By Martin Crutsinger
WASHINGTON -- As college courses go, the name - "Reflections on the Federal Reserve and Its Place in Today's Economy" -- sounds perfectly ordinary.
Then there's the name of the lecturer. Not exactly ordinary: Ben Bernanke, the sitting chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Four times starting Tuesday, Bernanke will take a break from his day job to revisit the academic life he led - and, by all accounts, enjoyed - before coming to Washington a decade ago. He'll stand before a class of George Washington University undergraduates and deliver a series of lectures on the Fed.
For a Fed chief who has set new standards for public accessibility, the GW lecture series marks another first: None of Bernanke's predecessors ever helped teach college students while serving as chairman.
GW assembled the class of 30 from 80 applicants who wrote a one-page essay on what they hoped to learn from arguably the second-most-powerful U.S. government official after the president.
But no one needs to be in the lecture hall to hear Bernanke live. His lectures are being promoted on the Fed's website, where anyone can view them live (at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/federalreserve ) starting with the first one at 12:45 p.m. Eastern time. And the Fed will maintain the four one-hour lectures on its site for later viewing.
The first will focus on central banking in the United States dating to the panics of the 19th century and early 20th century, which led to the Fed's creation in 1913. The second lecture, on Thursday, involves the central bank's actions after World War II.
In the final two, on March 27 and 29, Bernanke will review the roots of the 2008 financial crisis and the Fed's response to the crisis and the recession that followed.
To prepare, Bernanke's students received a reading list for spring break. The list included some of his speeches, along with other writings that explain how the Fed manages short-term interest rates to try to quicken or slow the economy.
For Bernanke, the GW lectures serve a dual function:
They give him a chance to reprise the role of professor he played for more than two decades, first at Stanford and then at Princeton, where he eventually chaired the economics department.
And they give him a way to expand his mission of demystifying the Fed. As part of that campaign, Bernanke became the first Fed chief to hold regular news conferences and conduct town-hall meetings.
In addressing the public directly, Bernanke has also sought to neutralize attacks on the Fed, some of them from Republican presidential candidates. Critics have argued that under his leadership, the Fed's efforts to boost economic growth have heightened the risk of high inflation.
Bernanke and his defenders counter that the Fed's extraordinary efforts to ease borrowing costs and raise confidence helped save the financial system and kept the Great Recession from deepening into another Great Depression.
"These lectures will give him a chance to tell his side of the story and put it all together in a coherent way," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at the Martin Smith School of Business at California State University.
Bernanke, a popular professor at Princeton, has occasionally renewed his ties to academia during his six years as Fed chairman. He spoke to students at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 2009 and held town hall meetings with college students in Rhode Island and Jacksonville, Fla., in the fall of 2010.
Sohn identifies with Bernanke's impulse to return to a college classroom.
"Any professor will tell you that you get energized when you stand up and talk to young people again," said Sohn, for many years the chief economist at Wells Fargo before he returned to teaching.
Tim Fort, a business professor who specializes in ethics, developed the GW course in consultation with Bernanke's staff. Beyond Bernanke's lectures, Fort has enlisted about a dozen GW faculty members to help teach the course.
After Bernanke's four lectures, the course will explore other topics, including the constitutional basis for the Fed's powers; its record in enforcing consumer protections; and its handling of such global issues as Europe's debt crisis and China's emergence as an economic superpower.
Students will be graded on the papers they write and their class participation.
Just as in his years as a full-time professor, Bernanke will speak from notes and will rely in part on PowerPoint slides. He will read some of the papers students submit.
But no, Bernanke won't be staying up late, determining which students deserve an "A."
"The one thing he was firm about was that he was not going to grade papers," Fort said.
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