Retooling statistics to build new base Michael Conte tries to put Towson State on economics map

'We have the horses'

Campus institute would supply data to regional, national policy-makers


March 17, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Michael A. Conte is supposed to take Towson State University's business school an awfully long way. But probably no longer than the intellectual journey the 48-year old economist already has made.

Towson State announced last week that it had recruited the University of Baltimore's Mr. Conte and his 27-member Regional Economic Studies Program to Towson State, where they hope to make a splash with a series of moves that seem unusual for an obscure program that doesn't even offer an MBA.

Next month, the renamed, relocated Regional Economic Studies Institute plans to launch a reworked version of the Leading Economic Indicators Index to compete with the much quoted and much criticized version that the Commerce Department farmed out to the Conference Board last year. Later this year, the institute will launch a new method for predicting job growth based on techniques Mr. Conte said do more to integrate the most recent information about the economy into the predictions than accepted methods.

The institute is supposed to do two things: First, it is expected to put Towson State on the economic map, much the way a similar center at Georgia State University has propelled the Atlanta school to a place on the fringe of elite business education ranks.

Second, it is supposed to bring the business school into the community, where Towson State hopes to become a leading source of economic information perhaps the leading source on regional economies for governments and business nationwide.

"We don't have the reputation and impact, but we have the horses," Mr. Conte said. "I've figured out, at the ripe old age of 48, what I'm good at and what I'm not. And I'm not that good as a theoretical economist."

Thirty years ago, academic entrepreneur was about the last career for which Mr. Conte was ticketed. Out of high school, the Bronx native won a citywide contest for one of two full scholarships to the New York Catholic college of his choice. He chose Manhattan College and pre-med. But after two years, it didn't take.

"I decided I didn't want to be a doctor and I didn't want to live at home any more," he said. So it was off to Yale, to partake of the '60s and Latin American studies. Eventually, he concluded that everything he was studying was, when you thought about it, really about economics.

"I stumbled on economics," he said. And he still didn't trust his basic insight. After two years of what he recalls, with a grin, as "your basic Kerouacian existence" of acting, pumping gas, following his girlfriend's band and dodging the draft following his 1970 graduation, he went to grad school with the idea that he'd enter law school once he learned enough economics to understand what legal battles are really about.

Law school also was cast aside, a casualty of his being tired of school by the time he closed in on his doctorate at the University of Michigan. He landed at the University of New Hampshire, where he started writing about regional economics as part of his research before losing a bid for tenure in a divided department.

"The department was divided between the radical left and radical right, and I was in the middle," he said.

Several offers beckoned, but only one was in a place as fun as New Orleans. So he went to the University of New Orleans to become associate director of its business and economic research effort. He says that's where he began to move away from the traditional academic career path of teaching and scholarly research, and more toward UNO's emphasis on studying local economics to help policy-makers and business decision makers.

"I've never been that much into the teaching part of university life," he said. "I'm not a pure academician, but I'm a good academician."

By 1989, the University of Baltimore wanted to start a similar program and Mr. Conte got the top job. At the time, it was the only job.

The program's big break came when Maryland's welfare caseload starting rising in 1989. That didn't seem to make much sense, because the economy was still flush on the surface. Mr. Conte won a grant from the Maryland Department of Human Resources to figure out why.

The answer: More people weren't being laid off and going on welfare, but employers had quietly stopped hiring for the sort of low-level jobs people had used to get off welfare. So people were staying longer. That, rather than esoteric speculation about changing families or migration to Maryland by welfare seekers, explained most of the rise.

"They [didn't] realize we were heading into a recession," Mr. Conte said.

That DHR grant is now $1.2 million annually, 80 percent of the program's budget, and it covers a wide range of forecasting, software development, policy analysis and sundry number-crunching related to welfare. The program has branched out into publications about the economies of Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Washington and Virginia. It developed the model for regional forecasting it hopes will help the institute's budget double to $3 million at Towson State.

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