Archives for professors

Product Placement at Universities

Public higher education in the U.S. is not in good shape—and the main reason is lack of funds.  States will not increase their funding, and often they severely limit tuition increases.  My university appears to have hit upon a solution:  product placement and direct advertising.  The new computer building, the Gates Building, is part of the Dell Computer  Science Center, and has a Dell logo and signs for eBay and PayPal in front of the building.

But why stop here?  Five hundred students stare at me for 1-1/4 hours 28 times each fall semester.  The university could ask me to advertise—wear a cap, or a t-shirt, just like a tennis star—showing the product of whichever companies bid the most for the rights to advertise on my apparel during class.  While I would probably insist on some of the royalties, the bilateral monopoly between the university and me would surely raise funds for the university.  With enough professors required to do this, public universities could alleviate some of their financial problems. No doubt readers have similar clever ideas for product placement that would help fund public universities, albeit at some cost in dignity.

In Praise of Big Prizes

An honors course of 150 students at the University of Texas requires short written assignments each week.  The instructor had given prizes of $,1500, $1,000 and $500 to the top three papers at semester’s end. He abandoned this prize structure and now gives prizes of $100 to the three best papers each week.

The instructor, an English professor, is unfamiliar with tournament models and the idea that larger top prizes and a steeper prize gradient will elicit more effort than a flatter gradient, one with more prizes of smaller amounts (Lazear and Rosen, 1981).  My guess is that he wants to be fair rather than confer such unequal prizes; but he would get better written work if he went back to the old system, just as Tiger Woods is better motivated by a big winning prize for a whole tournament than he would be by small prizes for having the best score in a particular round. Alternatively, combine equity and efficiency by offering two $100 prizes each week, then one $1,000 prize at the semester’s end.

(HT: L.C.)

Are Tenured Professors Better Classroom Teachers?

The argument over tenure for university professors is a long and boisterous one. 

Levitt, for one, is in favor of abolition. If you are on that side of the argument as well, you may be pleased to read a new working paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter (all associated with Northwestern, in one capacity or another) called “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” (gated, sorry). Short answer (in their study, at least): no.

The abstract:

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.

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Faster Than Light: A Guest Post

I recently had occasion to e-chat with Rocky Kolb, a well-regarded astronomer and astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Talk turned, of course, to the recent likely discovery of the Higgs boson — but, as Kolb talk about that, he raised an even broader and more interesting point about scientific discovery.

He was good enough to write up his thoughts in a guest blog post that I am pleased to present below:


Faster Than Light
By Rocky Kolb

After the news coverage of the past week, everyone now understands what a Higgs particle is, and why physicists were so excited about the July 4th announcement of its probable discovery at CERN, a huge European physics accelerator laboratory.  (The disclaimer “probable” is because it could turn out that the new particle seen at CERN is not the Higgs after all, but an imposter particle with properties like the Higgs.)

For a few days it was common to see, hear, or read my colleagues struggling to explain why the discovery of a Higgs particle is a triumph for science.  But after a week of physics in the news, the media has moved on to cover the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce and shark sightings near beaches.  Perhaps all the public will be left with is a memory that there was a triumph for science.  Science works: theories are tested and confirmed by experiment.

I think that the CERN Higgs discovery was, indeed, a triumph for science.  However, the Higgs was not the only dramatic announcement at CERN in the past year.  But the other dramatic result is something many physicists would rather forget. Read More »

What to Do With Cheating Students?

I’m nearly certain that a pair of students cheated on my final exam—the probability they had so many identical answers on the multiple-choice exam is infinitesimal. If I pursue them, it takes me time, and there’s no assurance they will be found guilty. If I don’t, I’ll feel badly about giving them an undeserved grade. Even for fairly risk-averse students, cheating seems like a good idea. I doubt that most cheating is caught; and unless the penalty is very severe (expulsion) and/or the students’ costs of contesting the accusation are high, and both are very well-publicized, the incentive to cheat for students with weak consciences seems overpowering. To salve my own conscience I’ll report them, although it’s probably a waste of my time; but I doubt that reporting them will deter their future cheating or deter others very much.

Beware: This Blog Apparently Causes Academic Fraud

Way to scapegoat, Chronicle of Higher Education!

An article about a Dutch psychologist accused of faking his research data wonders if academic fraudsters are responding to the wrong incentives:

Is a desire to get picked up by the Freakonomics blog, or the dozens of similar outlets for funky findings, really driving work in psychology labs? Alternatively—though not really mutually exclusively—are there broader statistical problems with the field that let snazzy but questionable findings slip through?

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What Happens When Nobody Is Better Off? Pareto Deterioration

A tenured senior professor at another university, one of his department’s top researchers and best teachers, asked his department chairman for a temporary one-course teaching reduction for this Fall. The chairman refused but offered a terminal three-year appointment that included this reduction for all three years, at the same salary as if this professor taught a full load each year.

The professor accepted the deal, as he desperately wanted the teaching reduction this Fall, figuring he could get a teaching job elsewhere after three years. But he tells me he would have been happier teaching a full load over the next two years, and would rather not have to search for a job in two years. He is worse off. The department and university are also worse off, since they lose his courses in each of the next two years, and thereafter will not get the benefit of his teaching and his research/publication luster; and students are worse off too.

Is this really a Pareto deterioration—a new economic phrase denoting a change in which at least one person is worse off, and nobody better off? And is the phrase Pareto deterioration the best name for this unusual phenomenon?

Wanna Buy a Tony Award?

People give to charities for all kinds of reasons – some more noble than others. But one important motivation is recognition. If Yale mandated that it would only accept anonymous donations, its fundraising would be decimated.

There are a lot of different ways to garner public recognition. If I had 3 million bucks to throw around, I’d think long and hard about trying instead to buy myself a Tony Award. For as little as $200,000, you might be able to purchase an 8% chance at winning a Tony.

Let me emphasize that this is at best a crude ballpark estimate. Over the last 5 years, 12.2 new plays have been produced on Broadway each year. For a play, which generally runs about $2.5-3 million these days, my friend Jack Thomas at Bulldog Theatrical tells me you can usually find yourself among those listed above the title for about $200,000. Some investors split this minimum ante and put up or raise just $100,000 each and get listed as Bulldog Theatrical / Cantab Theatrical. Read More »