Roosevelt Retires

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Frank Roosevelt began teaching economics at Sarah Lawrence in 1977; he retired in June after 34 years at the College. Roosevelt taught his students that economic systems are about more than money—they’re an expression of moral principles—and that the “dismal science” had the power to change people’s lives and create a more humane and just world. In addition to being an outstanding teacher—recognized with the College’s Lipkin Family Prize for Inspirational Teaching—he wrote extensively about economic and political issues, co-authoring a well-regarded alternative economics textbook, Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change. He also served on the board of the Manhattan Country School for 40 years.

Frank RooseveltOn May 6, students, alumnae/i, and faculty gathered to say farewell to Roosevelt at a tribute on campus. Here is what they said.

“I remember Frank during that tense period [in the late 1980s] when everyone wanted to confront racism and people were anxious and didn’t know exactly how. During an all-college meeting in Reisinger, Frank was on the panel. Somebody challenged Frank’s being on the panel, noting his pale skin. Frank was very calm and in a firm voice said something like, ‘You do not judge the depth of a person’s commitment from the color of that person’s skin.’ It was said with such conviction that it changed the conversation.” —Charlotte Doyle (psychology)

“The common thread in everything he does is a deep and deeply felt sense of justice. One of the best examples of this is his work designing a new tuition plan for the Manhattan Country School. Frank realized that even though this school gave out significant financial aid, the letter that was sent to financial aid recipients made it clear that the school was giving the students something—some special break. It was generous, but it also told such students that they weren’t paying their way, that in effect they were there on charity. Instead Frank devised a plan where the tuition rate for each parent was calculated according to his or her ability to pay. So while the tuition varied from one child to the next, everyone was paying their fair share. In other words, they were all equals. It is a subtle distinction, but one that has incredible meaning and power. Only a very unusual person would have been perceptive enough to see it, and then create a whole structure to put it into practice.” —Barbara Kaplan, former dean of the College

“We once went to dinner at Cafe Fiorello. I had never been to a place like Fiorello’s, and we walked in and there were cloth tablecloths and big piles of oysters on ice. I thought, ‘Wow, East Coast,’ and Frank told me the owners were from Maine. I’d never met anybody who was from Maine, being a West Coast-er. Frank looked like the craggy individual who should be on a ship going off into the water, catching his lobsters and bringing them back, and there we were, shucking oysters and talking about economics. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really weird and unusual experience.’ Inspiring, of course, as well—as it always was talking to Frank.

“But then we got into a conversation that kept getting louder and louder, partially because Frank was a bit hard of hearing and partially because we were getting excited about surplus extraction. And this is in Cafe Fiorello, right? So, I started to notice that people at the surrounding tables were peering in as we were yelling, ‘No, the best way to demonstrate surplus extraction would be to provide two barrels and one barrel would show peasant extraction and the next one labor extraction!’ People were sort of shifting away from us, and then we grabbed napkins and started scribbling all over the napkins with pens, and we came up with an idea that ended up in Frank’s latest textbook, that showed the best way to represent surplus extraction. It was that kind of passionate moment in a public setting—where we forgot everything around us—that reconfirmed personally why it was such a wonderful thing to be at Sarah Lawrence and to know Frank.” —Joshua Muldavin (geography)