University of North Carolina, 1974, B.A., American Studies
University of Oxford, 1977, M.A., Politics and Economics
University of Wisconsin, 1980, M.A., Agricultural Economics
University of Wisconsin, 1981, Ph.D., Agricultural Economics
Ford Runge grew up in Wisconsin with two younger sisters, a stepbrother, and a stepsister. He is currently a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law and Director of the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. He also regularly contributes public opinion pieces that appear in the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and the Financial Times. He also writes longer pieces. His most recent contribution is an article in Foreign Affairs called “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor.” It is representative of the work he does, which is designed to get people’s attention.
Let’s start with where you were born and where you grew up.
I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in Madison and west of Madison in a place called Middleton, Wisconsin.
What did your father do for a living?
He attended the University of Wisconsin then fought in the Third Army as a logistics officer for General Patton. He came back, went to law school, was a U.S. Attorney for a few years, and then joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in the law school, where he spent most of his career. He was also Under Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy administration, so we lived in Washington, D.C. for a few years. My mother was born in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, and met my father when they were undergraduates in Madison. She was an early activist. They actually joined together in some of the earliest opposition to Senator Joe McCarthy. They were both members of the Progressive Party in Wisconsin which was founded by Robert M. LaFollette in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Then she was a fairly early pioneer in television commentary. She had a public affairs program in the early ‘50s in Madison. She developed multiple sclerosis at about age 40 right after my parents returned from Washington and died when she was 42.
How old were you when she died?
Did your father ever remarry?
Yes. After a few years, he married a woman who was from Madison, but then living in San Francisco. She was some years his junior-12 years or so-and they were married until he died in 1983. She is still alive.
What activities did you enjoy as a child?
We spent quite a bit of time doing the ordinary family outings. My father was constantly drawn back to the North Woods. We had a piece of wooded property and farm west of Madison where we spent time. He actually parlayed that into purchasing a place in northern Wisconsin on a river that flows into Lake Superior. So we spent quite a bit of time up there building the cabin up and improving the property. More than anything I spent my time canoeing, camping, and fishing. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about all that. In high school, I played tennis, was pretty good, made the state tournaments. I played in college a little bit. The team in college was so much better than I was. They were nationally ranked, so I wasn’t going to play on the team, but I did continue to play competitively for about ten years.
Did your parents try to pass down any bits of wisdom to you?
I don’t know. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on my mother’s side growing up, partly because both of my parents were more professionally active, especially my mother, than I think was “normal” for that period of time. So I ended up getting sent to Lake Mills to spend time with my grandparents a lot. That was fine with me, basically because Lake Mills was an incredibly idyllic place-a very nice little town on a lake. You can walk everywhere. Actually, I really liked to spend time at a little Carnegie library there just reading whatever I thought looked interesting. The lake was good for fishing. I did quite a bit of that, too.
My uncle for whom I’m named-my mother’s brother-was killed¬ during a war and that was fairly fresh, because that was the early 1950s and he was killed in 1945. There was a certain sense that especially on my grandmother’s part that I was…I wouldn’t quite say a replacement, but I was expected to do well. He had been a remarkable guy. He graduated from college at age 18 or 19 and went to medical school a few years later. He actually played professional baseball in between that time. He was killed at the age of 27.
So besides your parents and your grandparents did anyone else believe in you?
Actually I have to say that I was supported. Of course, after my mother died, things changed quite a bit. My father was really pretty busy and couldn’t spend a lot of time with us, so for a while we had a succession of housekeepers who would come and take care of us.
In high school, I acted up a bit. I wasn’t really that ambitious. I was probably lucky to get into the colleges that I did get into. I resolved when I got to college that maybe it would be a good idea not to screw off and pay attention to what I was doing. I buckled down once I got to undergraduate school.
What made you think that way? What was the switch?
Partly, I was annoyed by the fact that some of the grades that I had gotten in high school seemed to be holding me back. It seemed to me unnecessary to have that happen, so I just avoided it.
And then you even became student body president at UNC.
I had been president of the student body in high school, too, but I used that mainly as a platform to organize actions that interrupted the peace of the school.
In what way?
Proposing various types of boycotts and strikes. You have to understand the environment in and around Madison in the late ‘60s. I graduated in 1970. It was just full of that kind of ferment. In undergraduate school, one of the summers I spent as an intern working in the office of my senator, a guy named Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. Most of the work I ended up doing was with something called Center for Responsive Law which was a [Ralph] Nader offshoot. At that point, [Nader] was a fairly inspiring figure. And when I went back to college I organized something called the Student Consumer Action Union. We used it as a basis for my running for student body president, so we could institutionalize it as part of the student government. This was 1974. I was also active in organizing pro-impeachment rallies against Richard Nixon. I continued to make trouble, but I made trouble with good grades, instead of bad ones.
Who recommended that you apply for the Rhodes?
It was probably the chancellor of the University of North Carolina as a result of being student body president I interacted pretty regularly with the [board of] trustees, the chancellor, and president of the university. The chancellor-he had been a Rhodes Scholar-suggested I might want to apply.
Before you went to Oxford had you traveled internationally before with your father?
A little bit. Late in his career, my father began to have health problems when he was in his mid-50s, but one of his last assignments was to go on leave from the university to take a position with the United Nations in what was then Yugoslavia. That was in my senior year of college, so I took a couple of vacations there. But I had never traveled internationally to speak of before that. It was much less common then for students-at least students from the Midwest like me-to take junior year abroad programs and travel.
So was Oxford a shock when you got there in terms of culture?
Shock may be too strong of a word, but it was certainly markedly different from what I had experienced before in many ways. Some of the differences were exhilarating and some were off-putting.
Did you enjoy it there?
I did. For one thing, I again encountered a sense that I was trying to dispel of a lack of intellectual preparation. When I first went over, I intended to study international relations and I arranged to work with a guy named Alistair Buchan who had been the founder of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an extremely interesting man. We were working on something I was very interested in, which was the strategic implications of food exports in relation to the oil export crisis of the ‘70s, which has come back to us today.
Alistair had been wounded during the war and had a shrapnel wound in his head which caused him to be epileptic. One night he died, probably six months after I had gotten there. And so I had to decide what I was going to do. I decided to leave international relations after a few weeks, partly because I actually felt unprepared to focus on British diplomatic history which was the primary emphasis. I switched to economics and finished my degree in politics and economics and then came back to the University of Wisconsin.
In the first year I did a lot of goofing off. I had quite a bit of fun and traveled a bit, to France mainly. In the second year a certain anxiety overtook me. I had a talk with the warden of the Rhodes house, an interesting guy named Sir Edgar Williams who was in charge of the Rhodes program. He had been very liberal with me in terms of loaning me money when I needed it. He liked Buchan and he was aware of my father’s intelligence connections. He had been [Bernard Law] Montgomery‘s chief of staff and reputedly was the model for Ian Fleming’s head of British intelligence [in the James Bond books]. I was in to see him one morning and he said, “Pull yourself together for your examinations. Make sure you uphold the reputation of the Rhodes Trust.” So I did. [Laughs]. I spent the second year focused mainly on my studies.
So you were only there two years?
Right, until primarily by fear of embarrassing the Rhodes Trust. After that, because I remained interested in the international strategic issues related to agriculture and food, I decided there was no better place for me to go than to Wisconsin. The only place I applied to for graduate school was the University of Wisconsin.
What sparked that interest in food and agriculture?
I don’t know. My mother’s father had come from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was a fertilizer salesman for most of his career. My father’s family was in the lumber business. When I was in high school, I worked summers for the University of Wisconsin experimental farms. So I was interested in life sciences, biology, and agriculture. I grew up west of Madison in Dean County where you’re surrounded by a very productive agricultural environment. So it wasn’t strange to me, although my family was never directly involved in production agriculture. What interested me more than that was the challenge faced by developing countries and the role of international markets defining the future and opportunities for these countries, because most of them still are dependent on agriculture. That’s how I got interested in it.
What have you taken away from your Rhodes experience into present life?
It’s always a good thing to be compelled or have the opportunity to live in a foreign culture. Although Oxford might not seem so foreign, it really was. It was very different from anything I had known before. It made me interested and curious to travel and work in developing countries and to see other parts of the world and the way other people live. It was very broadening in that kind of internationalizing effect. I ended up doing my [Ph.D.] dissertation research in southern Africa.
It also taught me what real scholarship is. I was surrounded by other people who had the scholarship and who were simply students of very high academic caliber. It’s like when you learn to play competitive tennis. There is always someone better no matter how good you think you might be and so it was intellectually.
It also helped me to have a feel for both the ambitions of empire, partly because of what I was studying and partly because the Rhodes Trust is an interesting lens through which to observe the conduct of imperialism. The norms that define the traditions of diplomacy, at least in English diplomacy, are largely drawn at least historically from the manners (in the broad sense of that word) of places like Eaton and Oxford, which is rather different from the manners one learns in Wisconsin.
Let’s talk about how you handle failure when you were a teenager versus now?
There were two or three periods in my life in which I was faced with (not failure exactly but) adversity. When my mother died that was a significant event. In that case, I responded largely by withdrawing and depression, which is normal. I confronted failure to some extent in high school, because of my unwillingness or my inability to perform up to my own expectations.
How poor of a performer were you?
I graduated with a 3.2. I wasn’t like a complete washout. I did reasonably well on my standardized tests, so I was able to get into places like North Carolina, Michigan, and so on. But that was a different day, too, not like it is today.
Also, when I was finishing my undergraduate year, Ferebee Taylor recommended that I apply for the Rhodes. I went into the competition and actually was eliminated at the state level. And something fairly unusual happened. The chairman of the committee sent me a note suggesting that I might like to reapply the following year. I don’t really know what that was about. So I spent a year after my undergraduate degree at the Institute for Public Policy at Duke University. I was recruited by Terry Sanford, because he was running for president in 1976. He was president of Duke then. He was eventually elected senator from North Carolina. Anyway, he lost to another southerner, Jimmy Carter, in the primaries. I reapplied [for the Rhodes] and was successful the second time.
Did you reapply as a Wisconsin resident?
In both cases from North Carolina. The experience of being turned away the first time was annoying to me, not that one should have any rightful expectation nor a sense of the likelihood of success. It’s not rational to feel that way given the odds, but it did impel me. I guess my reaction to adversity and setbacks is to become aggressively forward moving.
Where do you think that comes from?
I don’t know. I don’t think either of my parents were shrinking violets. They showed a certain amount of political courage confronting people like Joe McCarthy.
What did you do the second time around to be more successful at the Rhodes?
I’m not sure. First of all, I had been through it once, so I had a sense of the types of questions they were likely to ask in the interview. I was able to anticipate better the issues that might come up, but beyond that I’m not sure it made much difference, except I was pretty focused on the idea of trying to do well.
What would you say has been one of the best days in your life or an impressive memory so far?
I don’t know if it’s the best day exactly, but it was an interesting experience. When I had been president of the student body at Chapel Hill, I asked Allard Lowenstein to come down and give a speech, because he was a very well-known speaker. Al was a Congressman from New York who graduated from Chapel Hill and had been in charge of Dump Johnson movement and a close advisor to Bobby Kennedy. I had organized a rally in favor of impeachment [of Richard Nixon]. There were thousands of people there. He gave a fantastic speech. He came over to a party at my apartment and that same night Harry Chapin, a folksinger at that time, was on campus. He came over, because he knew Al from New York.
Anyway, when I was Oxford, Al came through and asked me if I would join him as a speechwriter. He had been appointed ambassador to the Human Rights Commission by Jimmy Carter. So I went to Geneva with him for six weeks. Basically, I just left Oxford. I slept on the floor of various hotels. I was on the lam.
It would be a bit of an overstatement to say I was his speechwriter, because nobody ever wrote Al’s speeches. But I was kind of an informal aide. I saw a lot in the meetings with dissidents from the Soviet Union, the early members of Solidarity in Poland, and parts of the South African Jewish communities who were then attempting to undermine apartheid.
He also turned out to be a good friend of William F. Buckley, so one day he said, “Let’s go see Bill Buckley.” He had a car. He said, “You drive. I’ve got to work on some stuff while we go up there.” We drove to Gstaad, a resort in Switzerland, where Bill Buckley had a little chateau which he co-owned with John Kenneth Galbraith the economist and David Niven the actor. Neither of whom were there, but Bill Buckley was there. I talked to him for a few minutes and then he and Al had a private meeting.
It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t known Al from before. He had been a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights movement, together with people like Jerry Brown of California. In fact, one of Jerry Brown’s aide was his main aide in Geneva. One of the people that had been with him there-a younger student-had become a schizophrenic and thought he was being told to kill Al. So in the 1970s when I was in graduate school, he walked into Al’s New York law office and killed him. If you look up Allard Lowenstein, you’ll see that he played an interesting role during that whole period. So those are the things that I’ve been involved in that have been interesting to me.
What is your perspective or philosophy about work/career?
If I had wanted to make money, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing, although I am perfectly comfortable. If I had wanted to run for office, I would have. I had actually had an opportunity to go into the White House in Carter’s administration and my major professor at Madison said, “Stay in academics, because you can use academics as a point of operation.” Academics are a really good base from which to operate, especially if you’re interested in the conduct of public affairs. That’s pretty much what I’ve used it as. I see academics as both inherently interesting, but also as a vehicle.
Could you explain what you mean by academics is a good base in the conduct of public affairs?
Once you have a secure academic position with tenure you don’t really have to watch what you say and so you can afford to be provocative and opinionated if you have to be. Of course, your primary job is to try to tell the truth. I’m not going to use the phrase, “speak truth to power,” because I think it’s become a cliché.
What do you love about what you do?
I’ve been lucky to end up in the kind of position that I am, because I do like to – I’m trying to avoid clichés like “push the envelope” – but I like to be active in the arena of public opinion and public affairs. Although many people have called for my removal, it’s never been possible. I suspect had I pursued a more conventional career track that I might have been summarily dismissed on many occasions.
What would have been a more conventional track?
An investment banker or something like that. Having served on boards of various corporations, I could just tell from watching how senior executives felt compelled to tow the line that it would have been very difficult for me to do.
What else do you like?
To put it differently, the freedom that you have in academics is really worth a lot in terms of trade-offs from the point of view of financial opportunity, at least it is to me. It also affords the occasion to meet lots of different types of people. I’ve been active not only in government service. Over the years I’ve served as a special assistant to the US Trade Representative, working in Geneva as a trade negotiator. I spent a year at the Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. I’ve worked on both the House and Senate side of Congress. I have consulted to a fairly large range of both NGOs and non-profits as well as corporate interests. And I have served as an expert witness in various trials and as an advisor to various elected or seeking-to-be-elected officials. So you see, it allows an eclectic set activities that are interesting.
What would you recommend to someone about going beyond leading a mediocre life?
This is conventional advice: people need to find things they are really interested in. If they’re not interested in what they’re doing, they should stop doing it and do something else. Even though I’ve sort of held the same academic position for more than 20 years, in the course of that time I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve been fortunate to have these opportunities. It’s not always possible, but if it’s possible to have a career that allows you some flexibility to sample, try new things, try out new ideas, and to meet new people that tends to be a prescription for a fairly interesting life-not always a happy one, but an interesting one.