As one of Yale’s few selective majors, ethics, politics and economics often sells itself to interested students by highlighting its interdisciplinary approach and its ability to combine empirical analysis with normative theories.
And while both students and faculty praised the program, they also acknowledged the difficulty in striking the tricky balance between the program’s three components.
In addition, some students have complained that the large percentage of visiting faculty members in the major makes it difficult to have consistency in the major or establish long-term relationships with professors.
Political Science chairman Ian Shapiro emphasized the political science aspect of the major during his time as EP&E director, from 1992 to 1999. University of California at Los Angeles Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett spent his time as director from 1999 to 2001 strengthening the program’s offerings in statistics and political economy.
Now, with political science professor Seyla Benhabib set to take over the directorship this fall, EP&E’s emphasis on ethics and philosophy is expected to grow, to the delight of some and to the dismay of others.
“Anytime the director changes, then they’re more likely to push the part of EP&E that’s their interest,” EP&E Director of Undergraduate Studies Ellen Lust-Okar said. “They sort of put a stamp of their personality and their interests on the program.”
While many have welcomed Benhabib’s recent arrival at Yale, the fleeting arrivals and departures of EP&E’s many visiting professors have been met with some ambivalence.
Some students, while praising the quality of the visiting professors, said they were disappointed with the seemingly constant shift in faculty members because it has made it difficult to foster relationships with professors.
An ethical twist
The former chairman of Harvard’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Benhabib said she would like to use her experience to strengthen the philosophical aspect of EP&E and eventually broaden the major’s focus to include other social sciences as well.
“EP&E emphasizes the interaction between three departments, but it doesn’t look more broadly at the interdisciplinary issues in other social sciences,” Benhabib said. “First I want to build up on what we have. But I certainly do want to open EP&E up to other social sciences as well.”
Benhabib’s agenda for EP&E includes a stronger emphasis on the ethical and normative aspects of globalization and international relations. She said she would also like to see more courses offered on subjects like the ethics of war and crimes against humanity.
Shelly Kagan, a philosophy professor and a senior member of the EP&E program, said he welcomes Benhabib’s proposed changes because the program’s other two areas have been strengthened in recent years.
“There’s been a widely held feeling that training in ethics for the major could stand to be strengthened,” Kagan said. “So if she has more resources to bear on it, then that strikes me as a good thing.”
Harvard professor Charles Maier said Benhabib has always enjoyed the theoretical aspects of social studies, but may not have had the opportunity to explore these interests fully while she was at Harvard.
But Yanev Suissa ’02, an EP&E major, said he did not believe more emphasis on theory is necessary in EP&E.
“I personally would not have majored in EP&E if that was the approach it took,” Suissa said. “I feel like it’s already too theoretical, so by moving even further to the theory, they’re just making it so non-implementational that a lot of kids who currently take it will not be interested.”
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said Benhabib will certainly influence the program but added that it is highly unlikely that significant changes will take place.
“Different chairs will give it a slightly different emphasis,” Brodhead said. “But no director will reshape the program in his or her own image.”
In addition to the freedom and small classes that EP&E offers, students in the major said the quality of the visiting professors was a major perk of the program.
“I definitely think the visiting professors in EP&E are by far the best professors I’ve had,” Suissa said.
In the past, the program has attracted top-notch academics like Boris Kapustin of Russia and John Dunn of the University of Cambridge. Shapiro said such professors were received enthusiastically by students and professors alike.
“[Kapustin] got some of the best course evaluations I’ve ever seen; he was just off the charts,” Shapiro said. “So when you get someone like that, they’re received extremely favorably. And when they’re here, they’re very available to the students because they’re not on a million committees or involved in University politics.”
Shapiro added that while the program brings in many visiting professors each year, the bulk of the teaching is still done by Yale faculty members.
But Adam Goldfarb ’02, an EP&E major, said it is difficult for students to foster relationships with professors in the major because there are so many visiting professors teaching each semester.
“I had a core teacher I really liked, and if he were still here I’d probably ask him for a recommendation,” Goldfarb said. “But he’s not.”
Kagan said faculty turnover is a problem for the major but there is not much the program can do because it is not a stand-alone department and does not have the power to hire its own faculty.
“Shy of turning the program into a regular department with its own faculty and its own funding line, I don’t see any way around that,” Kagan said. “There’s no easy solution given that inability.”