Ask Governors State University (GSU) Assistant Professor Dr. Natalia Ermasova how her public finance students affect change in the real world, and she will point to the Matteson Police and Elwood Fire departments. Ranking officials from both villages were in the economist’s Master’s Public Administration (MPA) classes and learned practical applications for the principles of fiscal management, budgeting, and cost/benefit analyses.
“My students make the connection between numbers and how their lives and jobs will unfold. They run not-for-profits, police departments, and fire departments. When I show them how to read budgets and analyze data, they can see situations in local governments, such as Cook County and others across Illinois, more clearly because numbers don’t lie,” said Ermasova, the granddaughter of a Russian accountant whose expertise crosses both cultural lines and continents.
Her knowledge base includes financial and economic trends in the U.S., Germany, and her native Russia. She holds three doctoral degrees in economics, innovative management, and public finance and administration, and her research has been published in dozens of books and professional journals in both English and Russian. Ermasova was recently named a co-editor for a section of the Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, the world’s first and most comprehensive source on the three fields.
As a distinguished Fulbright Visiting Professor at Indiana University, Ermasova conducted a comparative analysis of the fiscal systems in the U.S., Germany, Canada, and Russia in 2006. She credits that research project with leading her to Governors State in 2012. At that time, the GSU MPA program was under the College of Business. Today the College of Arts and Science hosts MPA students who enjoy the benefits of a global standard of accreditation from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA).
A 2017 Faculty Excellence Award recipient, Ermasova’s enthusiasm defies the stereotypical economist’s understated demeanor, and she parlays her passion for research and teaching to connect with students. Her philosophy and approach have yielded four consecutive semesters of unwavering demand for this economist’s proven model, netting her a perfect score on teacher evaluations for course and instructor satisfaction.
GSU Newsroom: What is the secret to consistently achieving a 100% approval score with your GSU students?
Ermasova: I strive to make the classroom experience one in which students feel rewarded. For example, I worked with two students to conduct and publish our research on tax implications for their agencies. Students also seem to appreciate my innovations. In 2015, I won a Fisk Mini-Grant to prepare a photo essay to help my MPA students understand the enormity and complexity of a budget. When I pieced together all the photos, it was much clearer and helped students later to do their own. I also play economic and budget simulation games in class. I encourage them to try different strategies, observe the results, monitor market fluctuations, and then pivot their direction.
GSU Newsroom: What are the so-called virtuous and vicious cycles and can you cite examples from today’s US economy?
Ermasova: Robert B. Reich was President Clinton’s secretary of labor. In 2013, he co-created the award-winning documentary Inequality for All. In the film, he discusses the vicious and virtuous cycles wherein economic and political cycles perpetuate themselves. In a virtuous cycle, widespread prosperity means more people are working and generating more money creating more prosperity. Conversely, in a vicious cycle, almost limitless political donations coupled with widening inequality creates a vicious cycle in which the wealthy pay lower taxes, making them even wealthier and widening the economic gap.
GSU Newsroom: Do you see a vicious cycle playing out in Illinois?
Ermasova: The growing wage gap between high school and college graduates motivates many students to get college degrees, but the high cost of college and the achievement gap are barriers for them. Here, higher education is expensive. In Germany, education is free; in France, education is free. I earned two of my PhD’s for free. Here, my daughter’s school costs $63,000 a year. Two years ago, Dr. Mary Bruce and I presented research about the achievement gap and horizontal disparity of school funding in Illinois. The students in wealthy school districts had an average of 51% higher proficiency on standardized tests than the students in poor districts. Further, the poorer school districts receive about $4,582 less per student per year less than the wealthy students. We argue that differences in per-student funding and the tie to local property taxes are among other contributing factors to the problem of social justice and the achievement gap in Illinois.
GSU Newsroom: You compared your career to the famous Russian nesting dolls. How so?
Ermasova: I love those colorful, wooden dolls. They are beautiful. There is a one big one on the outside that hides several successively smaller dolls inside. You open one and there’s another one inside. I feel like the biggest doll represents my teaching style now. I’m all grown up. When I taught Finance and Taxation at (Russia’s) Volga River Regional Academy of Civil Services, I lectured and the students memorized and tested. Then, I was like the smaller doll inside the bigger ones. Here, it’s more active. I give a lecture and after the lecture is a full discussion. It’s much more engaging teaching style.