June 16, 2014 | By Jake Weber
While writing his doctoral thesis for Stanford University, Dan Christiansen joined the economics faculty at the University of Rochester, a seemingly ideal position for a theoretical economist from one of the country's top programs. In his six years at Rochester, however, Christiansen discovered a passion for teaching that didn't fully mesh with a department more focused on graduate research.
A move to the University of Northern Iowa wasn't the best fit either, and led Christiansen to recall his undergraduate experience at Willamette University. "I wanted a liberal arts school where teaching and research are both important," he recalls. "The department that [economics professors] Jim McCarley and Larry Steinhauer were building was really exciting. I’ve liked what we’ve done here and Albion has been a good fit for me."
In his 33 years at Albion, Christiansen has blended research and teaching to provide students with unique tools for studying everything from environmental issues to finance. As a mathematical economist, he leads his undergraduates through economic models of various degrees of abstraction.
Much of the coursework is based on issues that were only partially understood during Christiansen's days as a doctoral student and young professor. "It wasn't until the 1970s that economists began to understand that various options in financial markets could be replicated in terms of other assets such as stocks and bonds," Christiansen explains. "This means that option prices can be determined from the price of the underlying assets."
Kathryn Wagner, '10, a doctoral student in economics at the University of Notre Dame, notes that the topics covered in Christiansen's mathematical economics class gave her "the foundation of all economic theory and were essential to my first year of graduate study. Dr. Christiansen was extremely helpful in explaining these incredibly difficult topics and always available in his office for many, many questions," she says. "He really did a great job making the material accessible and something that I enjoyed learning."
Christiansen stresses that modeling and theory provide critical knowledge to students who are often already focused on specific career tracks in business. "The idea of liberal arts is that you study things like theory and it helps students go in lots of directions and do what they never would have guessed they could do," he says. "I’ve had some absolutely superb students and have been really proud of what they’ve done."
Christiansen cites two sabbaticals as providing unexpected and unusual outlets for research and publication. Invited to join an existing project, he spent a year at Oak Ridge National Laboratory modeling the oil industry. A Fulbright fellowship took him to the Norwegian Institute of Technology, where he spent two years and declined the offer of a permanent position there. "Our family loved it and my kids speak fluent Norwegian," he says. "I like Norway and it was a very satisfying time—but I’m an American."
At Albion's May 2014 Commencement, Christiansen was awarded the title of professor emeritus. In retirement, Christiansen has no plans for professional publication, but he hasn't ruled it out either. "My son is an economics professor at Trinity University in Texas," he says. "I even called him the other day to discuss an economics idea I couldn't quite figure out. We go back and forth, so maybe I'm not done yet."