Past is prologue

Chris McNickle trains a historian’s eye on urban politics past and the future of global markets.

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Chris McNickle, AM’85, PhD’89, is global head of institutional business for Fidelity Worldwide Investment, which he joined in 2011 after more than two decades at the consulting firm Greenwich Associates. He is also the author of two books on the history of politics in his hometown, New York City: To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic Politics in the City (Columbia University Press, 1993) and The Power of the Mayor: David Dinkins, 1990–1993 (Transaction, 2012). In an interview edited and adapted below, McNickle talked about being a historian and a businessman.

How did you end up at the University of Chicago?
I developed an interest in history, New York City history in particular. I discovered a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia that had been written by Arthur Mann [the late Preston and Sterling Morton professor of history emeritus]. I thought it was a great biography and wanted to go study with him.

What was your dissertation about?
It looks at the electoral history of NYC mayors in the late 19th and the 20th century as a series of ethnic successions where different ethnic groups play the most dominant role in the city’s politics at different times. What’s interesting about New York is that no one ethnic group has ever been able to dominate so entirely that it could win citywide office without creating coalitions. The dissertation was published as a book. I was very proud of it.

What drew you to study history?
I never really contemplated an academic career. After college I went into international banking for about five years. Then one of the periodical Latin American debt crises occurred, and it was clear it was going to be some time before there was a lot of activity again. I had discovered traveling to Latin America that those countries that had been discovered by a European power about the same time as the United States had many superficial similarities, but worked very differently than the United States, and that intrigued me. Also, when I traveled to Philadelphia from New York to attend the University of Pennsylvania—leaving one large American city for a second one—I had expected things to be more or less the same, but they turned out to be more different than similar. Those two comparative experiences caused me to want to understand these differences.

How does your history training help you in your work at Fidelity?
I think any graduate program that is demanding and helps people to solve problems in a structured manner offers a set of disciplines that ought to be helpful in making business decisions. In the case of a historian, we are trained to make connections across time and across different dimensions of human behavior. We are taught great respect for marshaling evidence to make a case. We’re taught that people have an easier time understanding complex events when they are wrapped around a story, particularly when they’re supported and the logic is clear. All of those tools are very helpful in business decision making.

Do you have advice for graduate students who want to go into business?
I would encourage them to recognize that they have a range of skills that, if they have been successful history students, any employer would want to have. It’s less about the historical knowledge itself than things like intellectual curiosity, a desire to understand how things happen, a need to know the facts and document them rigorously—all of those are qualities that employers seek.

How do you spend your spare time?
Reading history, writing history.

Does the history you read inform your work?
Yes, in some ways it’s simply a matter of intellectual interest, but in other ways it does help clarify the situation. So look at European history since WW II. The European project, as it’s often referred to, is all about the politics of trying to create enough connections and coherence across Europe that violent conflict would no longer be deemed sensible. That’s been a very keen part of why Germany and France have been such strong proponents of bringing the Euro Zone together. As a matter of pure economics one can imagine certain solutions that as a matter of political decision making simply are not acceptable to the major countries of Europe.

Are you writing something now?
I’m working on a history of Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office. I’ve just begun that.

Is it more challenging to write with less hindsight?
There isn’t as much historical distance, yet at the same time the information and research that I need are dramatically more accessible through websites now. There may be a moment where I do realize that I don’t have as much historical perspective as one will have over time. But I think that there’s a real benefit to writing the history of important events shortly after they happen, when memories are fresh.

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