Dear members and friends of the IU Economics community:
I am writing this annual message to you, members of the IU Economics family, during Thanksgiving break, a short pause between the seemingly incessant rush of the fall semester and the rush of the final weeks of the school year. I always find this slowdown an invaluable opportunity to reflect on where we are, in gratitude. The passing year has certainly had its own share of things to be grateful for as well as its own set of challenges. Speaking of the latter, one cannot help but think of them in the context of higher education overall, and education generally. This compels me to devote a part of this message to my thinking of the position of the department in this changing landscape.
I am sure that higher education’s challenges are on the minds of all of us, whether we are in this business, have children or grandchildren in or on the way to college, or are simply concerned about its part in societal dynamics. The phenomenon I observe as the most essential to understanding the processes is the acute rise in competition in the higher education marketplace, which challenges the existing state of affairs. And this is very good news from an economist’ perspective. One of the important caveats of this phenomenon, certainly not new but growing in importance, is increasing professionalization of higher education in terms of student choices of undergraduate majors. Many view this as a challenge to Liberal Arts, the hallmark of the American model of college education, but then we also know that challenge is good. The national trends I am describing are happening right here at IU. Just as I reported to you last year, the share of undergraduate students pursuing professional degrees keeps rising on campus, especially in Business, but also in a growing number of other professional degrees on campus, Informatics and Public Health prominent among them. A direct challenge this brings to Economics is two-fold: we scramble to meet the growing demand for our introductory level classes, from Business students in particular, while facing stiff competition in attracting students to our majors. (The plural here is no typo, more on this shortly.) This is surely an interesting time at IU overall: we have a new President; our new Provost has been here for less than a year. The new upper administration does bring new energy and a new sense of urgency in addressing the challenges: shaking things up, as the expression goes.
Economists would not have been true to what we preach had we not been responding well to competition. In fact, I believe that the department is in a great position to do so, because of the value we are offering our students. Furthermore, I think that the skill set of the economics profession and that advanced in economics education has been rapidly adapting to market needs. Here in the department, over the last few years, we have invested in classes that emphasize data analysis, coding, and computation, such as John Stone’s Introductory Econometrics, Stefan Weiergraeber’s Big Data, and Rupal Kamdar’s Computational Macroeconomics. (Coincidentally, but perhaps not, all three received the prestigious Trustees Teaching Award last spring.) These classes form the backbone of our new major, Bachelor of Science in Economics and Quantitative Methods, which received the final approval just a few weeks ago and will start accepting students this spring, in parallel with the existing B.A. The new B.S. degree is categorized as STEM in the Federal classification, and so are, as of late, our M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. We continue building on this strategy by collaborating with the Data Science program in the School of Informatics on putting together a joint Master’s degree, channeling the explosive student demand for data skills toward the expertise of our faculty in the analysis of economic data. Our next area of innovation is building on the new B.S. degree to offer our students opportunity to pursue our M.S. degree through an Accelerated Master’s track, which is aligned with priority strategy advanced by the new IU leadership. Stay tuned!
As you know, our Ph.D. program has always been and will always remain the heart and soul of this department. It would not have been a leading research department otherwise. We would also not have been able to carry out our undergraduate teaching mission without the assistance of our dedicated grad students. Attracting the best students to our Ph.D. program and letting them realize their highest potential are the key factors by which economics departments are judged nationally and internationally. They are essential elements of our business model, if you will. I therefore take special pride in sharing with you the news of having inaugurated the Lloyd Orr graduate fellowships in Economics earlier this year. They were generously endowed by Lloyd, our late colleague, and his partner Jackie Hall. This endowment is transformative for our graduate program and will allow us to fund two full-year Ph.D. dissertation fellowships, and more. It was a special joy for me to help inaugurate this endowment as an opportunity to celebrate the memory of Lloyd as a very special colleague and former, 1985-89, Chair of the department. You will read more about Lloyd and his and Jackie’s gift in this issue but let me use this first-mover advantage with brief remarks of my own. I had the good fortune to overlap, in my initial period in the department, with Lloyd and other members of his cohort: Elmus Wicker, Phil Saunders, Clarence Morrison and some even more senior but still very active, like Nick Spulber. I remember this cohort as a group of very special, colorful individuals. And Lloyd was colorful in his own way! I think he had this interesting and unusual combination of a grumpy and acerbic manner and true gentleness, humanity, and respect for others. I think this is especially rare in the academy, which is in the business of ambition. We economists know that rare things are the most valuable. I remember very vividly how Lloyd came to talk to me, in my previous term as chair at the time, about his and Jackie’s planned gift. This was basically a quick and I thought very tentative conversation. Lloyd asked me what the department’s biggest needs were. I told him and that was it, and I thought this was just something he was going to think about and contemplate. Then, all of a sudden, a gift agreement was drawn up, but again I don’t think I realized the magnitude and significance of the gift at the time – all because of the understated manner in which Lloyd presented this. The lasting impact of it cannot, however, be understated. Thank you, Lloyd!
Let me close by expressing my deep gratitude on behalf of the Economics Department’s colleagues and students for your generous support during this year with all its challenges. Your support means very much to us and we continue to work hard to make you proud of your alma mater. Please accept my colleagues’ and my best wishes for the holidays and for a happy and healthy New Year!