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Remembering Yair Mundlak, scholar and leader

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | June 5, 2016

I have been on a search for leaders ever since I founded the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) in 2000. Presenting real-life examples of leaders and role models is among the most effective ways to train future leaders.

Last week in Israel, while participating in a workshop honoring the memory of Professor Yair Mundlak, who passed in 2015 at the age of 87, I realized that I had stumbled on a case of a great leader. Leadership can be manifested in all fields of life: business, family, politics and academia. In the case of Yair, his leadership built a world-class academic department and introduced new research methodologies.

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Yair’s family immigrated to Israel from Poland before the Second World War. He went to an agricultural high school, fought in the Israeli Independence War of 1948, and then joined an agricultural settlement. In 1952 he was sent to UC Davis to study agronomy – he did well and in 1954 he enrolled as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where he earned a Masters in Statistics and a PhD in agricultural economics.

He returned to Israel in 1957 to form a department of agricultural economics at Hebrew University in Rehovot.

One of the first challenges of development is to establish academic excellence in applied disciplines – this was precisely what Yair was able to do, and in the 1970s his department in Rehovot was considered one of the best in the world. Much of the credit is owed to him as its founder and leader.

So…how did he do it?

First, he obtained the necessary funding to start a large research project on the economics of the Moshavim (collective farms) in Israel. This funding allowed him to recruit a team of young scholars with backgrounds in economics and agriculture to serve as research assistants and then as teaching assistants.

The first of these assistants was my mentor and friend Eithan Hochman. Prior to this, formal economic research of farms in Israel did not exist.

The research showed to policy makers that economic considerations matter and that economic tools are useful for decision making. This insight provided the base for future study and funding. So by launching a strong research program, he was able to build a team, and create a reputation for excellence and stir demand for future studies.

Second, he established a formal sequence in economics and econometrics at the School of Agriculture in Rehovot. Israel of the 1950s was a growing country with an emerging agricultural sector and there was implicit demand for education in the economics and management of agriculture, which his new department aimed to meet.

Third, he realized that he could not maintain the program by himself, so he encouraged several of his students to get PhDs abroad, mostly at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago[1]. These individuals have become leading scholars in their own right, expanded the range of issues addressed by the department, and provided the capacity to meet growing demand.

During my conversations with him, he emphasized that one needs to invest directly in people to augment leadership in order to build a successful program. It is not enough to be “the best” yourself; you need to have other people to build the scale and reach that result in an effective organization. And helping other people reach their potential is more challenging than reaching your own.

Fourth, while working with the government and banks he established a research center to pursue funding and finance future research effort of the department.

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Yair’s ability to establish an excellent academic organization benefited from his prominence as one of the best agricultural economists and econometricians of the 20th century[2]. Agricultural economics was established as a distinct discipline early in 1920s.

The first generation of scholars, the founding fathers[3], identified the major question it was suppose to answer, basic models and approach and stylized facts about the features of agricultural systems.

The second generation[4] included the quantifiers, who developed quantitative models of agricultural and natural resource systems, estimated key parameters and showed empirically that economic considerations and processes have significant impact that must be considered in policymaking.

The third generation were the expanders, who enlarged the range of techniques and consideration and issues considered by agricultural economists to include dynamics, risk and uncertainty, finance, environmental and development issues.

Yair was a prominent member of both the second and third generations of agricultural economists. He was a major quantifier of economic relationships in his work on the Moshavim where he improved methodologies to estimate production functions – for instance, the mathematical relationships between input and output that allow us to predict the increase in output of, say apples, from a 1% increase in fertilizers or some other input.

Many earlier studies assumed that production functions of various crops were identical; Mundlak’s data revealed variability across location and over time, and he developed a method called “fixed effect estimation procedure” to identify how yield varies among different farmers, villages and over different seasons.

One particular achievement of Mundlak was the introduction of a methodology to estimate differences in ability among farmers or regions. Theodore Schultz introduced the notion of human capital and argued that differences in managerial capacity affect productivity – Mundlak’s work allows us to estimate the impact of management in an agricultural setting.

Mundlak was an important expander of the agricultural economic research agenda. Later in his career, when he joined the University of Chicago after retiring from the Hebrew University, he developed a method to understand technological change in developing countries like Argentina, Chile and Indonesia.

His work showed how technologies evolve over time in various locations, and he was among the first to measure efficiency of input use among farmers and within regions as well as to estimate the evolution of agricultural supply and input demand in developing countries.

Domingo Cavalo a former Argentine minister of economy and a distinguished economist, suggested that Yair’s work demonstrated how higher earnings by Argentinian farmers led to increased supply, which in turn became influential in developing less restrictive taxation and pricing policies in Argentina around the beginning of the millennium. These changes contributed to the substantial growth in productivity and supply of agriculture in that country.

As a researcher and scholar, Yair had an incredible eye for important issues and always sought simple solutions to difficult problems. He preferred to be original and blaze his own path rather than take the safer approach by building on established routes.

Yair’s personality and humanity were essential to his success as a leader. He was an excellent listener and very empathetic person, encouraging his students and collaborators to present new ideas and be critical of his own ideas.

Yet he maintained high standards and provided tough, constructive criticisms in evaluating the work of students and collaborators. He demanded much from himself and from those around him, yet he recognized and rewarded effort. He helped his students in furthering their career and gaining the recognition they deserve.[5]

Yair’s leadership qualities were manifested as he established a new world-class department by commitment to excellence, building a diverse team, and empowering those around him. His leadership and research were a result of his unique talent and his commitment to Melville’s advice that “[i]t is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

We are fortunate to have known Yair and to be able to build on his legacy. He will be missed by all of us.

[1] These students include his friend, the late  Pinhas Zusman, Eithan  Hochman, Uri Regev, and later Yacoc Tsur, Haim Shalit, Amos Golan, Isreal Finkelstine and Ziv Bar Shira who all went to Berkeley, as well as Yoav Kislev, Assaf Razin, and later Ayal Kimhi who went to Chicago.

[2] This was evident by the presentations of Nobel laureate James Heckman and Professors Gordon Rausser, Alain deJanvry and Yacov Tsur who reviewed his achievements in the workshop.

[3] Including Theodor Schultz, Willard Cochrane, John Kenneth Galbraith , John Black, Fredrich Waugh, Mordechai Ezekiel

[4] Including Zvi Griliches, Vernon Ruttan, Earl Heady, Marc Nerlove, Yujiro Hayami

[5] A few years ago, he made a significant effort to initiate a drive to make Yacov a Fellow of the AAEA.

Comments to “Remembering Yair Mundlak, scholar and leader

  1. Thank you, David, for a thorough and empathetic description of an exceptional scientist and a great man.

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