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Harvard Snags MIT Ec Professor

'Genius grant' winner will join economics department next spring

By Evan M. Vittor, Crimson Staff Writer

MIT Professor Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the world’s top young economists, has accepted a tenured spot on the Harvard faculty next spring, following more than a year of courtship.

Mullainathan said yesterday that Harvard’s emphasis on the role of psychology in economics was a major draw for him.

“It was a very difficult decision since both departments are top notch,” Mullainathan wrote in an e-mail. “But the big deciding factor was the strength of the psychology department and the number of people in the University working on psychology and economics issues.”

Mullainathan, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1998, specializes in behavioral economics, corporate finance, developmental economics and applied microeconomics.

Harvard Professor of Economics David I. Laibson ’88, who will co-teach a graduate course on behavioral economics with Mullainathan next spring, said that Mullainathan has been on the cutting edge of research in all of his fields of interest.

“He is really a standout in all of those fields. I would say he has made pathbreaking contributions in every one of them,” Laibson said last month.

At MIT, where he received the economics department’s graduate student award for being an “outstanding faculty member,” Mullainathan has taught courses on psychology and economics, corporate finance and macroeconomic theory.

He is currently a MacArthur Fellow and recipient of a $500,000 so-called “genius grant” paid out quarterly over five years.

The acquisition of Mullainathan is a huge boon to Harvard, as Harvard and MIT’s economics departments are widely considered to be the two best in the world.

Daniel J. Benjamin ’99, a graduate student in economics who knew Mullainathan during his time studying at Harvard, said during the courtship that if the professor came to Harvard it “would make a big difference” for the department.

“He is the highest quality junior faculty member that you could hope for,” Benjamin said then. “If he came to Harvard it would definitely be big news.”

Though Mullainathan has accepted Harvard’s offer, he will not officially begin his tenure here until next spring, economics department administrator Pat Shanahan said.

Mullainathan wrote that he hopes to combine his interest in psychology with various social issues once he gets to Harvard.

“I want to focus on increasing my understanding of psychology and trying to apply it to questions of applied interest, such as poverty and discrimination,” Mullainathan wrote.

Mullainathan’s acceptance brings to an end what has been a long and intense courting process by Harvard.

According to Laibson, Harvard has had an official offer on the table for a little over a year, but has been wooing him for far longer than that.

Laibson said he could not comment on whether or not Harvard had offered any added bonuses to the tenure offer in order to seal the deal with Mullainathan.

“Those details are known only to Sendhil and the powers that be,” Laibson said.

Laibson wrote in an e-mail yesterday that above all he is simply happy to have Mullainathan moving down the river.

“I am absolutely thrilled that Sendhil has chosen to join us,” Laibson wrote.

Benjamin echoed Laibson’s statement.

“I know that the Harvard faculty has been putting a lot of effort into trying to convince him to come here,” Benjamin said. “He is widely considered to be one of the top stars in economics.”

Bengt Holmstrom, the chair of the economics department at MIT, could not be reached for comment.

—Staff writer Evan M. Vittor can be reached at vittor@fas.harvard.edu.

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