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A Chat With Robert Frank

Today I sat down with Robert Frank, the Henrietta Louis Johnson Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at the Johnson Graduate School, for an interview about his latest book, The Economic Naturalist. The final result will appear next week on Inside Higher Ed, but for now, here are some Cornell-specific questions I was able to squeeze in.

Frank writes monthly for The New York Times' "Economic Scene" column and has been teaching at Cornell since 1972. Half the proceeds from his book will go to the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, which inspired his method for teaching introductory economics.

On the organization of Cornell's economics faculty:

There's an enormous amount of redundancy at Cornell. Anyone who comes in from the outside sees it immediately. I think in economics we've got something like 130 Ph.D. economists on the Cornell faculty scattered throughout all the seven colleges and different departments. For the same money, you could compose a 50-member superstar department that would be a total world beater. So you could say, in today's competitive climate where the payoff to achievement is really explosively nonlinear -- if you don't get near the top of the heap, nobody knows you at all -- is being pretty good at a lot of different stuff a good strategy? In principle, no. The university, to its credit, has been undertaking a lot of effort to try and rationalize the redundancy across campus, so there's been in the last decade an economics field that's been constituted that has a lot of oversight about hiring and recruitment and promotion decisions across the different units that hire economists on campus. And I think we'll see more of that. To go forward with the idea that you can cover every base and be pretty good at everything is just not a good strategy in today's educational competition.

On charging for the alumni magazine:

My wife has a degree from Columbia -- it's a graduate degree -- and she gets the undergraduate Columbia magazine, or the university-wide one, I'm not sure what it is. But she says it's an excellent publication, they don't charge her for it, and she asks me the exact same question you've asked. I think Cornell should consider the possibility that it's made an error here. It's not my job to price alumni magazines, so I can't pretend that I've studied it, but just based on my casual look at what different universities do, I'm going to guess that Cornell's made a mistake here.

On what's changed over the years:

Well it's gotten more competitive to get into Cornell, the students have longer resumes. I don't notice that the students are fundamentally any different. People often ask, Are they worse writers now? I think there's this fear that kids growing up playing Game Boy all their life won't have learned to write, but in fact they seem about as good as ever.

Andy Guess | Posted on May 24, 2007 (#)

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