In Memoriam: David Kaun

David Kaun posing in front of a painting
Professor Emeritus of Economics David Kaun.
David Kaun speaking at a podium
This photo of Kaun on the UC Santa Cruz campus was taken in 1966 or 1967, shortly after he arrived as one of the university's first faculty members in economics. Photo: UCSC Special Collections & Archives

Professor Emeritus of Economics David Kaun, a pioneer member of the UC Santa Cruz faculty, passed away on Sept. 9 at the age of 88. He served in the Economics Department for about 50 years and remained involved in the campus community even after his retirement. He was also a generous donor to many causes, including student scholarships at UC Santa Cruz and music and art initiatives on campus and in the broader community.  

Kaun earned his doctorate in economics from Stanford University in 1963 and was affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh and the Brookings Institution before he came to UC Santa Cruz in 1966. He was a founding faculty member in economics, and in a 2015 interview, he recalled the experiences of those early days.

“When I got here initially, in February of 1966, the physical buildings of Cowell and Stevenson— respectively, the first and second colleges constructed on campus—did not exist,” he said at the time. “It was exciting. There were 600 students, and we added another 600 with Stevenson. I had an intro course on economics, and we had four students.”

The economics department then grew to become one of the largest and most popular academic programs on campus. Kaun taught a wide variety of courses for the department over the years, from undergraduate introductory classes and labor economics to innovative courses he designed at the intersection of economics and the arts.

One such class was Economics of the Arts, offered through Kresge College, which was inspired by Kaun’s love for music, including his experiences as a symphony clarinetist for more than 25 years. Each quarter, the course featured performing artists as guest speakers. Another class, called Labor Wars in Theory and Film, delved into the movie industry. In a prior interview, Kaun reflected on his teaching experiences.

“I have been extremely fortunate, blessed, and lucky to wind up doing something that has been such a joy and pleasure,” he shared at the time. 

One of Kaun’s former students, UCSC Professor Emeritus of Economics Michael Hutchison, said Kaun was known for challenging his students in order to promote their intellectual growth. And Kaun was a fixture at Stevenson College, where he would eventually serve as provost from 1981 to 1985.

“As an undergraduate, I loved David’s classes, and I went on to serve as a TA for him,” Hutchison recalled. “These were the days when dogs and smoking were allowed on campus, and David was a frequent sight around Stevenson College with his hound dog Greta, smoking a pipe and sporting a jaunty Irish cap.”

Another of Kaun’s former students and TAs, Steve Owen—who went on to a successful career in international business—says Kaun’s teaching ultimately inspired him to come back to the UCSC Economics Department as a lecturer.

“Experiencing David’s passion for teaching first-hand made him a role model for me, and I try to be as inspirational for my students as he was to me,” Owen said. “Seeing him in action in the classroom and working with him as an undergraduate TA inspired me to want to give back later in my career, so I can truly thank David for putting me on this teaching journey.”

During his time as provost of Stevenson College, Kaun also created the Stevenson Fellows program, which brought inspiring public figures like George McGovern, Bella Abzug, and Carole King to campus in order to enhance the student experience.

Outside of the classroom, Kaun’s research interests spanned from the labor market to the military defense industry to the effect of conservative “think tanks” on public policy. He was also a strong advocate against nuclear weapons. Art and culture was another of his great passions, and it was also a major focus of his philanthropy. Kaun was a very active donor, supporting health and well-being initiatives and the arts, both in the Santa Cruz community and within the university. 

“He was as much a musician as he was a professor, and he really believed in philanthropy,” said Sarah Kudela, director of development for the Arts Division. “The main areas of philanthropy that he focused on were arts, youth, and underserved populations, and ideally he looked for projects that touched on two or more of those priorities.”

Among Kaun’s many gifts to UC Santa Cruz, he established the Albert and Sara Kaun Chamber Music Endowment at the University Library. He funded composer sponsorships for the Shakespeare Santa Cruz Festival and Holiday Show and underwrote the classical music program for the Arts & Lectures series. Kaun was also instrumental in supporting the African American Theater Arts Troupe and Rainbow Theater. And he helped to fund the UCSC Wind Ensemble. Kaun also provided scholarship funds for the Resident String Ensemble and the David E. Kaun Music Scholarship Endowment.

In addition to these efforts, he contributed matching funds to the endowment of the Gabriel Zimmerman Memorial Scholarship Fund. He also established the Milam-McGinty-Kaun Award for Teaching Excellence, which offers $1,000 each year to two outstanding graduate students. In a prior profile article by the Arts Division, Kaun reflected on his philanthropy at UC Santa Cruz. 

“I’ve helped some students, which is really a great pleasure,” he said at the time.

Kaun’s legacy at the university will continue to support access and achievement in arts and academics for many years to come. And those who knew him will remember him fondly.

“David was a fantastic colleague and friend to many of us,” said Economics Department Chair Alan Spearot. “Personally, I feel fortunate to have known David, as both an academic and musician, and his presence and contributions to our community will be sorely missed.”