WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took a break from his day job Tuesday to revisit the academic life he led before coming to Washington a decade ago.
Shortly after noon, he stood before a class of George Washington University undergraduates and gave the first of four one-hour lectures on the Fed. Students gave him a round of applause when he arrived.
Most showed up a half-hour early. They were dressed better-than-usual in button-down shirts and slacks. There was a mix of nervous energy and excitement in a classroom that seats about 70 people. Some fidgeted and chatted quietly while anticipating their special guest lecturer.
“We have a chance to speak one-on-one with a guy who’s arguably one of the most important people in the world,” said Sameer Iqbal, a junior finance major. “He’s taking time out of his schedule to speak to 30 college kids? I think that’s awesome.”
Tuesday’s lecture focused on U.S. central banking dating to the panics of the 19th century and early 20th century, which led to the Fed’s creation in 1913. The second lecture, on Thursday, involves the central bank’s actions after World War II.
In the final two, on March 27 and 29, Bernanke will review the roots of the 2008 financial crisis and the Fed’s response to the crisis and the recession that followed.
GW assembled the class of 30 from 80 applicants who wrote essays on what they hoped to learn from arguably the second-most-powerful U.S. official after President Barack Obama.
For a Fed chief who has set new standards for public accessibility, the GW lecture series marks another first: None of Bernanke’s predecessors ever helped teach college students while serving as chairman.
Bernanke’s staff approached GW about the possibility of allowing Bernanke to give some lectures at the university late last year. The university and the Federal Reserve are within blocks of each other in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington.
For Bernanke, the GW lectures also serve a dual function:
They give him a chance to reprise the role of professor he played for more than two decades, first at Stanford and then at Princeton, where he eventually chaired the economics department.
And they give him a way to expand his mission of demystifying the Fed. As part of that campaign, Bernanke became the first Fed chief to hold regular news conferences and conduct town-hall meetings.
In addressing the public directly, Bernanke has also sought to neutralize attacks on the Fed, some of them from Republican presidential candidates. Critics have argued that under his leadership, the Fed’s efforts to boost economic growth have heightened the risk of high inflation.
Bernanke and his defenders counter that the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to ease borrowing costs and raise confidence helped save the financial system and kept the Great Recession from deepening into another Great Depression.