Winter 2015

The Korbel School’s Haider Khan is thinking about how to make the world a better place

Haider Khan was recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at Convocation on Oct. 2. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Haider Khan was recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at Convocation on Oct. 2. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Although he has made his name and reputation in what wags call the “dismal science,” Professor Haider Khan, of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is downright exuberant about human potential.

“I am, on the whole, a very optimistic person. Realistic, but also optimistic,” he explains. That optimism translates into a belief that human problems can be, if not solved, at least ameliorated.

As a scholar, Khan has spent much of his career in pursuit of ways to address persistent poverty and income inequality. His work as an economist — assembled in countless journals, monographs and books — is hailed for its qualitative and quantitative analysis, as well as for its bold policy suggestions. He has studied everything from the effects of economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Most recently, he has examined development and women’s rights as human rights, using what he calls “a theory of deepening the democratic framework.” He also is the world’s leading expert on the social accounting matrix —SAM, for short — a tool that represents flows within an economy.

In his spare time, he is equally productive — a student and connoisseur of, well, everything. Of poetry, of languages, of postcolonial literature in Africa and Asia. Of human societies and culture, of music and art. He has produced prize-winning translations into Bengali of Mexican poet Octavio Paz and has penned thought-provoking essays, also in Bengali, on everything from Picasso’s “Guernica” to the correspondence of poets Yone Noguchi of Japan and Rabindranath Tagore of India.

For these and many other scholarly achievements, and for his service with such international organizations as the

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the Asian Development Bank, Khan was recognized as the 2014–15 John Evans Professor at the Convocation ceremony in October. The Evans Professorship is the highest honor the University bestows on a faculty member. It is awarded to scholars who have attained international distinction for their research and whose achievements have significantly affected their field.

A native of what is now Bangladesh, Khan came to the United States at age 16 to live with a host family and to participate in the Herald Tribune World Youth Forum, established after World War II to promote world peace by bringing youth from all over the globe to New York to build bridges and understanding.

Khan so took to his host family — and to the philosophy embodied by the World Youth Forum — that he stayed in the United States to study, eventually enrolling at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where he dove into the liberal arts curriculum. At the urging of his host family, he then pursued master’s and doctoral degrees in economics at Cornell University.

“Early on [as an undergraduate], I studied philosophy and literature and physics and mathematics,” Khan recalls, but as a graduate student, “I decided to focus on economics because I decided economic problems really are fundamental. … Why are there so many economic problems? Why is there so much poverty in a world that is more wealthy than ever before? Why is there so much inequality? … My concern with human well-being is what propelled me in that direction.”

And it is what propels him still. He plans to spend the next year joining the emerging on-campus discussion of income inequality and exploring the ways that education can address the problem. He’ll also continue his research, public speaking and consulting on ways to fix the world’s financial and monetary system.

“We should not shy away from thinking big,” Khan says of academic professionals. “But we should also realize that human beings need help right here and now.”

He brings this preoccupation with the big picture and with the here and now to the classroom. In his course on global poverty and human rights, Khan aims to help students think of poverty as a problem with solutions. “If we don’t misallocate our resources too badly,” he says, “we can tackle all these problems.” Just as important, he hopes that students come to see the poor not as “objects of pity,” but as embodiments of potential, “as persons who deserve better.”

“As humans we share things in common,” he tells students. “But we are also individuals with particular ways of being and looking at the world — including all kinds of idiosyncrasies, which I think is so gratifying, which gives color and meaning and verve to our world.”

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