What I’ve learned: Wharton’s Anita Summers

Professor emeritus Anita Summers talks about her groundbreaking career in economics and public policy, and why integrity and evidence go hand in hand.

To describe Wharton professor emeritus Anita Summers as a trailblazer would be an understatement. Born in 1925 to a banker father and homemaker mother who always emphasized the importance of education, Summers embarked on a career in economics when few women dared and even fewer could. Her hard work and perseverance, even in the face of blatant sexism, landed her positions at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. She’s also a researcher and highly cited scholar who has worked at universities around the world, served on numerous boards, and was a sought-after economic adviser to state and local governments. She joined the Wharton faculty in 1979, when she was asked by then-Dean Donald Carroll to start the first public policy program at a business school.

Anita Summers.
Wharton professor emeritus Anita Summers. (Image: Knowledge at Wharton)

After earning her master’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 1947, Summers began working as an economic analyst for Standard Oil in New York City. The male hiring manager offered her the salary by saying, “We decided we could get the same brains for less money.” 

Summers was working at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia in the late 1970s when she got a call from Wharton Dean Donald Carroll, who asked her to come start a public policy program because he believed students headed for the private sector should understand the public sector and vice versa. It would be the first business school in the nation to have such a program.

While at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Summers notes that efficiency studies were conducted on big-ticket items such as transportation and libraries, but not on education systems. Education costs were the biggest contributor to debt for city budgets, so she began conducting studies to find financial inefficiencies in that sector. Starting in Philadelphia, she gathered data by hand on the demographics of students and teachers, finding that the most disadvantaged students had teachers with the lowest grades on the National Teacher Exam, the highest absences, and the lowest student outcomes.

“I came out advocating that, like the rest of the world, outstanding teachers should be rewarded and very poor teachers should be let go,” Summers says. “I think you can imagine the way the unions felt about it. The union invited me to give a talk and they were furious.”

Some key takeaways Summers extends from her years of experience are to focus on the integrity of the work. Summers believes this is particularly important in the digital era because disinformation is spread so easily. She also says public policy should be based on evidence, not values, and government can learn from the private sector. And lastly, conversations around corporate responsibility toward issues such as climate change should be embraced and explored. 

This story is the first in a new series titled “What I’ve Learned,” which puts the spotlight on Wharton faculty who have made a lasting impact on their fields. Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.