By Courtney Westlake
It was purely an accident that Dr. Karl McDermott wound up as a leading expert on public utility economics and utility regulation.
McDermott was studying for his master’s degree at the University of Wyoming, pursuing a focus in money and banking.
“When one professor retired and the other one got sick, there was no money and banking anymore,” he said with a laugh. “So I ended up taking public utility economics as a placeholder and wrote my master’s thesis on it. Sometimes, you just find something when you weren’t looking for it.”
In April 2008, McDermott arrived at UIS to become the new Ameren Endowed Professor in Business and Government, a professorship that is housed in the College of Business and Management. Through his Ameren professorship, McDermott’s duties include teaching, conducting research and facilitating lectures and seminars for corporate, political and civic leaders.
Prior to being at UIS, McDermott served in numerous roles within the field of public utility economics, including being a commissioner at the Illinois Commerce Commission under Governor Jim Edgar, founding the Center for Regulatory Studies at ISU and traveling the world as a regulation consultant.
“The Ameren professorship was exciting,” he said. “I had been a consultant working in court cases and being cross-examined, and while it was interesting, I missed teaching. With the opportunity to have this endowed chair and have a chance to create a regulatory institution that could do research and educational programs, that seemed like the right thing to do. So I was willing to give up life as a consultant and traveling around the world; now I can help students get into that world, and that’s exciting.”
Through funds provided by the Ameren professorship, McDermott is planning to hire a research assistant this summer, as well as travel around the region to promote the public utility economics focus at UIS.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is reach out to the public utility community, both companies and regulators, and let them know that we’re in the market and turning out students,” he said.
McDermott is currently in the process of creating the Center for Business and Regulation at UIS within the College, he said, which is a major step for UIS’ role in the field of utility economics.
“It’s a place where I hope we can get research money and help try to solve some of the public policy problems,” McDermott said. “It will also hopefully be part of the MBA program, so we’re hoping to have a sequence in regulation so students can get a concentration in regulation or even a certificate.”
One of the first items on the list for the Center for Business and Regulation will be to host the American Gas Association annual meeting in Chicago this summer.
“I’ll be teaching some of the classes, and I’m hoping that we can use this to bring some students up there and introduce them to different people and help them with job prospects, so it has a lot of different angles,” McDermott said.
“We need more students who are interested in regulation,” he added. “This is a potential field for advancing their careers. Regulation can involve all aspects of management, and not just management but also public affairs, public policy, history and other aspects. Hopefully we can get a program up and running and turn out some students. The more we do that, the more utilities and government agencies will come looking for us to supply them with people for jobs.”
McDermott is currently teaching an ECCE (Engaged Citizenship Common Experience) class – Accounting 454 - on American economy and regulation’s role in the American economy.
“Through this class, we’re trying to introduce our students to a wide range of ways in which regulations actually impact our lives,” he said. “I tell students ‘it's from the cradle to the grave - your pediatrician is regulated all the way to your undertaker, and almost everything in between.’ There are a lot of ideas that can pop out and a lot of job opportunities. In today’s economy, where what we’ve seen is the potential failure of a free market process that didn’t have enough regulations to kind of reign it in, this all of a sudden makes the idea of studying regulations that much more important for the students. So they may see this as way of having job opportunities, and I’d like to encourage that.”