Market Power

Musings by an academic economist on the power of markets and the power over markets.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Professor's Job

The Eclectic Econoclast has an excellent post on a professor's constituency.

I have always had the impression that a professor's job is to help increase the net present discounted value of the expected future flow of each student's utility.

Consequently, to implement such a job description, different people have come up with other, more intermediate goal and job descriptions, such as

  • student as customer
  • student's parent as customer
  • elected funding legislature as customer
I like the concept of student as customer, except that in a market explicitly based on asymmetric information, it makes sense for students to pay professors to make/encourage/induce the students do something they would not otherwise do. Students are an important constituency, but catering to their current wishes is probably not a very good idea since profs know the subject (and one might hope) more about how to teach it than the students do.
Parents are also important.
Students' parents are an important constituency. We may not see this on a day-to-day basis, but it crops up now and then. Students go home and tell their parents what they have learned, and their parents become outraged: "What are they teaching you at that place?"
Parents are a solution to the asymmetric information problem the Econoclast eludes to above. They've been through the ringer numerous times and have a better idea of what the "real world" is like, so they help their kids along the way. Many also help pay for their kids' tuition. Parents and professors will sometimes be at odds when their solutions to the asymmetric information problem do not coincide with one-another.

He also tackles the thought that professors in the upper division courses are also part of the professor's constituency:

"Students are my raw material. My customers are the teachers who get them later."

For new (untenured) assistant professors that is not bad advice. But for the most part, I prefer the Emirates Economist's perspective.
[F]or my friend's idea to have full impact, he needs to be informed about the courses his courses feed. And the instructor's in the upper level courses need to hold his students accountable for knowing the material in the pre-requisite.

The only reason this advice from his friend has any merit is that if those teaching lower level courses do not keep in mind (or don't find out or don't care about) what is being covered in upper level courses, then the students and/or their parents and/or the funding legislators will be upset. In other words, the advice may be good, but it certainly should not set the framework for our teaching objectives.

I've taught several sections of Econ 207 (Business Statistics). It's not one of the students' favorite subjects, but it's important because they see this material time and again in their business courses. I often run into former students who look like they've seen a ghost. A familiar, albeit paraphrased comment is "You told us we'd see use statistics in our finance and marketing classes, but I thought you were just saying that to get us to study. But you were right! I thought I was done with that stuff"

Business Stats hasnt changed at all since my undergraduate days. Principles of Micro hasn't changed much since the days I took it back in 1985 BC. The biggest difference I see is that production topics have been pared back and students learn about game theory and learn game theoretical models of oligopoly (instead of the kinky demand curve model).

Principles of Macro, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit. When I took Macro, short-run macroeconomic equilibrium and the Keynsian cross were the focal points. Today, authors like Stockman and Frank and Bernanke give most of their attention to long-run economic growth.

What should a young professor do if, for example, he/she is a proponent of the long-run growth material and is decidedly non-Keynsian (as this blogger is) but the upper division macro courses primarily stick to a short-run Keynesian-cross analysis of an economy? Here the untenured professor needs to keep the preferences of students in mind as well as the preferences of those who have his/her job security in their hands. I also think it's important to keep in mind one's own preferences towards the material.

Another potential consituency are the firms that hire our students upon graduation. In any case, it comes back to the student.