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University To Boost Economics Department: Will Undergraduate Experience Follow?

Although I'm in an unabashed lifelong love affair with Ezra's university, I'll let you in on a little secret: for some disciplines, particularly in the social sciences, and especially in economics, I don't think Cornell is necessarily the best place to spend four years of study.

Of course, however, my own experience proves an exception to the rule: as an ILR major interested in labor economics and policy, I had unparalleled access to prominent faculty, working with many of them throughout my undergraduate years. This has helped me immensely in my career and life, probably much more so than I would have experienced at other colleges, and I'll be forever grateful.

But I found that for the average, relatively disinterested economics student at Cornell, especially for somebody in the College of Arts and Sciences, the classes were all too easy to coast by in, and the faculty didn't really pay all that much attention to academic advising or undergraduate instruction. Which was odd, because it's one of the largest majors in the Arts College. Even for a motivated student looking to engage with economics faculty, it would be relatively easy to slip through the cracks -- unlike virtually every discipline at Cornell -- from Spanish to computer science, hotel management to natural resources. And this is important because when the time comes for economics students to go on the job market, I feel that they're a bit behind some of their peers at other colleges.

Part of this reflected a function of Cornell's decentralized economics faculty -- spread out across many different undergraduate colleges -- each fighting for a piece of the tuition revenue. In many ways, this hindered the development of the Cornell economics department as a premier place to study the dismal science -- a student who wanted to take labor economics, resource economics, public finance, or health care economics courses would often have to go shopping around other college's classes. And these classes would often be "dumbed down" so to speak -- not in terms of the quality of the teaching or the education, but in terms of the economic rigor with which the material was taught, so as to be accessible to people studying things like human development or organizational behavior without backgrounds in differential calculus or econometrics.

But hopefully all that will change with the announcement Cornell has made today:

Provost Kent Fuchs has announced the formation of a new universitywide economics department that will bring together strengths in economics from across the university's colleges and schools into one academic unit.

The new Cornell Department of Economics combines all economics faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and all labor economists from the ILR School. A small number of senior professors from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the College of Human Ecology's Department of Policy Analysis and Management (PAM) will have joint appointments.

"This is an important and exciting new development for Cornell," said Fuchs. "Combining the world-class economists from ILR and Arts and Sciences into a new economics department will bring increased opportunities for collaboration".

One of the most damning pieces of evidence highlighting the fact that the economics faculty at Cornell just didn't care about undergraduates back in my day was the way economics majors were treated at graduation. Whereas virtually every other major/field/discipline had a diploma/awards ceremony for graduating seniors to attend with their families, the economics faculty simply left diplomas in a box outside of Uris Hall. Somebody in the economics department should do a cost/benefit analysis on that to see whether or not that will encourage or discourage lifelong alumni giving back to the department.

So hopefully this announcement is a start. It will hopefully improve not only the quality of the department from a research perspective, but also the quality of the teaching and the educational experience for undergraduates. If the provost and the department chair is serious about undergraduate education he will invest in economics advising and support staff for students as well, similar to what occurs for biology majors. And finally, maybe it'll result in the creation of a University-wide economics minor, open to students across all seven undergraduate colleges.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on July 20, 2011 (#)

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