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On Purpose: Portrait of an Alumnus of Distinction

August 8, 2018
To commemorate our 150th anniversary in 2018, the College of Liberal Arts commissioned 60 photographs taken by Xavier Tavera. Departments and programs partnered with Tavera to envision their images and to write the narratives that accompany each photograph. View On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts.

Daniel McFadden standing in front of a chalk board with an equation written on it.
Pictured Dan McFadden

In 2017, Daniel L. McFadden received an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the University of Minnesota. It is the highest award that can be conferred by our University and just one on the list of many richly deserved awards Professor McFadden has received. He was awarded the Johns Bates Clark Medal in 1975 and was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1981. Most notably, he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2007. 

McFadden’s intellectual contributions are many, but his most famous contribution was how to statistically handle discrete choices. Put simply, before McFadden’s work, the profession used theory based on the assumption that an individual’s “choice set” was continuous, as in, for example, the amount of gasoline a driver uses in a month. But many of the economic choices individuals make are discrete— one either retires or not, applies for Medicare or not, buys a car or not. The examples can go on and on. 

It’s difficult to overstate just how influential the new tools McFadden developed to quantify and predict discrete choices are. They have become part of the standard econometric textbook, and the fields of political science, environmental economics, transportation, business, health, sociology, and psychology can attribute their origins to his work. 

As one letter of nomination for McFadden’s honorary degree stated, “I always viewed Daniel McFadden as a role model for truly exceptional scholarship. He combines theoretical rigor with intellectual breadth.” This high praise came from another University of Minnesota alumnus and fellow recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Lars Peter Hansen. 

McFadden’s exceptional scholarship had a deep effect on an entire generation of economists and social scientists. It is his legacy, and the legacy of other great scholars in the College of Liberal Arts, that lift future generations of students to new heights.