The names of great 20th century economists like Irving Fisher and James Tobin are enough to illustrate the storied past of the Yale Economics Department. With esteemed professors and unique research centers like the Cowles Foundation, the department’s past contributions to economic theory have not been questioned.
Today, the Economics Department is still running strong at Yale. Maintaining its position as a first-rate department, Economics continues to produce important research, compete for the best students, and attract distinguished faculty.
After losing Ariel Pakes to Harvard and Chris Sims to Princeton in 1999, the department responded last year by hiring three top professors at the senior level — Pinelopi Goldberg of Columbia University, Michael Keane of New York University, and Eduardo Engel of the University of Chile.
“We compete with only the top departments for both senior and junior faculty,” Assistant Provost Emily Bakemeier said. “[T]he goal, of course, is to improve the already high ranking of the department, and that means we go head to head with the best departments.”
If respect from peer institutions is any indication, Yale is certainly holding its own in the world of economics.
“It’s definitely a top-rate department,” Stanford University Economics Department chairman Gavin Wright said. “I’m sure Yale’s had its ups and downs like every department, but it’s been persistently near the top or at the very top.”
But for Jimmy Chang ’04, the history of the department and its position in the rankings is not of much interest.
When Chang took the introductory economics courses last year, he simply wanted to learn the material and earn a decent grade. But Chang said the setup of the lecture classes made it difficult to accomplish either objective.
“It’s too impersonal,” Chang said. “You feel that the book is a better teacher than the lecturer. And there’s really no motivation to go to TA hours. The TAs don’t speak English, so you just can’t understand what needs to be done.”
After briefly thinking about majoring in economics, the second largest undergraduate major at Yale, Chang ultimately decided against it.
As a response to student reviews of the introductory classes, William Brainard, director of undergraduate studies for Economics, said, the department recently has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of those classes.
In addition to having some of the department’s most talented professors teach the introductory classes, the department instituted freshman seminars in introductory economics this year to provide closer contact between faculty and students.
“It’s nice to have an easy forum for questions,” said Charlotte Taft ’05, who is taking one of the seminars. “They definitely try to keep it interactive, which makes it interesting. We’ve been doing game theory, and he has us play the actual game.”
Yale President Richard Levin, a member of the Economics Department, said students are offered a first-rate economics education.
“As with any department, there are some truly outstanding teachers, and some really good ones,” Levin said. “We teach undergraduate economics at a rigorous level and really give people a solid grounding in the subject.”
Economics chairman David Pearce added that the department also considered offering two types of introductory classes — one for prospective economics majors and one for students who just want to learn the basic principles of economics.
But ultimately, the department decided against this option.
“The difficulty is that many people who don’t intend to major in econ take it and end up majoring in it,” Pearce said. “We don’t want to put those students in a dead end situation.”
But Yale is not the only institution that confronts these issues.
“In almost every department, there’s constant concern with how to do intro econ classes well,” Sims said from Princeton. “There’s no formula for it.”
At Stanford, both introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics are condensed into one course that lasts one quarter, or 10 weeks. Wright said because economics is the largest undergraduate major at Stanford, the department does not have the resources to meet the large demand.
Section participation for introductory classes is required at Stanford. But in addition to reviewing lectures and problem sets, students participate in economics experiments and play market games.
Pearce said while he would be in favor of using experiments and games as teaching tools, he would oppose making sections mandatory.
“Students are adults who should be capable of deciding whether it would be useful to go to section,” Pearce said.
Ticket to Wall Street?
While Brian Ford ’02 admitted that he did not enjoy his introductory classes too much, he said it did not matter.
For Ford, the introductory classes as well as the economics major are simply the means to a lucrative end — a career in the private sector.
“I wouldn’t do econ if I didn’t think it were a gateway to a career,” Ford said. “I’m as interested or more interested in other subjects, but econ works as the best foundation for me.”
Ford said that he came to Yale knowing he wanted to work in the financial industry eventually, and economics was the closest major to business. While Ford said he was satisfied with Yale’s economics program, he would like to see more finance and business classes to prepare students for jobs.
“I didn’t get any I-banking offers probably because I didn’t have enough experience,” Ford said.
Pearce said he would like to offer a broad finance course for non-economics majors. It would not be as mathematically intensive and probably would not count toward the economics major. Although plans are very preliminary, he said he has discussed the idea with members of the department.
Economics professor John Geanakoplos said although there is value in preparing students for the real world, he would like to see finance become a more intellectual discipline.
“I think everybody agrees that financial markets are important to how the world works,” Geanakoplos said. “We want to present a thematic way of looking at finance, not just provide random tools for Wall Street.”