making cheese, stopped in Milbank for gas on their way to Montana where they wanted to start their business. Residents talked them into staying in Milbank. Last month, the company was named the South Dakota Business of the Year by the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Rudy Nef and Gonzenbach's son, Max, ran the cheese plant together for about 40 years. The two also created the Alfred Chair in the dairy science department at South Dakota State University.

"I grew up in a family where education was considered very paramount," said Nef, 75, and retired. His five daughters and their spouses all are college educated, and Nef studied dairy science at Iowa State University.

With a strong belief in freedom from government regulations, Nef sees Augustana as a place where scholars could discuss those liberties and how that intersects with public policy.

"Government interferes too much with many of our economic freedoms in this country, and somebody has to talk about that," he said.

He chose to endow the chair at Augustana because he has confidence in the college's leadership.

Augustana had several candidates for the position and interviewed two finalists before choosing Wright.

"We have a curriculum that's founded in the liberal arts and therefore is very interdisciplinary in design," Oliver said. "This is a very nice fit for us."

Mark Braun, Augustana's senior vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, said Wright will teach new courses in the curriculum.

"The point was not to do something we're already doing," Braun said.

For more information, visit the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Brenda Wade Schmidt
Argus Leader
Phone: 605.331.2321