And the ECBeat goes on

Economists spend much of their time studying change.

By Blake Rasmussen '05

A market fluctuates. A supply curve falls. Interest rates are cut. Prices go up. Things change. People react. Economists tell us what those changes mean.

It’s fitting, then, that Cornell’s Economics and Business department is undergoing some changes of its own.

“There is an ebb and flow, and things change around the margins,” said Professor A’amer Farooqi. “But things have not changed that much around here.”

The truth is, things have changed. It’s the core, educational mission– one of critical thinking, logical progression, problem-solving, and theory applied to the real world–that hasn’t.

Those margins to which Farooqi alludes are no small matters. The Berry Center for Economics, Business, and Public Policy. A new professor in public policy, shared with politics, and another in finance. The retirement of long-time professors Don Cell, Gordon Urquhart, and James Stout. Even changes in the curriculum.

But Farooqi’s sentiments speak to the focus of the department. While the tools have modernized, improved, and gotten shinier, their goal is still the same.

“Specific knowledge is not as important as approach. We want people to leave being able to think critically,” said Associate Professor Todd Knoop. “The benefit is that economics is a method of the mind. It’s an effective way of looking at the world.”

Professor Jerome Savitsky added, “I would like our students to have strong analytical skills, strong problem-solving skills, and strong empirical skills.”

“Notice,” he went on, “I haven’t mentioned strong economic skills.”

“Don Cell retired [in 2000], and, in many ways, he defined the department. Stout and Urquhart too,” said Farooqi. “When you change personnel, sometimes the fields get more emphasis.”

Prior to the early 1960s, the department had emphasized business and secretarial training over economics. Cell and Stout, though, were part of a restructuring and expansion of the department in the early 1960s under Robert Bunting, then the chair of the department, which placed a greater emphasis on economics and theory, while downplaying courses in accounting and finance.

Cell retired in 2000, but by then he had already spent a good deal of time with Stout (who started in 1981), Urquhart (’84), Farooqi (’87), and Knoop (’98). The emphasis on economics that began in the 1960s, therefore, continues to drive the department.

And while that emphasis is unlikely to disappear anytime soon—Farooqi, Knoop, Savitsky and Assistant Professor Santhi Hejeebu are all Ph.D. economists—the influx of two new professors for the 2008–2009 year and the advent of the Berry Center have created new opportunities and new challenges.

“Two things define the department,” said Farooqi, “the model of undergrad education and the Berry Center.”

That model of undergraduate education is founded in solid theory work backed up by applied analytical skills. The idea of a liberal arts economics education isn’t to simply churn out future management and MBAs (though many do go on to succeed in those areas) but to create students capable of succeeding in many areas.

“We’re not a trade school,” said Hejeebu. “Our focus is on applied theory.”

“The rationale is that we live in a globalized economy characterized by rapid technological, social, and cultural change,” said Farooqi. “The average person will change careers many times. It is therefore essential that they have the ability to acquire new skills and remake themselves in a new manner.”

In that vein, each professor places a strong emphasis on lecture and class work. Savitsky defined his teaching style as “lecture, exam, problem set,” and several of them described their teaching styles as “traditional.”

“Economics has a reputation for being one of the more challenging departments on campus, and that’s a reputation we’re proud of,” said Knoop.

Ask any of ECB’s students, however, and they’re likely to add a third point to Farooqi’s twopronged definition. ECB is really, really hard.

“It’s the combination of abstract theory, mathematics, and the real world interactions that make it tough,” said Junior Audrey Saunders. “Intermediate Microeconomics is supposedly the hardest class on campus. I’ve heard stories of students taking sleeping bags to the labs and saying they stopped showering after the first week.”

Hygiene aside, it’s that level of dedication that leads Junior Jeff Curran to rave about the department—full of students he describes in one word as “committed”—and the rigorous coursework the professors put them through.

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