Stern College Economics Major Faces Potential Shutdown; Tension with Administration

By: Sarah Casteel  |  February 4, 2018
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Several Stern College students have recently been concerned regarding reports from professors about the Beren campus Economics Major potentially shutting down soon. When asked by The Observer to respond to these claims, Professor James Kahn, chair of the Economics Department at Stern and Yeshiva College, was emphatic in his denial. “We are making a concerted effort to increase enrollments and attract students to the major (as well as the minor), particularly students who are considering related quantitative subjects such as math and computer science, as well as those at Syms,” he said. “We are optimistic about the major and are already seeing increased enrollments. Economics is the largest major at many colleges and universities, and we see no reason why it cannot be here as well.”

Even though, as Kahn claimed, the major is not closing as of now, The Observer investigated these student reports further and discovered deeper complications and tensions behind the potential closing of the Stern Economics Department.

According to a different professor at Stern who spoke to The Observer anonymously about the situation with the Economics department, “Some time before Summer 2017, Dean Bacon approached Prof. Kahn and let him know that she may have to shut down the Econ major at SCW because too few students were enrolled in it. In fact, it seemed [that] only one student had declared Econ as a major and no other student seemed to plan doing so.”  

The professor concurred with the administration’s assessment of enrollment in that period of time. Last year there were only two enrolled students in the Intermediate Microeconomics class, a gateway course for the major. So it is clear that not many SCW students were thinking of the Econ major–otherwise more people would be sitting in the class.

The source went on to recall that, “in Fall 2017 Dean Bacon reached out to Prof. Kahn again, saying that she was ready to cancel the Econ major unless enrollments in Intermediate Micro were higher. She did not specify the minimum number required not to cancel the class, leaving the faculty to deal with the uncertainty of a last-minute (i.e., Dec 19) cancellation. After much communication and effort [between] Prof. Kahn and the Dean’s Office (notably Ethel Orlian),  and the re-scheduling of the course at a different time to avoid overlaps with other classes, the number of enrolled students climbed to five, and the Dean’s Office withdrew from the table the plan to cancel the course or the major.”  There are  now six students in Intermediate Microeconomics. Seven years ago, there were about five.

While the situation may seem like a straightforward enrollment issue, some faculty claim that the administration’s actions are indicative of a larger animosity between them and the Economics department. “The mere fact that the possibility of closing the major was raised as a solution to lackluster enrollment numbers for the major is part of a trend that sees the Econ dep[artment] under fire from the Dean’s Office and more generally the administration,” our source said.  The source cited further evidence of this perception of animosity seen from the administration toward the department: “Since Provost Botman joined, three Econ faculty members have been fired against the faculty’s opinion.” He is referring to popular professors Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Richter who have taken YU to court for their unceremonious firing against university policy, as well as one other professor. Asides from firing professors, the source claims that “lack of [administration] support for Econ is [also] evident when compared to the hiring decisions for other areas, such as math and computer science,” in which new professors are being hired, as The Observer reported earlier this year.

Economics professor Dr. Alex Citanna reports that the administration has deemed that the department is “too expensive,” which frustrates him given that the department is “one of the few” that offer classes across Yeshiva College, Stern College, and the Katz School.  While he does concede that the department has had decreased enrollments, he believes the numbers across campuses are “still quite high.” He credits the decline in enrollment, particularly at Stern College, to the fact that Sy Syms has made it difficult for its students to take Econ courses, and the “brain drain” of STEM-minded students caused by the addition of the computer science major. He also notes the lack of basic resources afforded to other majors by the administration, such as peer tutors on the Beren campus, as an additional reason for enrollment decline.

Still, Citanna is quick to combat the claim that declined enrollment has made the department too expensive. “The negative trend in enrollment has been more than compensated by increased enrollments in the Masters in Quantitative Economics  program (now hosted at Katz), which rakes in over $1M in revenues and attracts about 30 students”–a program run by Citanna himself. Citanna believes that the Econ department “faculty shows an entrepreneurial and collaborative attitude when it comes to developing new programs, new online courses, new e-learning initiatives, new e-marketing material for the school, and the like.”  

When asked by The Observer, Professor Kahn seemed to agree with Citanna that the Econ department is being unfairly judged for low enrollments. “I would note that the YU Fact Book put out by Institutional Research lists Economics as having four majors at Stern—a low number to be sure. But it also lists three for Chemistry, five for History, three for Music, among others. Have any of these departments been told their majors might be closed if they don’t boost enrollments?” While these majors face low enrollments and may provide a financial burden to the school, only Econ, to The Observer’s knowledge, has faced a threat of shutdown from the administration.

While the administration has retracted the threat of closing the major for now, reports from both students and professors on the Beren Campus seem to provide strong evidence that the major may be closing fairly imminently. For students who have or will have already declared the Econ major, its potential cancellation leaves them rightly concerned for how they will be able to complete their studies if the necessary courses are no longer offered. Citanna assured that “nobody at the Dean’s Office wants to leave any student who declares this year or who has already declared Econ as a major without the possibility to complete the requirements and major in Econ–even if they decided to shut down the major for future students.”

Recently declared Economics major Sarah Berger, SCW ‘20, expressed her concern over the major’s potential closure. “I understand that there’s a lack of interest right now at Stern” she said, “but at the same time Stern is a liberal arts college and the lack of students registered for a very mainstream major is not a reason to close it off to the minority of students who are interested.” Berger also pointed out that, perhaps with some more effort, she doesn’t see why the department shouldn’t be more popular. “A major or minor in Economics can complement almost any major, especially ones like math or political science,” she pointed out. “Emphasizing this and advertising various courses to the student body could be a good start to building up the department.”


When The Observer inquired with Dean Bacon about the possible closing of the department, she responded, “As a liberal arts college we are committed to supporting a broad range of disciplines and majors.  But even with that commitment, our support must be  related to student interest and demand. In the case of the Economics Department, there have been very few majors at SCW over the last few years.” She pointed out that though “the elective courses in the department usually do well, because they are taken by Sy Syms students in some cases (Money and Banking, Public Finance) and by pre-health students (Health Economics),” the small number of majors means that “the required major courses have been poorly enrolled, if at all.”  

Bacon also pointed to numbers which make it evident that the courses in the major have indeed seen a general decline in recent years. In courses “required in the major, beyond the introductory course” there have been no more than six students in a class, but more often that number was closer to one or two for the past three semesters. This semester has seen a slight upswing in enrollments, with six students enrolled in Microeconomics, but the numbers still remain relatively low.  

 

Fall 2015

Spring 2016

Fall 2016

Spring 2017

Fall 2017

Spring 2018

1101 Interm.  Micro

n/a

4

n/a

2

n/a

6

1201 Interm. Macro      

4

n/a

n/a

n/a

2

n/a

1421 Econometrics     

6

n/a

2

n/a

1

n/a

The required courses in the major, beyond the introductory course, and their enrollments, as provided by the Dean’s office

In response to the slight upswing in enrollment in major required courses this semester Bacon, like Professor Kahn, expressed her optimism about the major’s future. “This spring semester, we are seeing a small turnaround in these numbers which is very promising. We hope this is the beginning of a trend.”

Still, the decline from what was once around fourteen majors to under five raises concerns about the major’s viability, while complications with the administration reveal the possibility that the solution may be to shut down the Beren Econ major altogether if the “trend” in higher enrollments does not continue. The department will certainly have to revamp and double its efforts to attract majors and minors, as Professor Kahn noted, if it is to stave off a potential shut down. Even if such changes were to be made, professors Kahn and Citanna have also raised important questions about whether the department is being treated fairly by the administration. Clearly, there is more to the story that has yet to be discovered, and many important decisions that have yet to be made. Check in with The Observer soon as the story continues to unfold.

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