UCLA professor and 2002 California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon often dresses up as famous economic figures like J.P. Morgan for his classes.
“A couple years after I ran for governor, a friend of mine asked me, what are you going to do now?” Simon said. “I said I’d like to get dressed up like Julius Caesar and go in front of a bunch of freshmen, slam my helmet on the table and say ‘veni, vidi, vici’ – I came, I saw, I conquered. If they start laughing, maybe I’m in the right place.”
Simon, a professor in the department of economics, received the My Last Lecture Award at a ceremony in De Neve Auditorium on Tuesday. The award, created by the UCLA Alumni Scholars Club in 2010, honors a student-nominated professor and gives them the chance to lecture on a topic they would want to talk about if it were their last lecture on Earth.
Simon structured his lecture around nine lessons that he’s learned in his life, from human nature to career advice, and talked about a range of topics, such as the importance of exercise, Mark Twain quotes and the role of self-deprecation when presenting.
Simon established a career in investment banking and ran for governor of California in 2002, but realized his passion for education after he lost. He said he became a professor on a whim, at the suggestion of a friend, but quickly grew to enjoy teaching.
“It started feeling really great, and I really enjoyed it,” Simon said. “The student evaluations came back and they were good, and one thing led to the next. (Teaching) has gone from a passion to a calling.”
Simon said he had to get used to preparing for class and learned new perspectives in economics from reading and putting together course material.
“Even (though) it’s something I’ve been doing for many years, I learned once again some things I knew once before and had forgotten, and (was exposed to) other new perspectives,” Simon said. “It’s been fun for me.”
He added he tries to teach students by using the mistakes and challenges he’s overcome in his own life as educational tools.
“I try to say to the students, in effect, don’t worry,” Simon said. “You are the future and you’re going to do great, and you’re going to make mistakes, but it can make you feel better if I can tell you about all the mistakes I’ve made, and all the mistakes that have been made in history.”
Students who have taken Simon’s classes said they appreciated how he connected with them and took the time to help develop their interests.
Michael Chen, a fourth-year economics student, said Simon’s courses have changed the way he views economics.
“One (phrase) that really resonated with me was, ‘Trees don’t grow to skies,’” Chen said. “An asset can look like a tree but it will have a reversion to the mean. I reflect on that whenever I look at the market.”
Chen said Simon engages students by learning personal details about them.
“He acted not only as a teacher but a mentor to me,” Chen said. “In a class of 30 or 40 students, (Simon) takes the time to know every student individually and tries to cater to their needs.”
Colin Connor, a third-year economics student, said he thinks Simon was selfless with his time and resources.
“Once, I asked him about something in a book that he had written and he just said, ‘Oh, I’ll just send you a copy,’” Connor said.
Nick Katzaroff, a fourth-year economics student, said he appreciated how personally engaged Simon was with his students.
“He was kind of like another dad, or a grandfather,” he said. “He would always ask how your family is doing and always wants your feedback. When you challenge his view, he will either be open to your view or research more about (the topic).”
Andrew Atkeson, a professor in the department of economics who has co-taught classes with Simon, said he thinks Simon is able to teach complicated economics concepts in an accessible and engaging manner.
“I think I’ve learned a lot about teaching in working with him, which has been a great pleasure for me,” Atkeson said. “A lot of times in economics, we present on a dry and technical level, but what we are discussing are human motivations.”
Simon said he feels indebted to the UCLA community and is grateful to have the opportunity to share his knowledge and resources with students.
“I’m a lucky guy,” he said. “It’s not often that at my age you stumble upon something that becomes a second career, and that’s exactly what happened to me.