Faculty Highlights: David Lee

Professor of Applied Economics and Management

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Photo of Faculty Highlights: David Lee

Faculty Highlights: David Lee

Growing up on a family farm in western Massachusetts, David R. Lee internalized early the small-town New England ethic of strong civic engagement, which in many places has dramatically weakened over the years due to suburban sprawl, changes in work and family patterns and income inequality. That ethic, however, has largely shaped who Lee is today.

For nearly 25 years this Cornell University professor of applied economics and management has been caring about his neighbors, both far and near. Professionally, he focuses on improving the lives of the world's poor through sustainable agricultural development and sound agricultural policy. Personally, he has taken on a multitude of volunteer roles in the community in a conscious effort to do what he can to counteract the forces of modern society that have led to civic disengagement.

"All of us are busy, but if everyone were to use that as a reason not to get involved in community affairs, we wouldn't get a lot of important work done," says Lee. "With trends like suburbanization and privatization at work, people are increasingly disconnected from their neighbors and their community, fortunately less here in Ithaca than in many other places. But these concerns are important to me and why I spend my time the way I do."

Much of that time -- often from 10 to 15 hours a week -- Lee spends as a member of the Ithaca City School District Board of Education, after years of serving in other volunteer positions. At Cornell, he not only is a professor with a full teaching, research and advising load but also serves as director of graduate studies for his department and the director of the international relations concentration for the university through the Einaudi Center for International Studies. Among his many recognitions are the Marilyn Emmons Williams Award for outstanding contribution to undergraduate research at Cornell, given by the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board.

Lee spent much of his boyhood years doing farm chores. But he noticed how neighbors pitched in to work in various volunteer capacities, in the schools, the church and the community-at-large. His family's farm, where his father still lives, goes back to a pre-Revolutionary War land grant in 1770. His farm background and New England roots sparked his early interests in both rural issues and history.

After four years at Amherst College, where he majored in anthropology, Lee, with his new wife, Marjory Rinaldo-Lee, entered the Peace Corps, where his agricultural background served him well.

"For more than two years, I managed a demonstration dairy farm in Ecuador working with farmers to increase milk production, avoid tick diseases and improve herd reproduction," recalls Lee, who became fluent in Spanish during this time. "I realized that I really enjoyed solving applied real-world problems." Subsequently in 1980 he earned a master's degree and then, the following year, a Ph.D. in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Lees also did as much hiking and camping as their schedules allowed, and over the years, they have trekked in the Andes, Alps, Himalayas and Atlas mountains.

At Cornell, Lee's research has focused on agricultural policy and trade, sustainable agriculture and natural resource management, and agricultural research and technology policy. He has written widely in these areas, working in the United States and in more than 20 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. He has advised dozens of graduate students and serves as a frequent consultant to the World Bank and other international organizations.

"Most of the world's poor are rural, and most rural people are involved in agriculture, so if you are interested in issues of the rural poor, you have to address issues involved in small-scale agriculture," says Lee, co-author most recently of "Ecoagriculture: A Review and Assessment of Its Scientific Foundations" (2004), and co-editor of "Tradeoffs and Synergies: Agricultural Intensification, Economic Development and the Environment" (2001) and the forthcoming "Handbook on Environment and Society."

For example, he has examined why farmers in northern Honduras increasingly have abandoned the practice of improving soil quality by alternating maize with the legume mucuna (velvet bean), and he has analyzed the impacts of innovative ecosystem pricing and national park management policies in Costa Rica. He has advised agricultural ministers in Peru, Venezuela, Honduras and Ecuador on how to improve agricultural productivity and rural incomes. He has recommended to the Venezuelan government that it abandon its collectivist agricultural and land tenure policies and to the Ecuadorian agricultural minister that the country focus less on basic agricultural products, such as maize and rice, and more on value-added products, such as fruits, flowers and other tropical products for export.

At the same time, Lee has been actively engaged in his children's schools. When they were in preschool, he was treasurer of the board and co-chaired the Ithaca Montessori School's capital campaign to build a new school in the village of Lansing. When they were in elementary, middle and high school, he served on the schools' site councils and teacher-search committees. He has worked for more than a decade with his son's Cub and Boy Scout troops, camping and hiking dozens of weekends with them, and he still gives occasional weekends to the Ellis Hollow Scout troop, even though his son graduated from high school last year. His daughter graduates this year. He also has served in volunteer capacities for various local organizations, such as the Unitarian Church and the Ithaca Public Education Initiative. And when the lucrative -- but labor-intensive -- kitchen booth fund-raiser at the local Ellis Hollow Fair was in jeopardy four years ago, Lee and his wife jumped in. Every year since then they have ordered hundreds of pounds of food, lined up more than 30 volunteers, and organized, cooked, served and cleaned up, generating about $1,500 per year for the local community center.

Lee took a major plunge into public service in 2004 when he joined the Ithaca school board that oversees a $78 million budget and the education of 5,500 students. "It's a natural extension of involvement for someone who have been involved in public education. When you have kids, you want to support the schools and their activities. I just got into it in kind of a big way," he says, laughing.

His board commitments involve several meetings a week, serving as a school liaison and spending much time talking with parents and teachers, reading and e-mailing. Why invest so much time in local schools when your own kids have outgrown them? "If you have a successful public school system, everyone in the community benefits," Lee says. "Even with my own children nearly out of the local schools, it's not any less meaningful or any less important."

Although the school board has been a lot of hard work, especially this year with a controversial redistricting issue, Lee says it has been absorbing. "No one is paid, all of us are elected at-large, and there are no political action committees -- everyone is interested in the welfare of the children. It's a great example of representative democracy in action."

It's also a great example of civic engagement.