Reaching the ‘Center of Everything’ Without Becoming a Banker

Philip Jefferson looking out window

Philip Jefferson brings his experience as the chief academic officer at Davidson College with him to Washington, D.C., and to his new role on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Philip Jefferson’s father, Wade, followed a routine when he got home from his day as a social worker for the District of Columbia city government. He enjoyed a beer, fixed dinner for his three sons and turned on “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” 

The 30 minutes with Cronkite were not to be interrupted. Ten-year-old Philip saw that watching the news was a way to spend some time with his dad and started taking a seat on the nearby couch during the show. It was the early 1970s. Inflation skyrocketed. Oil prices hit peak levels, and gas lines stretched around the block. The newscasts often featured financial experts offering observations. 

“Whenever you saw bankers on the news, they had on nice suits and they seemed important,” said Jefferson, an economist, days before he was to step down as Davidson College’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ They were at the center of everything.” 

No role gets closer to the center of the nation’s and the world’s finances than the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. A few weeks ago, Jefferson raised his right hand and was sworn in as a governor—an “improbable day,” he said during his confirmation hearing. 

A former colleague at Swarthmore emailed: “You've trained your whole life for this job.”

The Fed sets interest rates, manages the money supply, and oversees the banking system. A seat on its board is to economists what a Supreme Court appointment is to lawyers.

Jefferson quickly pointed to the people who helped him get there. 

His parents divorced when he was very young but forged a compact to support their sons, to instill in them the value of education and to work to ensure that they got one. His dad enforced good grades at home and both parents paid for Jefferson to enroll at a small, startup, private high school—a predecessor to charter schools. 

His first-grade teacher, Mischell Johnson, attended Jefferson’s swearing-in.  

“She taught me how to read,” Jefferson said. 

A high school guidance counselor urged him to apply to Vassar, in addition to the commuter college in Baltimore he anticipated attending. He would learn years later that the counselor cajoled a Vassar admissions officer to give Jefferson a chance, despite standardized test scores that fell short of his potential as a student. 

He enrolled and found that Vassar, a liberal arts college, offered economics rather than banking.

“I liked it,” he said. “I had a knack for it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

He earned his doctoral degree at the University of Virginia and could have followed the newscast images into lucrative roles in banking. Instead, he secured teaching posts at Columbia and Swarthmore and served as an economist for the Fed. He was intrigued by ideas and drawn to the opportunity to keep learning. 

“I like money like everyone else,” he said, “but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning.” 

Motivation lies in the possibility of making people better off. Challenges such as bringing inflation under control help do that. 

“I work for everybody in this restaurant,” he said while chatting at Davidson’s Flatiron eatery. 

Philip Jefferson Sworn in by Fed Chair Jerome Powell

Philip Jefferson is sworn in by Fed Chair Jerome Powell with his sons, Nathan (standing next to Powell) and Miles, by his side.

Jefferson has worked for the Fed, taught at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and, in gratitude to Vassar, served 20 years on its board of trustees. He even was elected to the local Borough Council in the town of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. 

His appointment—by a Democratic president—as a Fed governor drew broad support from both parties. Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, praised Jefferson and offered that he knew of “no better place in America to get a liberal arts education” than Davidson.

Jefferson said his time as a senior leader at Davidson, including through the pandemic, loaded him up with critical experience that he is taking back to Washington, D.C. 

“Working collaboratively. Staying calm under pressure. Leading with your principles. Trusting the data and the science. Being mindful of the human consequences of decisions,” he said. “I will be a much better governor as a result of having been at Davidson.” 


  • July 8, 2022