This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Spectrum.
Roger Altman has a long history of working with top economists, from serving in the US Department of the Treasury to his role as cofounder and chairman of the investment banking advisory firm Evercore. Many of the economists he praises most highly, however, are at MIT.
“The MIT economics department is a rare jewel,” says Altman, who also cofounded and serves on the advisory board of The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Most years it’s ranked number one in the country, yet it exists in the middle of a leading science and engineering school. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and I’m quite interested in contributing to the preservation of that record at MIT.”
To that end, Altman chairs the Department of Economics Visiting Committee, which convenes distinguished scholars, graduates, and members of the MIT Corporation to advise the department. “Roger is an invaluable partner in advancing our mission to lead in both economics research and education,” says Department of Economics head Nancy Rose PhD ’85, the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics. “He is a great sounding board on many of our most pressing challenges,” she adds, “and rolls up his sleeves to help work on them.” Rose is appreciative of Altman’s enthusiasm for one of the department’s top priorities, need-blind admissions for its doctoral program, and grateful that he made a major gift to support expendable graduate fellowships: “His gift has had an immediate impact on what we’re able to do.”
Altman’s support for MIT extends far beyond one department, however. He made a major gift to MIT’s Task Force on Work of the Future, established in 2017 to study the evolution of jobs in the age of technological advancement, and chairs its advisory board. He gave his first gift to MIT in 2016, endowing a scholarship that has already provided financial support for five undergraduates.
A native of Boston, Altman is pleased to be of service to the Institute. “Growing up, I always admired MIT. I think everyone does,” he says. “Much of MIT’s support comes from non-alumni like me, often because they’re trying to further an area of research that’s personally interesting to them. MIT is the leader in so many areas.”
Altman served as assistant secretary of the treasury during the Carter administration and as deputy secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. Today, he is a Life Member of the MIT Corporation, the Institute’s governing body.
“It’s been a richly rewarding experience,” he says of his Corporation service. “In addition to attending Corporation and committee meetings, I try to spend regular time with faculty members. Those interactions represent a very steep learning curve for me! Although I did not concentrate in science as a student, I’ve always had a strong interest in it. My involvement with MIT gives me the opportunity to do many interesting things at once.”
When possible, Altman enjoys spending time with students as well. “MIT students represent an extraordinary collection of talent and motivation,” he remarks. “Every time I’m on the campus, I’m awed by students that I interact with even briefly, and I’ve never been exposed to a more impressive student body anywhere.” Altman hopes that the scholarship fund he created “will bring students to MIT who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend and also increase the diversity of the Institute. That’s important to me.”
These days, Altman says he is particularly enthusiastic about the work of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. Cofounded by 2019 Nobel Prize winners and MIT economists Esther Duflo PhD ’99, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, and Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, the lab has helped transform antipoverty research and relief efforts. “I have a long-standing, serious interest in public policy as it intersects with economics,” he says. “MIT economics and the Poverty Action Lab represent many exciting opportunities for positive impact on public policy.”