The Terry website and magazine devotes a lot of attention to faculty contributions that impact students, the field of research, and the reputation of the college. However, an essential part of the college experience is a student’s personal path to acquire knowledge.
The “In Their Own Words” series examines some of the more personal paths of faculty at the Terry College. Answering a single question, the professors and lecturers share a breadth and depth of experiences that, while unique, are also universal of the journeys of prospective and current students and alumni.
In Their Own Words: David Mustard
What was your undergraduate major and why did you choose it?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York in the 1970s and 80s. At times, Buffalo had unemployment rates over 12 percent and inflation over 10 percent. People talk negatively about the economy now, but it is nowhere near as bad as it was when I was growing up.
Buffalo’s population has decreased nearly 60 percent since its peak. It is hard to convey the challenges of such depopulation to people who have generally experienced only population growth.
My dad started out as a janitor, sold some real estate, and then went into the insurance business. My mom stayed at home and started teaching first grade when I was in high school.
My parents were by no means well off, but they emphasized education. They encouraged me to work hard and be diligent.
In the town that I grew up in I didn’t know any doctors or professors. The smartest people in my town were either engineers or pastors. So when I did well in math and science, I pursued a biochemical or chemical engineering major in college.
During the summers and on vacations, I worked in a quality control laboratory at Scott Aviation. Earle Scott started the company in his basement—four houses down the street from my home. He later built a plant about half a mile away. The company, which makes oxygen equipment for airlines and firefighters, is very active in the town and awarded me a scholarship a job. The job was fantastic—I ensured that our products would withstand extreme temperature and pressure changes.
At school I was spending lots of hours in the lab and not doing particularly well and was becoming more interested in problems of people. So I switched my major to history after my first year of college. My parents were very disappointed because they thought I would have no job prospects with a history major.
But my interest in history led to my interest in economics. It began in an economic history class that was primarily about the slave trade. I had read much about slavery and the Civil War and thought I knew a lot about these topics.
It turns out that I really didn’t understand much at all. I was shocked by how much economists contributed to our understanding of the institution of slavery and the slave trade. I couldn’t believe how much I learned.
Slavery was probably the biggest problem of people that I could think of. If economists could transform our understanding about such important problems then I needed to learn more about economics.
Better understanding of problems about people has been the defining theme of my career as a graduate student, researcher, and teacher. My initial research constituted the largest studies to that time of racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing and an evaluation of how allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons affects crime.
Since then my research has explored various aspects of casinos and lotteries, merit and need-based aid, tort reform, and gender differences in educational achievement. I regularly teach law and economics and education policy, which both address these and other similar public policy problems.
It was a change of major that opened the door.