A Commitment to Excellence
Gordon Rausser’s visionary leadership and extraordinary gift
At his home nestled in the Berkeley Hills, Professor Gordon Rausser sits in his office, surrounded by bookshelves filled with academic journals. Rausser’s research has appeared in many of these publications over the course of his illustrious career, but before all that began, the award-winning economist pursued other paths as well. Also on display are a pair of golden boxing gloves and a framed picture of Rausser as a college student with fellow judges at an international dairy-cattle congress. Both are relics of his life before a more-than-four-decades-and-counting career at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. They’re part of an incredible journey, one that began amid humble roots on his family’s small dairy farm near Galt, California. A journey of determination, values, passion, and a vision for a brighter future.
Along the way, Rausser spent time teaching at some of the country’s most prestigious universities, and he has been a major influence on global economic policy. He was the chief economist at the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C., for two years. He’s an entrepreneur, a consultant, and an expert investor whose knowledge and instincts have enabled him to make a transformative contribution to the campus institution that will now proudly bear his name. Rausser’s gift of $50 million to the newly named Rausser College of Natural Resources will go far in helping his home institution further its mission of preparing the next generation of economic, environmental, agricultural, natural resources, and health leaders to tackle the most pressing issues of the 21st century.
Photo by Keegan Houser.
Determination and Focus
From a young age, Rausser helped his father manage the farm’s business and livestock, while his mother and his sister handled cooking and housework. He also learned early on how to deal with adversity. Rausser was bullied day in and day out by an older neighborhood boy until a cousin intervened and taught him to defend himself.
“My older city cousin Brunsi took me out to our barn, hung a sack of hay from the rafters, and showed me how to spar,” Rausser recalls. The next time the bully came to the farm, Brunsi called him out to the barn, where a 10-year-old Rausser was waiting for him. The fight was over in less than a minute. “It was a huge confidence builder,” Rausser remembers. “Afterward, I became terribly interested in all things boxing.”
For the next several years, Rausser pursued a boxing career while also working the farm. At the age of 13, he joined the only boxing gym in Stockton, which was many miles away, and was welcomed into the ethnically diverse community there. At just 15, he won his first amateur fight and subsequently became the sparring partner for the number one professional middleweight in the world. In the meantime, he also became an expert in evaluating dairy cattle and began to judge at regional 4-H fair and Future Farmers of America competitions. He found that he was a quick study with subjects that interested him, though he confesses that he rarely opened a book.
“I learned later that I was dyslexic,” Rausser says. “But I also possess a photographic memory. I learn by seeing and memorizing details.” Rausser trained hard, winning the California/Nevada Boxing Association’s prestigious Diamond Belt. Pursuing his dream of participating in the Olympics, he entered the renowned Golden Gloves amateur boxing competition, but during what would turn out to be one of his last fights, a cut bove one eye changed the trajectory of his life forever.
“I won the fight, but I started bleeding and it could not be stopped,” he remembers. “That’s when I realized, no amount of talent was going to change the fact that I cut easily. Looking back now, it was a blessing in disguise. Boxing gave me the gift of confidence I needed to turn my focus to academics.”
Gordon Rausser teaching Harvard MBA students in the late 1970s.
On to Academics
Rausser earned his undergraduate degree in agriculture and statistics at Fresno State before enrolling at UC Davis to pursue a graduate degree in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. After completing just two years of coursework, at the age of 24 he was hired on as a faculty member in the same department.
“By then I was married with two small children, one of whom was born at home in married student housing, and a third was on the way,” Rausser remembers. “Shortly thereafter, my father died unexpectedly, and for the next three years I also managed the farm for my mother.”
Even while shuttling between Davis and the farm, Rausser agreed to serve on the dissertation committees of seven fellow graduate students. After he completed his own dissertation in order to be eligible to sign off on those of the students, Davis offered him tenure. When his mother leased the farm and moved to a small rural town, Rausser, now 28, departed for a postdoctoral fellowship in economics and statistics at the University of Chicago, after which he was presented with more than 10 offers of full professorships from various universities.
At 29, he accepted a full professorship at Iowa State University in both economics and statistics. The following year, he took a faculty position at Harvard University, where he taught managerial economics and statistics decision theory until 1978. In the fall of 1978, Rausser came to Berkeley as a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) at the College of Natural Resources. After only nine months, he was selected to chair the department. Never one to shrink from a challenge, Rausser immediately began building a community grounded in the values of intellectual rigor, generative collaboration, and—in UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ’s words—“uncompromising standards of excellence.”
By the mid-1980s, the department had become a powerhouse, setting new standards for recruitment, research, and economic policy reform. After two three-year terms as chair, Rausser took a leave of absence to accept several appointments in Washington, D.C. In 1985, he was a resident fellow at Resources for the Future. From 1986 to 1987, he served as senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, with responsibilities in the areas of finance, trade, and agriculture. From 1988 to 1990, he served as the chief economist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), managing over 500 economists working throughout the developing world. During Rausser’s tenure at USAID, and subsequently as a co-founder and the first president of the Institute for Policy Reform (IPR), an organization that helped transition economies in Eastern European countries after the Soviet Union collapsed, he developed new guidelines for country strategy statements that define a path to sustainable economic development, and he received a special State Department award for leadership.
Rausser speaking at a conference while president of the Institute for Policy Reform.
“It was exciting to work closely with my fellow chief economists at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at a time when U.S. policy was guiding the development of market economies that were springing up around the globe,” he says.
Rausser published many papers on collective decision-making and governance structures while serving in D.C. Conventional wisdom was to “get the price right” in emerging open markets, but Rausser believed that focusing on setting up appropriate governance structures in developing countries was the first priority. Eventually, the Washington consensus came around to his line of thinking, and this emphasis on public interest over self-interest would serve Rausser well upon his return to UC Berkeley in the early 1990s. “I wanted to take what I had learned about bargaining and negotiating for the public interest and bring my department and the College to the next level,” he says. “Little did I know how important those experiences would be at a crucial time in the College’s history.”
From 1993 to 1994, while still president of the IPR, Rausser again served as the chair of ARE at Berkeley. In 1994, he was appointed the dean of the College and tasked with leading it through a critical juncture. “At the time, the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources wanted to eliminate our campus designation as an agricultural experiment station. The pressure was on Gordon to do something extraordinary,” recalls Chancellor Christ, who was then serving as vice chancellor and provost. “Through a five-year, $25 million partnership with Novartis, he was able to negotiate a first-of- its-kind agreement with industry that greatly benefited the College. Gordon didn’t give up, even in the face of great resistance, and paved the way for future partnerships that make Berkeley stronger and a clear leader in research as well as our academic aims.”
The Rausser family at a recent family gathering.
Rausser remained the dean of the College until 2000, all the while pioneering a paradigm-shifting model of an entrepreneurial university at Berkeley. His visionary leadership revitalized the college’s research efforts, expanded its role in undergraduate and professional education, enhanced engagement in Cooperative Extension programs, and increased administrative and budgetary efficiency. Under his watch, the College’s faculty and budget increased significantly, the number of faculty chair and professorship appointments grew, new undergraduate majors were introduced, and the number of graduate applications rose. Endowed funds and annual giving to the College increased dramatically as well.
As J. Keith Gilless, the dean of the College from 2008 to 2018, puts it, "without Rausser’s ambitious and effective leadership, it’s unlikely the College would have survived, much less become one of Berkeley’s treasures.” “As dean, Gordon Rausser did more for the College than all of the previous deans combined,” observes Henry Vaux Sr., a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of forestry and a former chairman of California’s Board of Forestry.
Taking Berkeley to the Next Level
In addition to his leadership both on campus and in government and global policy, Rausser has had a remarkable impact as a professional in his field and in entrepreneurship and business. His creativity and productivity as a scholar have been honored with no fewer than 29 professional awards. He has been recognized for original discoveries in the design and implementation of public policy, multilateral bargaining, collective choice and statistical decision theory, the design of legal and regulatory infrastructure supporting sound governance, modeling dynamic stochastic processes, and innovation in environmental and natural resource economic analytical frameworks. Rausser has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Statistical Association, and the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA). Recently, the executive board of the AAEA voted unanimously to name—in perpetuity—the opening keynote address at its annual meetings after Rausser. This distinction honors his trailblazing research and intellectual leadership, outstanding editorial work for academic journals, and exceptional teaching and mentorship.
Still, Rausser’s enduring legacy will always be centered here at Berkeley, where he continues to make an indelible impact on both the College and his students. Among these scholars, Rausser is deeply respected for supporting their academic success and serving as a sounding board for ideas and concerns. Scott Kaplan, BS ’14 Environmental Sciences and Environmental Economics and Policy, notes that Rausser was a primary influence driving his passion for economics. “I feel lucky and honored to have had such a distinguished scholar be the first to teach me the field of microeconomics,” says Kaplan, now a fifth-year PhD candidate in ARE. “I will be forever grateful for the meaningful mentorship I received from Gordon as a first-year undergraduate, and now as a PhD student.”
In November 2019, Rausser’s colleagues and former students—many of whom have gone on to prestigious careers in fields including economics, law, international trade, public policy, and global poverty and development—convened for a four-day symposium (two days in Berkeley and two days at Rausser’s ranch in Grass Valley) honoring his career and celebrating his scholarly contributions. Throughout the event, their deep appreciation for his guidance and collaboration was widely recognized. In a commemorative book for the event, James Davis—Rausser’s former research assistant and now a doctoral student in economics at the University of Georgia—commented, “If there is a singular individual who has done the most to shape modern agricultural and resource economics, it is Gordon Rausser.”
Rausser’s support of students has also taken the form of ongoing philanthropy. In 2000, he established the Gordon Rausser Honorary Scholarship Fund to assist exceptional ARE graduate students as well as undergraduates majoring in environmental economics and policy. He has continued to add to this endowment, the current market value of which is more than $620,000, with his contributions matched through an incentive program for faculty and staff who give to Berkeley.
A Lasting Legacy
Now, Rausser’s entrepreneurial and business acumen has enabled him to make a new philanthropic commitment, one that reflects his profound dedication to Berkeley and the College of Natural Resources. “I can think of no other institution in California that’s had a greater impact on our past, or has a greater power to shape our future, than Berkeley, and I take great pride in the fact that CNR is one of the cornerstones of this remarkable institution,” Rausser says. “Given the right resources, I know what the College is capable of, and I want to ensure that the College achieves an unparalleled level of excellence.” “I’m so proud to be able to give back in this way,” he adds. “Berkeley has always been the center of gravity for my career and my family, and is the place that I want to be remembered most. I’ve spent my academic life working for the public good, and there is no better place to keep my life’s mission alive than here at my beloved College.”
The majority of the funds will remain in an unrestricted endowment, used at the direction of the dean in consultation with the faculty leadership to support a variety of needs and opportunities across the College’s five departments. “An endowment gift of this size and nature provides the College with a permanent funding source that will fuel innovation and creativity, enhance the quality of our programs, and help us stay competitive—it is truly extraordinary,” says David Ackerly, the dean of Rausser College. “We will invest in graduate student support to recruit and train the world’s best scholars and support innovative interdisciplinary research to tackle major problems at the state, national, and global levels.”
Other portions of Rausser’s gift will establish the Gordon Rausser Endowed Chair in ARE and will help set up the Rausser-Zilberman Program Endowed Fund for the Master of Development Practice program.
On February 29, 2020, UC Berkeley announced Gordon Rausser’s generous naming gift to the College of Natural Resources. Rausser is also a co-chair of the UC Berkeley Light the Way campaign.
In addition to this landmark gift, Rausser, who formally retired in 2019, is still finding new ways to support the institution he loves. As a co-chair of the Light the Way campaign for Berkeley, he hopes to encourage others to follow in his footsteps in supporting the University. He is also spearheading a potential campus partnership with NASA Ames that would develop a portion of Moffett Federal Airfield, near Mountain View, California, into a mixed research, education, and housing site. It’s yet another highly innovative way Rausser is contributing to ensure the future excellence and prestige of both UC Berkeley and the larger Bay Area community.
Rausser’s gift, the largest donation ever received by the College and the largest naming gift to any academic unit at UC Berkeley, will help Rausser College continue its tradition of excellence and address key economic, social, environmental, and health challenges around the world. It’s a gift that represents an unparalleled vote of confidence in the College, the University, and their mission, according to Chancellor Christ.
“Gordon’s legacy of outstanding leadership at the College in and of itself left an indelible mark on our campus and community,” she says. “His willingness and ability to now provide a strong financial foundation for the College’s future is a contribution whose true value is beyond measure.”