Old friends, exceptional scholars

December 2011

E. Han Kim

E. Han Kim

Four young men from diverse backgrounds meet at UB in the mid-1970s while working toward their doctoral degrees. 

Through the mentorship of two professors, they develop a shared passion for research. They each head to careers at top schools to share that passion, and end up changing the culture at universities across the country.

Nearly 40 years later, those men have achieved exceptional success and remain great friends. Last fall, they returned to the School of Management to help instill their enthusiasm for research in a new generation of students and share memories of their student years.

E. Han Kim, PhD ’75, Stanley J. Kon, PhD ’76, Cheng-Few Lee, PhD ’74 (economics), and Lemma W. Senbet, PhD ’76, credit their extraordinary careers to two mentors: Frank Jen, professor emeritus, and Andrew Chen, former associate professor, in the UB School of Management.

“They transformed our lives,” Kim says. “They provided that passion for research. And they had very complimentary skills—Jen was more idea-oriented, while Chen was more technically oriented. You need both types of skills to succeed in this industry.”

Jen remembers these outstanding students well. “At that time, I was eager to establish the reputation of our School of Management to turn out good MBAs and PhDs,” he says. “I organized a seminar for PhD students in finance and accounting that required them to work closely with their major professor to deepen their understanding of their chosen topic, instead of working independently, as was the norm. I believe that if a professor is willing to help students deepen their dissertations, students should take advantage of this so they can develop as researchers.”

Stanley J. Kon, PhD ’76

Stanley J. Kon, PhD ’76

The quartet describes the program as small and very challenging.

“One of our survival tactics was to consult with each other,” Senbet says. “There was a lot of debate and dialogue, many penetrating and intelligent questions. We had each come from different institutions, so we could help fill in each others’ gaps.”

Jen says their common characteristic was persistence. “They were not averse to being challenged by their professors, so their dissertations attacked some important and difficult problems.”

While there was a bit of friendly rivalry among them, what they remember most was collegiality and mutual respect. “The discourse was what mattered,” Kon says.

In fact, when Senbet and Kon defended their theses on the very same day, Kim, who had already graduated, drove in from Ohio as a witness—“like a wedding,” he jokes.

They each were hired by Big Ten schools as assistant professors upon graduation. Both Kon and Senbet landed posts at the University of Wisconsin, while Kim went to Ohio State and Lee, the University of Illinois.

As they launched their academic careers, they began transforming the cultures of the universities that hired them, and of the Big Ten as a whole.

Cheng-Few Lee, PhD ’74 (economics)

Cheng-Few Lee, PhD ’74 (economics)

“None of these schools had the seminar culture we experienced at UB,” Senbet says. They began spreading the “Buffalo gospel” of research workshops, debate and dialogue.

“After we established this culture at our own schools, the rest of the Big Ten followed,” Senbet says. “We engaged not only in teaching, but also in institution-building, and this came from the culture we learned at UB.”

As a result of their initiative, Lee received an endowed chair after only six years at Illinois, while Senbet had an endowed chair in seven years. Kim and Kon quickly followed as full professors by their eighth year—a task that usually takes at least 10 years to achieve.

“Their pace of advancement is considered extraordinary even now,” Jen says. “It put UB on the map, because they were at very respectable schools in the profession.”

Collectively, they have published more than 300 articles, served on dozens of editorial boards for various business and finance journals and chaired numerous seminars across the world.

Many of their students have gone on to prestigious academic careers themselves at such schools as the University of Chicago, Minnesota, Dartmouth and Vanderbilt. One of Senbet’s former students is now dean of Carnegie Mellon’s business school. The previous dean? One of Kim’s students.

They joke that the current crop of graduate students in finance are their “grandkids.” And they’re not far off. Chunchi Wu, M&T Professor of Banking and Finance in the UB School of Management, is one of Lee’s former students from Illinois, and is also an award-winning scholar. Wu is able to pass on to his students the same traditions taught by Frank Jen nearly 40 years ago.

Lemma W. Senbet, PhD ’76

Lemma W. Senbet, PhD ’76

A few highlights from the extraordinary academic careers of Lee, Kim, Senbet and Kon

E. Han Kim

  • Fred M. Taylor Professor of Business Administration
  • Professor, Finance and International Business, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
  • Director, Mitsui Life Financial Research Center
  • Director, East Asia Management Development Center

Stanley J. Kon

  • Visiting Professor of Finance, Stern School of Business, New York University
  • Principal and director of research, Smith Breeden Associates Inc.
  • Editor, Journal of Fixed Income

Cheng-Few Lee

  • Distinguished Professor of Finance, Rutgers University
  • Editor, Review of Quantitative Finance and Accounting (RQFA) and Review of Pacific Basin Financial Markets and Policies
  • Director, Conference on Pacific Basin Business

Lemma W. Senbet

  • The William E. Mayer Chair Professor of Finance, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
  • Director, Center for Financial Policy
  • Fellow, Financial Management Association

Written by Cathy Wilde