Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Allocating Harvard's Resources

An editorial in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, notes:
The economics department is perennially plagued with abysmal satisfaction ratings and high student-to-faculty ratios.
It is true that student satisfaction is lower in economics than in most other departments at the university and that student-faculty ratios are higher. I have been told, however, that if you do a regression of a department's student satisfaction on its student-faculty ratio, the economics department is right on the regression line. This fact suggests that our student satisfaction is low precisely because the student-faculty ratio is high.

The Crimson editorial implores the econ department to take action to prevent the elimination of the junior seminar program. But that will prove hard to do with existing resources. If the student-faculty ratio is the ultimate problem leading to low satisfaction with the econ major, and I believe that it is, there are two ways to improve the situation: Increase the number of economics faculty or decrease the number of economics students.

I am confident we in the economics department would be happy to hire more faculty if only the university would allocate us more faculty slots. In a world of finite resources, the question becomes, where would those faculty slots come from? I would be eager to hear from the students which departments they think should shrink.

Or maybe there are other options. If there are administrative departments that could be reduced or eliminated, that could make room for more faculty. Or, following Brandeis, we could sell off some of the collection in the university art museum! Universities like people, face tradeoffs. If the university is to provide more small classes in econ, it will need to provide less of something else. Right now, I do not see the university administration making substantial efforts to find more resources for the economics department. Sadly, we are not a major priority.

The alternative way to get the student-faculty ratio down in the economics department is to reduce the number of students. Right now, despite the low satisfaction reported on student surveys, economics is the most popular major. The economics department could reduce the number of students by making econ a selective major (e.g., you would need a certain grade in ec 10) or by raising requirements (e.g., every major would have to take multivariate calculus and linear algebra).

Many faculty in the economics department would object to trying to reduce the number of students because we think it is great that so many students choose to major in economics. But if the students make this choice, and the university fails to allocate resources to increase faculty and bring the student-faculty ratio closer to the university average, then it seems almost inevitable that students will leave the major with a below average level of satisfaction.

There is one final possibility: Some angel with deep pockets could give the university a wad of cash with the stipulation that it be spent on the economics department. If any would-be angels are out there reading this blog post, we in the economics department would be happy to hear from you.