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The Rise of the Econs

Silsby.JPGBack in the 1970’s, everyone’s hands-down choice for the College’s worst academic department was Economics — or Ecy as we called it then. Not any more. The July/August Alumni Magazine (a part of Dartmouth that is very well run, by the way), has a good profile about our now-stellar Economics department — by far the most popular major at the College.

The piece noted that in the 1980’s the College finally changed its compensation policy in recognition of market forces: the best profs in the field of Economics commanded higher salaries than most other faculty members because of competition for Ph.D.’s from business schools and private industry. Prior to that, the foolish egalitarianism that still infects so much of our campus (here and here) mandated that Econ profs be paid on the same salary scale as other professors, with the result that Dartmouth was able to hire good professors in other departments and only less-good people in Economics.

However, the DAM story missed a critical aspect of how Dartmouth was able to build a department filled with profs who are engaging teachers, well published scholars, and experienced public servants — all without a single graduate student on the premises.

Other departments at the College often lament that they lack the graduate students who can support professors’ research and, more importantly, provide an environment in which dedicated scholars can work through new ideas with informed student colleagues. Economics has solved this problem in a creative way: rather than having professors whose primary fields cover the entire range of their department’s discipline (as would be needed if the department had a graduate program) — and who therefore don’t have a great deal to say to each other — several decades ago Economics made the decision to specialize in applied micro-economics. As a result, most professors can consult top-ranked colleagues about their research, and the best newly graduated Ph.D.’s across the nation are eager to join the department’s vibrant intellectual life.

The downside of this choice is that Economics can only offer a limited number of upper level courses in certain areas, particularly theory; and introductory courses (“methods” courses in the parlance of the department) are often taught by professors who are teaching somewhat outside their primary area of scholarly interest, as in the case, say, of a labor economist teaching intermediate micro-economics (Chair of the department Gustman) or an urban economist teaching introductory macro-economics (Fischel) or a health economist teaching econometrics (Chandra). (There is also an advantageous side to this choice, though: these professors bring practical examples from the real world to the classroom.)

Is the trade-off worth it?

The initial question that needs to be asked is whether the College could ever attract a true leader in many (most?) areas if that person is the only person who specializes in a specific field in a department. As a general matter, the College regularly overestimates the faculty’s merits when it lauds our professors as “leaders in their fields”: speaking frankly, a goodly portion do not merit this praise.

Econ’s thoughtful solution is that students are generally taught by leaders in their respective fields — even if the professors in question are sometimes teaching a subject outside of their individual area of specialization. Members of the department believe that top scholars can do a good job teaching almost any methods class to undergraduates.

To my mind, the results justify this trade-off. There seems to be no question that Economics is now the College’s best department. More than a few other academic departments could profitably emulate Econ either by focusing on one or two areas as they recruit new faculty, or by boldly bringing in teams of new scholars all of whom work in the same area. Of course, hard choices need to be made in order to put such a strategy into place, but a dictum from the business world applies here in spades: if you try to be good at everything, you will end up good at nothing.

Note: In an effort to reduce high enrollments and oversubscribed classes, the Economics department has made the decision several times over the past few years to increase the difficulty of its courses — with the unintended consequence that enrollments grew even more. (So much for understanding incentives!) In fact, some Econ profs consider the department’s 80’s-level courses to be more demanding than typical first-year Ph.D. material.

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