Econ. Dept. May Cut Seminars

Shortage of economics faculty may bring end to junior seminars

Junior seminars in economics—the only small undergraduate courses taught by the department’s faculty—may become yet another victim of the University-wide strain borne of the financial crisis.

With faculty departing and Harvard’s hiring slowdown hindering their replacement, the already stretched department does not have enough faculty members to teach the seminars, according to some department members.

“We have a shrinking pool of faculty to teach the same pool of students,” said Economics Professor Claudia Goldin, who taught a seminar this fall. “How can we teach as effectively when our faculty is down so many people?”

The decision to cancel junior seminars for the ’09-’10 academic year—which Goldin said has already been discussed by the department as a very likely option—will not be finalized until at least mid-March, when the first draft of the department’s list of offerings is due for the course catalogue, according to the department’s Academic Coordinator Clare MacLean.

The economics department—which has one of the highest student-to-faculty ratios—introduced the 16-person courses three years ago as a result of a College-wide push to increase student interaction with faculty members.

“The student-teacher ratio is well out of whack,” said Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor who also taught a seminar this fall.

Recent departures have worsened the situation. In the past few weeks, the department has lost several faculty members to the Obama administration.

Former University President Lawrence H. Summers, who was slated to co-teach a junior seminar this spring, left to head the President’s National Economic Council.

Professor David M. Cutler ’87 departed to work with Obama on health care policy, and Professor Jeremy C. Stein joined Summers at the NEC. Visiting Professor Owen A. Lamont and Professor Raj Chetty have replaced Stein and Cutler, respectively, but department members said they are still anxious about the hiring slowdown.

“If economics is going to remain as popular as it has been for the last 20 years, we need to have more faculty resources in order to provide the educational experience that would be more comparable to what other departments are able to,” said Economics Professor Benjamin M. Friedman.

Next year, the department plans to open courses that were formerly seminars to a higher number of students. thus eliminating their 16-student caps and losing their seminar designation.

Junior seminars are non-required courses “designed to introduce students to research in a particular field of economics,” according to the course catalogue.

While only a fraction of the 238 current junior economics concentrators have elected to take the courses, enrollment is not guaranteed. This semester, 97 students lotteried for 48 slots, according to Jeana Lee, an undergraduate course assistant.

“I thought it was one of the best experiences I had in the econ department,” said James S. Williams ’10. “There was tremendous opportunity for interaction with the professor.”

—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at —Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at

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