Nechyba sets plan for addressing economics review

With its undergraduate major restructured, the economics department is turning toward strengthening its graduate program and faculty under the leadership of a new chair and in the wake of a generally favorable external review last fall.

The external review, completed last October, found that the economics program could be stronger, but praised steps taken to streamline and manage resources for the undergraduate program. It also endorsed the department's plans for improvement in graduate programs and faculty hiring, as articulated by incoming chair Thomas Nechyba, professor of economics and currently director of undergraduate studies.

Having consolidated sections of introductory economics classes, thereby opening more faculty and graduate student time, Nechyba - who officially becomes chair June 1 - will now turn to improving the graduate program's mentoring, especially in the first year, rebuilding a faculty corps that is currently unwieldy in its distribution and boosting research activity.

"I'm leaving EcoTeach one year earlier than planned, but the EcoTeach reforms are ahead of schedule," Nechyba said of the hub for undergraduate advising and mentoring that he started in 2001. "What we did in the undergraduate program helped us lay the groundwork for what we'll do over the next three years."

The plans have gone so smoothly for the department that it has found welcome administrative support. This spring, William Chafe, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, authorized four faculty searches for the department - far more than any other department in Arts and Sciences this year, at a time when budget crunches have frustrated other departmental hiring plans.

"[Nechyba's] leadership has been effective in mobilizing constituencies inside and outside the department," Chafe said. "He's got some good plans to put in place."

Provost Peter Lange said he inherited an "economics initiative" when he arrived as provost in 1999 and that while he dismantled the structural concept of such an initiative, he hopes to continue support for the department.

"That department has been a priority for a number of years," Lange said. "Economics is one of the key disciplines in the social sciences. It's not as strong as we would like, and hasn't developed the synergies as we would like."

Enter Nechyba, the department's administrative whiz. A microeconomist from Stanford University whose research lies in examining school choice and vouchers, Nechyba took a year off from teaching at Stanford to come to Duke in 1999 - bringing with him Stanford-trained protégé Gregory Besharov, an assistant professor.

As the coordinator of the largest major at Duke, Nechyba hopes to springboard off his undergraduate reforms to vault the entire department to the top of its field.

"Bottom line, Tom Nechyba is an absolutely incredible guy," said Professor of Economics Edward Tower, who has been at Duke since 1974. "We were really lucky to get him."

Craufurd Goodwin, James B. Duke professor of economics, who has served as interim chair for the past year, heaped equal praise on his successor, who was voted chair by acclamation.

"The department is remarkably unified," he said. "I've seldom seen it as consistent.... Every voice is unanimous."

Goodwin said he has been searching for two microeconomists and a macroeconomist as well. Last week, Nechyba said the department had recruited Princeton University economist Han Hong, a young expert in econometrics and industrial organization, and that he hoped to announce other hires later this spring.

Specifically, the review called for the department to strengthen its ranks of microeconomic theorists - especially experts in applied microeconomics, the application of theory to real-world problems such as labor and finance. Reviewers recommended that the department fully define what kind of experts it wanted to focus its vision more specifically.

The review also noted that its "U-shaped" faculty needed more middle-aged, tenured professors - in contrast to younger hires and established, field-leading professors.

"In our department, we lost people at the middle rank. [The reviewers] endorsed our diagnosis," Goodwin said. "Our lack of strength is in tenured associate professors, which has created problems for mentoring."

Mentoring will be one of the keys in strengthening the graduate program - which sees almost half of its ranks fail after the first-year pre-qualifying exams, an area in which the review hoped the department could improve.

Meanwhile, the reviewers found the growth of the undergraduate major "alarming" and expressed concern about the impact of the major's size on the program's resources.

The major is the most popular among undergraduates, attracting over 1,000 students, and reviewers found that the undergraduate program's needs had driven too much of the graduate program and even the faculty away from research interests.

"They called it alarming," Nechyba said. "We called it exciting."

At the same time as the creation of EcoTeach, he consolidated the many small sections of introductory economics into one sequence in which the content of each class is guaranteed, regardless of instructor.

"What was happening was we were using all of our faculty and then some just to cover the core," said Lori Leachman, associate professor of the practice and assistant director of undergraduate studies. Because the classes are among the largest lectures at Duke, Leachman said the new system does not allow for much interfacing among professor and students, but the centralization ensures that students learn what they need to proceed through the major.

She added that it has also allowed the department to offer more upper-level seminars for majors.

"[Currently, the introductory track] enables us to move those kids through the core with a really coherent program, where one course builds on the other course, and we know they're getting it from one step to the next," Leachman said. "I think the delivery suffers, but the quality control compensates in some ways for what you're losing."


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