September 19, 2011

Cornell Consolidates Economics Professors Into Single Department

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Two months after the University announced it would consolidate economics professors across the University into a single department, students say they have not noticed any sweeping changes, and administrators say that changes will take time to materialize.

Although economics professors were scattered across the University departments in the past, the Department of Economics now joins faculty from the Arts College, Industrial and Labor Relations, the Johnson Graduate School of Management, the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the College of Human Ecology into one department. Under the new arrangement, professors hold joint appointments in their original departments and the economics department.

Prof. David Easley, chair of the new economics department, said the consolidation had been discussed among faculty for about 15 years. The idea did not gain much traction until a few years ago, when numerous faculty committees and task forces were organized to address the question. Easley said that during the last academic year, a faculty committee submitted a final proposal to the deans of the Arts College and ILR.

Prof. Donald Kenkel, policy analysis and management, who served on the committee, said that one of the biggest motivating factors for the consolidation was a desire among economics faculty for greater recognition and visibility.

“There had been a long-time perception among Cornell economists that somehow or other the impression — especially in the outside world … was where the whole was less than the sum of the parts,” Kenkel said. “There were lots of really good economists across campus in all these different units, but because we were so spread out, the critical mass didn’t appear to be there. This hurt our reputation among our colleagues and peers at [other research universities].”

“We really are an extremely good group of economists at Cornell, and we should have the visibility that we think we deserve. We’re hoping that creating this new department will give us that,” Kenkel said.

However, the consolidation has yet to lead to any visible changes at the undergraduate instruction level. Stephan Miedel ’14, who is taking two economics courses this semester, said that he had not realized the merger had taken place.

Karl Muenzen ’14 said that the consolidation also had not been made apparent to him in his economics class.

“I really had no idea of the changes at the start of the semester, and I still haven’t seen any differences in my classes [from last semester],” he said. “It’s business as usual.”

As the year continues, many of the changes may become more noticeable, Easley said. One of the first changes is that courses will no longer be crosslisted, but will now be listed primarily under economics. For example, labor economics, listed as an ILR class, will be listed as an economics class.

“In practice, undergraduate courses are still listed as economics courses in Arts and Sciences and as economics courses in ILR. But they’re being taught now by members of the economics department, and so at some point — we hope soon — we’ll integrate this and make it easier for students to see what we’re doing,” Easley said.

However, he said that there was no specific time frame for the changes to take place.

“Our goal is to have it done by the end of this academic year. Whether we’ll make that or not, I’m not sure, but we’ve got lots of people working on it,” he said.

Senior Vice Provost Ronald Seeber said the integrated department will help with recruiting faculty and students, and improving the quality of the department.

“We believe we should have a top-10 economics department,” Seeber said. “When faculty think about where they want to work as a brand new Ph.D., you do that on the basis of what’s the reputation of the university and, even more importantly, what’s the reputation of the department. The better we are perceived, the better students we’ll attract, the better faculty we’ll attract — it’s a spiral upward.”

Easley downplayed the significance of rankings in the decision to create the department, saying that the ability to coordinate the hiring of economics faculty and the ability to provide better undergraduate education in economics were also very important.

Budget concerns were not an issue that brought on the change, according to Easley. He said that the Arts College and ILR have committed to continue funding at the level the individual departments received before the consolidation, and the department is currently organizing a fundraising campaign to raise additional funds.

Easley said that while undergraduate economics education is more centralized, the faculty still consists of a wide variety of economists, such as labor and health economists.

“All we’ve done is changed the structure. The people are the same. Maybe it helps with the rankings, although I’m not sure about that, but what it does is it gives us a structure from which we can make real changes. Now we have to do it,” he said.

Easley will chair the department for the remainder of the academic year. Prof. Kevin Hallock, labor economics, will become chair next year. Hallock currently serves as associate chair of the economics department.

Original Author: David Marten