University remembers Heinz School professor Toby Davis

One of the founding fathers of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, Otto “Toby” Davis was a renowned scholar of economics. But since his death last May, his colleagues have
remembered him as a “guardian angel.”

This Saturday, students, faculty, and friends are celebrating the life of man as well known for his academic contributions as he is for his humanitarian outreach.

Davis came to Carnegie Technical Institute, now Carnegie Mellon, in 1960 and began developing a model for a school that would deal with urban issues. Eight years later, Davis and colleague William Cooper proposed the School of Urban and Public Affairs. SUPA, as the school was called, came to fruition after the financial backing of a $10 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The school was later named for the late Senator H. John Heinz III.

“He was remarkably understated with a profound curiousity about how the world works and a lifelong interest in ideas and the chemistry of people who work together to develop ideas,” stated Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy in the Heinz School and close friend and colleague of Davis.

“He was also remarkably creative in solving complex problems and had a laser kind of mind that put things in perspective in the most simple and intuitive ways.”

Davis launched SUPA’s Center for Economic Development and became the second dean of the school, a position he held from 1975 to 1981.

Academically, he studied governmental institutions and was one of the first to develop an econometric study of governmental budgets.

He was also instrumental in developing scholarly societies, including the Association for Public Policy and Management and the Public Choice Society, and he served for a time as president of each.

“He was interdisciplinary before interdisciplinary was cool,” said John Thomas, Davis’ friend and former colleague.

Davis helped author “Econometrica,” an equation that attempted to solve how an electorate would vote, and developed the median voter idea with colleague Jim Barr.

But beyond his academic innovations, Davis is both fondly remembered and highly respected by those who knew him for his work in the humanitarian sector.

Davis served as chair of the University’s Human Relations Commission, which deals with issues of gender and race, and he argued for benefits for same-sex partners of university employees.

“His office door was open to anybody with an idea, concern, or problem, and he was somebody whose confidence could be absolutely trusted, and who had an absolute optimism that problems could be solved to mutual benefit,” Strauss said.

Friends also said that Davis dedicated his time to bridging relationships between faculty and students, and he especially worked to help acclimate foreign students to the University.

“Toby accepts his students as members of his extended family,” states a memorial website for Davis. “He helped many Chinese students better acclimate themself to the American way of life. He always had students and faculty who didn’t have a place to go for the holidays come to his house for dinner and spend the holiday with his family. We, a group of Chinese students, kept in touch with Toby through the years even after graduation.”

Thomas pointed out Davis’ impact on those he worked with.

“This is a tough place. His role in the last 20 years was a guardian angel.”

Davis died May 9 of liver failure. He will be remembered in a memorial service this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the University Center, McConomy Auditorium. Numerous friends and colleagues will speak at the service, including University President Jared Cohon. A reception will follow in the Schatz Dining Room.

“Based on his work at the Heinz School, he was a big deal,” Thomas said. “To the nameless hundreds of people who came to his door, he was an even bigger deal.”