Yeshiva College Economics Department Faces Significant Complications as Department Has Seen Continued Decline

By: Sarah Casteel  |  February 15, 2018

Recent talks about the potential imminent closing of the Stern College Economics major have prompted The Observer to investigate rumors about the tensions within the Yeshiva College Economics Department. The Econ major at Yeshiva College has 26 students, which is almost seven times the number of Econ majors at Stern.  On the Wilf campus, the major is not shutting down, but rather, things are more complicated. There are enough majors in the department uptown to deem it worth keeping open; however, complications within the department and in its relationship with the school administration seem to have been recently escalating.  For example, three professors–two of whom were on tenure track–have been fired in the past two years, and an additional senior professor is rumoured to be leaving. According to reports by several Econ majors, a once very strong department at Yeshiva College has been deteriorating in recent years.  

At the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester, an alarming email was sent out by an Econ professor on the Wilf Campus after he received what he claimed to be “the lowest teaching evaluations” in his 20-year history of teaching for the previous spring semester.  One student claimed that, while he did not receive the email personally, “apparently [the students] wrecked him” in course evaluations.  One student cites that a possible reason for these negative reviews was that the final was “apparently ridiculously hard for no reason,” and that he thinks “the average on his exams were below a 70,” and that “[the professor] enjoyed putting students in situations where they couldn’t really succeed.”  While there is no confirmation of these claims, this student and other Econ majors have reported to The Observer that these are the likely reasons for the professor’s bad reviews.

On the other hand, the professor cited tension between the Econ Department and the school’s administration as the primary reason for the recent decline in the department in his message to his students.  He wrote that the Econ department has “made a huge effort to improve the content and delivery of courses, modernizing the content and bringing it in line with what is done at many good places.” In the process of the revamping the department the professor claimed that the department “got hit hard by the university administration and became the culprit for all that went wrong with the university financial crisis, and certainly were (and still are) the target of the new academic leadership [under Provost] Botman [and Dean] Bacon.” He noted that he and his colleagues have “fought through the administration’s bashing of us because of the students’ support”–support which he sensed from the evaluations was no longer as prominent on the Yeshiva College campus.

The professor’s message to his student reveals both the department’s unfavorable relationship with many of its own students, as well as apparent complications between the Econ department and the administration of Yeshiva University. To determine how the department has ended up in this position, a timeline has been pieced together.

Over recent years, enrollment in the Yeshiva College Econ major has decreased by about half, and the number of courses offered by the department has diminished significantly, from an average of about 10 to only four or five per semester.  For example, Principles of Econ used to be split into two classes, named Intro to Econ Macro and Intro to Econ Micro, but because of rumored budget cuts, the course has been merged into one.  Most of the department’s courses are repeated on a rotation basis, and there are now only one or two unique classes offered per semester. It has been reported to The Observer that the YC Econ Department has stopped offering as many courses as it used to due to budget cuts, which may, as claimed by the professor’s email, have resulted from the deteriorating relationship between the department and the school’s administration.  

One student claimed that it appears that the professors are “locked in” to the classes they teach every semester, creating a pattern within the department.  For example, Professor Hashimoto has been teaching game theory, but was only able to offer another “cool and interesting” class once.  The inability to offer such courses again was supposedly due to  its failure to garner sufficient student enrollment.

However, it should be noted that fortunately for Econ majors, adjunct professors are hired periodically to offer unique courses that would not otherwise be offered, and for a lower price for the university. Yeshiva College senior and Econ major Chiya Abramowitz told The Observer that “Econ Development was a great class,” which he says indicates that “generally speaking, the adjunct professors are good and should be kept in the rotation of offered classes, as they bring something new to the table.”  Right now, the department is offering another elective called Econ of the Middle East, another example of unique courses that the adjunct professors are able to provide.

One of the primary complaints made by the various Econ majors interviewed by The Observer is that the classes lack rigor. One student claimed that “even the good classes are jokes”–from Principles of Econ which is a Wilf Syms requirement and popular elective on the Beren campus, to courses geared towards Econ majors. Students claim there is a current lack of both writing intensive economics classes as well as rigor within the courses currently offered.  Additionally, last semester, the Intermediate Macroeconomics course had such low attendance that a class policy was implemented to administer pop quizzes, and it is rumored that the Deans were going to be involved in the situation. When Professor Hawkins, who was fired in 2016, taught the course, the class was said to be popular and well attended.

As of now, one student claimed that the Econ Department on the Wilf campus is “all over the place.” The department is known by many majors to be “flexible,” as Dr. James Kahn, head of the department, is reported to have told the students that things within the department can be switched around to accommodate their needs. But rather than the flexibility reflecting positively on the major, one Econ major claimed it is only works this way because “it’s a mess.” Additionally, another Econ major claimed that “you have to know how to play the game within the department”– if you ask Kahn for a class to be substituted, he is not always able to grant it. On the other hand, some students take a more positive approach to the major’s flexibility.  Econ major Michael Kohan said that he “really likes Kahn,” and that “he’s been super helpful and understanding though he can be difficult to get a hold of sometimes.”  However, he did note that “Kahn teaches at Beren, so he’s much more accessible to them.”

Another issue with the department is that there are few advanced electives offered, even though part of the major requirement is to take two advanced Econ electives. One of the continuously repeated options is known to be especially hard for the general Econ major students, and thus Kahn does his best to offer other advanced courses.  However, he is not always able to. Several Econ majors have agreed that “there definitely aren’t electives, especially advanced electives.” However, Kohan claimed that it “is somewhat remedied by the fact that you can take accounting or finance as electives, and I think for anyone getting a basic understanding of accounting and finance is useful.”  

Although Professor Kahn runs the Econ major at Stern and Yeshiva College, he only teaches on the Beren campus and is only in his office on Wilf once a week. Students on the Wilf campus have a particularly hard time meeting with Kahn, even though the Econ major at Wilf has around seven times more students than on the Beren campus. An Econ major from the Wilf campus claimed it takes him a week to get a meeting with Kahn. As many rumors have spread, one student has claimed that Kahn does other jobs outside of his position at Yeshiva University which make him more busy and difficult to reach, although this has not been confirmed.

As previously reported in The Observer article, two recently fired Econ professors, Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Richter are currently seeking legal action in their second court case against YU for being fired while on tenure track, which is against the university’s own handbook guidelines. Both of these professors  were popular and well-regarded teachers within the department. Despite this, and their scholarship within the field of economics–Hawkins even studied with a world-renowned economist who is now taught about in some Econ courses–the school fired them for budgetary reasons. Since Hawkins left in 2016, there has been a hole in the area of macroeconomics, which was his specialty. The department is said to place an emphasis on microeconomics, which some majors are less interested in.  

As per the timeline of the department’s decline, Economics Professor Dr. Citanna recalls that, “When I joined, we economists thought of being an inspirational (and non-mandatory) model for other [departments] at SCW (and YC). The model, originated in Provost Lowengrub’s plan, would put research-active faculty at the center of the department, using their know-how and their excellent teaching skills to improve teaching quality. It would be financially sustainable by funding the research faculty’s higher cost with [Masters in Quantitative Economics] revenues and other initiatives, while the reduced teaching loads would be compensated with more faculty flexibility in teaching courses across YU campuses. It took three years to realize that, instead of creating inspiration, we foddered envy and resentment across other fields, especially at Stern.”  For a number of reasons cited, this vision Citanna describes for the department seems not to be entirely panning out  in recent years.

Overall, as less people are being hired, many of the same courses are being offered, and tensions between the department and the administration rise, some Yeshiva College students have been disillusioned with their ability to receive a proper and enjoyable education as Econ majors.  In addition to this, there are various unconfirmed rumors about the tension and unprofessional practices within the department which may also have an affect on the students. As cited by the professor in the email to his former students, there is a possible correlation between the University administration’s animosity toward the YC Econ Department and its decline in quality and enrollment.

According to Kahn, “[The Econ Department is] 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. 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.”  It appears that changes are on the way–check in with The Observer in the upcoming months as the story continues to unfold.