Don Cell challenges conventional thinking

Editor’s note: Don Cell retired in May after 38 years at Cornell. This article first appeared in the fall 1999 Cornell Report.

Don Cell is a prolific challenger of conventional thinking and says he tries to follow where the evidence leads. That’s how an intellectual thinks, says the longtime Cornell economics and business professor. Teaching, aside from being his family’s calling, has offered a beguiling setting for his ideas to germinate.

“You’re really being paid to learn,” Cell says, “because the best way to understand something is to explain it to others.”

He explains through teaching, by public speaking, and through his writing. His portfolio of published articles is voluminous and eclectic. It ranges from voter responsibility to aircraft noise to solid waste disposal.

Choosing a career was effortless for Cell. There was just one side road along the way. In 1954, when the Massachusetts native earned his degree in economics from the University of Illinois, the Korean War had ended but the draft had not. So Cell enlisted in the Navy and for the next four years was a pilot, serving on the F.D. Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.

But the teaching predilection stuck. So did Cell’s appetite for subjects that he parlayed into his teaching forte. Economics, especially microeconomics, enamored him, “because economics seemed to offer the best way to understand how government connects with the economy and society,” Cell says. Economics became the foundation for his work in politics, law, and social philosophy. “I dearly love the field,” he says.

That love, funneled into Cornell classrooms, has led to an interesting amalgamation. Cell began his teaching having students read great economists from Smith to Marx. He now teaches environmental economics, business regulations, and a field called law and economics. In his introductory microeconomics class Cell aims to give students some understanding of just how a market system works and why the concepts of economics deeply influence so many areas of government policy, from global markets to environmental protection.

“Don’s style was very casual, forcing students to think and interact. There were no ‘lectures.’ It was what a liberal arts class should be,” says Jim McWethy ’65. McWethy, who became a bank economist, an economics professor, and until a few years ago the chief financial officer of a $350 million corporation, says, “I wasn’t really aware of the lesson at the time. But the influence took root in my work.”

Cell was chosen to join the Cornell faculty in 1962, despite not having a dissertation (he received a national Danforth Teacher’s Grant to finish the PhD, returning to Columbia University in 1965-66). He, in turn, was enamored with Mount Vernon. “I came to Cornell because of the people, the community.”

Recently retired, Cell and his wife, Suki, have decided to stay put in Mount Vernon. Suki, a vice president at the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and Don raised two children here. Jennifer is a caseworker for the developmentally disabled and brain-injured in New Hampshire. Benjamin Cell ’90, after working at a kibbutz in Israel, is a manager at a fitness center near Wall Street in New York City.

Cell has retired to a capacious new study in his home, surrounded by his more than 2,000 books, journals, and piles of newspaper clippings. He will write, research and, as always, question popular conceptions.

Inspired by courses in environmental law that Cell took at George Washington Law School during a 1976-77 sabbatical, he wrote the nationally circulated report, “The Noise Charge Approach to Reducing Aircraft Noise.” In July 1999 his article, “When a Load of Garbage is a Good Thing,” appeared in the Washington Post.

The ideas he draws from economics have impacted his adopted town, as well. Cell chaired the Mount Vernon’s Reduction and Recycling Committee which recommended a pay-as-you-throw recycling system now recognized nationally in an EPA publication of success stories. Cell has also served as vice chair on the Linn County Board of Health. In the 1970s he was one of the first males to join the local League of Women Voters.

His “current topic,” as he describes it, is solid waste. Several years ago, while serving on a Linn County solid waste committee, Cell bucked the consensus of the group by opposing the concept of siting a landfill within the county. Cell continues to argue, with the meticulously researched salvo of an environmental economist, that it would be better to truck trash across the state to a modern commercial landfill.

On campus Cell’s influence reaches back decades. After the student occupation of Old Sem in 1968, the president appointed Cell to chair a joint faculty, administrative, student committee to recommend changes in college policy. He’s served on all major committees and as department chair.

His college honors include a Richter Fellowship (1970), a President’s Fellowship (1990), and the David T. Joyce chair in economics and business. Nationally, in the 1970s his peers elected him secretary-treasurer of the American Association of University Professors. In the 1980s, he was awarded a major grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore connections between economics and social philosophy in the philosophy department at Washington University.

In retirement, Cell will finish a book designed for collateral reading in environmental courses. The book will combine economics, politics, and social philosophy.

Cell also plans to continue his hobbies: tennis and hiking, and, he says only half joking, “visiting landfills.”