WASHINGTON - Students began trickling in early. Some dressed up in button-down shirts. Nervous chatter and fidgeting arose around the room.
And then in walked Professor Ben Bernanke, also known as the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
The 30 undergraduates at George Washington University sent up a round of applause. It was, they had been told beforehand, “appropriate, even encouraged, to politely applaud’’ Tuesday’s guest lecturer.
Few needed prompting. They were about to hear from perhaps the world’s best-qualified person to lecture their class, titled “Reflections on the Federal Reserve and Its Place in Today’s Economy.’’
“We have a chance to speak one-on-one with a guy who’s arguably one of the most important people in the world,’’ said Sameer Iqbal, a junior finance major from Potomac, Md.
“He’s taking time out of his schedule to speak to 30 college kids? I think that’s awesome.’’
Also, unusual. In giving the first of his four scheduled lectures to the GW class, Bernanke became the first sitting Fed chairman to help teach a college course.
Reporters and news photographers nearly matched the number of students. Bags were searched. And security personnel stood guard.
Michael Feinberg, a senior finance major, said he normally does not get to class a half-hour early. But “normally I don’t have my bag sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog.’’
Wade Harris, a junior finance major from Melbourne, Fla., made sure to wear a tie under his sweater.
“Opportunities like this are one of the main reasons why people come to GW,’’ he said. “Regardless of what your major is, it’s relevant to the world we live in.’’
Tuesday’s lecture focused on US central banking 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, will involve 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.
Anyone can view Bernanke’s lectures live (at www.ustream.tv/channel/federalreserve). The Fed will maintain the four one-hour lectures on its site for later viewing.
The students seemed most engaged when the Fed chairman tried to convey macroeconomic concepts in real-world terms. He drew some laughs in describing the pitfalls of a gold standard for a nation’s currency.
It is costly, Bernanke said dryly, to dig gold up in “South Africa or somewhere’’ and “put back into another hole.’’
The lectures give the Fed chairman 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.
He clearly enjoys that role. On Tuesday, Bernanke was not scheduled to field questions. Yet he stayed to do so, and he called on students by their first names, reading from the names plates in front of them.
Mostly, students listen intently to the lecture, which Bernanke delivered with the aid of a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation. The Fed chairman provided a tour through the history of central banking, beginning with the first central banks in Sweden, established in 1688.
GW assembled the class from 80 applicants who wrote essays on what they hoped to learn.