Dr. James R. Schmidt, James W. & Helen A. Hanson Professor of Economics, arrived at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1977 ready to advance the Department of Economics in quantitative fields. His teaching and research at Nebraska influenced many throughout his 44 years at the College of Business and helped pave the way for distance learning practices.
“I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity years ago to join Nebraska. I am grateful to all who helped me along the way. It has been very rewarding to have participated in the educational progress and development of so many students over the years,” said Schmidt, who retired this May from Nebraska Business.
Known for his research and teachings in econometrics, a blend of economics and statistics, Schmidt’s interest in the topic rose from his time in college as an undergraduate at Nebraska. Enrolled in a senior-level course known as Economic Conditions Analysis, the class became the first time he experienced putting the fields of economics and statistics together.
“One of the required texts for the course was the Economic Report of the President, a large report filled with economic data. The class used the report as a launch pad into analyses and trend tracking of all sorts of economic measures. I found the work to be incredibly interesting and became hooked. Then it was on to graduate school for the immersion experience,” said Schmidt, who earned his Ph.D. from Rice University.
Schmidt’s passion for econometrics permeated through to his teaching, which has earned him the college’s Distinguished Teaching Award three times, and inspired former students like Dr. Carlos Asarta, ’01, ’04 & ’07, who now works at the University of Delaware as a professor of economics and James B. O'Neill Director for their Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship. Asarta recalled Schmidt’s infectious excitement around econometrics and the impact he had on his academic career.
“I would not be where I am today without his support, mentorship and encouragement both at Nebraska and the University of Delaware. Not only did I learn econometrics from him, but he also taught me how to navigate the academic waters successfully,” he said.
Dr. Jamie Wagner, ’15, a student of Schmidt’s who also served as his graduate assistant, recalled his classes being challenging but engaging due to his enthusiastic nature. His joyous attitude and continuous support left a lasting memory.
“Dr. Schmidt is kind and patient as he explains statistics. You can tell that he really cares about his students and that they understand the material. I can remember going into his office to ask questions and he would take his time to talk with me so that I really knew how to solve the problem or understand the question. I even still have my econometrics notes from grad school—they are so meticulously created by Dr. Schmidt that I don’t want to get rid of them,” exclaimed Wagner, an associate professor of economics and director of Center for Economic Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
With more than 40 years of experience at the college, Schmidt witnessed the evolution of education during his time at Nebraska. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmidt helped set up distance education at the College of Business and developed a distance-oriented version of Statistics (ECON 215), the introductory business statistics course, which saw demand from graduate and undergraduate students outside of campus.
“Materials including texts, instructor notes and workbooks were mailed to students. Agreeing to participate was one of the best career decisions I made. That now antiquated version of remote learning turned out to be the precursor of online education as we know it,” said Schmidt.
With the world rapidly becoming more connected and technology advancing, Schmidt noticed a change in learning styles and sensed he would need to alter his traditional face-to-face style in the classroom. He started using a blended learning style, which mixed traditional and online formats.
“My Spring 2020 students were used to depending upon online materials when the pandemic arrived. We already had the electronic resources we needed and made the transition to remote learning very quickly,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt’s interest in blended learning led to research studies featured in several leading journals. Working with him on different research, Asarta found guidance for his academic career.
“It is through his mentorship that I became particularly interested in the scholarship and applications of blended learning. That collaboration has resulted in a number of publications appearing in the top journal for e-learning, Internet and Higher Education, and has informed the pedagogical work I do,” said Asarta.
Schmidt also influenced the college's physical learning environment. He served as the chair on the Facilities Task Force, a faculty committee at the College of Business that gathered information and made recommendations concerning prospects for a new building that ultimately opened in 2017. He and several members toured buildings on Big Ten campuses to help gather design ideas and discover the importance of new facilities in education.
“It became clear at the campuses we visited that you need to ‘go big or go home,’ so we went home, recommended a new building, and were glad to see that our work helped the college ‘go big,’” he said.
As the former chair of the Department of Economics, Dr. Scott M. Fuess Jr., Steinhart Foundation Distinguished Professor of Business and professor of economics, commended Schmidt on his years of service at the college. Working together for years, Fuess found Schmidt to be the ideal colleague.
“A masterful instructor of statistics and econometrics, Jim has an uncanny ability to teach complicated quantitative concepts in a straightforward, understandable manner. Outside the classroom, he is a calm, capable mentor of junior colleagues, aspiring researchers and inquisitive students. He always has time for someone with a question and was always cheerful when sharing his wisdom,” said Fuess, who now serves as the University of Nebraska Faculty Athletics Representative.
Schmidt’s impact continues to be seen to this day, whether through his efforts in distance learning, the new Howard L. Hawks Hall or even through his influence with former students. Asarta hopes to carry on his academic career in pursuit of his legacy.
“Professor Schmidt is a colleague and, most importantly, one of my best friends. One of my ultimate professional goals is to ‘be like Jim’ academically and to others; he changed my life and, for that, I will always be thankful,” Asarta said.
Schmidt will continue to teach Introductory Econometrics (ECON 817), an online course for graduate students in the MBA@Nebraska program.
To learn more about the Department of Economics, visit: https://business.unl.edu/economics.