In his Intro to Macroeconomics lecture of more than 250 students, Professor Mark Witte has to be engaging, informative and loud. In his Andersen Hall office, however, another side emerges. No less engaging or filled to the brim with facts about economics or Northwestern, Witte is much softer-spoken.
Everything about his office exudes a well-worn sort of comfort: Between the piles of papers on his desk and old comics posted to the door, Witte leans back in one of the chairs he leaves out for various walk-in guests, arms behind his head. Having worked at Northwestern for more than 23 years, Witte is comfortable with his place in Northwestern’s culture, including that of his students’ inboxes.
“I spam the crap out of them,” he says about his seemingly excessive number of department emails to students. “It’s mostly recruiting stuff, so if people are on the [Business Institutions Program] listserv, they get me twice."
Witte reached a new peak of in fame during the original flood of Northwestern memes during Winter Quarter 2012, when students produced several images parodying his emails. “I saw that and was pretty amused,” he says. “My wife was trying to say ‘What’s a meme?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
Witte says, half seriously, that he has another round of emails to send after our conversation.
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1984, Witte spent some time working for then-House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (Comm ‘62) in Washington, D.C. Like several other members of the faculty, his employment at Northwestern stemmed from continuing his education at the University, where he earned a Master’s in economics in 1987 and a doctorate in 1997.
“I wanted to get more of an economics background, so I applied to various places, and Northwestern is a very good school that gave me a lot of money, so I came,” Witte says. “I liked it here and they seemed to be OK with having me around. I started teaching here in ’89, maybe. I taught as a grad student, then worked for the Chicago Federal Reserve for a while. It was great [and] very interesting. It had great data sources ... and I had a great office chair.”
In the years following his employment at the Chicago Federal Reserve, Witte taught scores of students macroeconomics, public finance and environmental and natural resource economics. And although there have been rumors to the contrary, this was not the romantic setup for meeting his wife of nine years.
“We were in the running club together so that’s how we got to know each other well,” Witte says. “Then she moved to St. Louis—and I’m from St. Louis—so I was always going down there and I’d see her there. And things went well."
Well enough that they now have three daughters—“I don’t think my wife would want their names on the Internet”—all with birthdays in August.
“It means that, for the younger ones, we’ve got the right clothes by season,” he jokes.
But their hectic lives as academics (his wife also works in Chicago as an academic pediatrician at University of Illinois, Chicago) does not mean their relationship lacks romance.
“We’ve been married for nine years, which is a very boring anniversary,” Witte jokes. “I can’t forget it because it’s during finals—I mean New Student—I mean, Senior Week. So it’s a catastrophe every year."
The conversation continues but only scratches the surface of Witte’s work as Director of Undergraduate Studies for Economics and the Harvey Kapnick Business Institutions Program. He does mention that all his titles and duties, including fatherhood, leave him with negative free time, but he says it with a smile, still leaning back in his chair.
It is clear to see that students who take the time to know him truly enjoy his presence and advice, and why not? With more than 20 years on campus, the man is older than the Arch and as timeless as the Rock, with more understanding of campus goings-on and gossip than anyone with a mere four years or fewer under his or her belt.
And with that time comes a viewpoint he’s more than willing to share.
“I like the scale of the school a lot, and there’s a lot of new things, but it’s not so much that people get overwhelmed, so you can have a lot of very personal interaction, talk about ideas and be challenged by people,” Witte says. “I’d say it’s a very special place.”