Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy Shiny People (for academics)

I recently visited a number of universities in the Maritimes. For those not in the know there are a lot of very small universities in the region. These universities tend to have small student bodies and a similarly small faculty compliment. In talking to these people something became very clear.

The happiest and most productive of departments I visited was at the smallest of the universities I visited. This of course got me thinking. What makes university faculty most likely to be productive? (BTW this is an issue I’m personally concerned about.)

The university in question has had a stable student population for decades (about between 2250 and 2500) and does have a fairly large endowment. On the down side it does have something of a history of labour unrest, with a potential for faculty strikes every few years.

What has always amazed me about this group is how much pleasure they take from their work and how much research they actually get done despite an onerous teaching load. Thinking about it for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spotted a few things to consider.

1) Few layers of administration. This is a small university with relatively few AVP’s DAVP’s, ADAVP’s, associate dean’s, coordinators, etc. This means there is a hope of influencing the outcome of administrative decisions. Despite this it is possible for a department head to devote comparatively little time to admin busy work. Unlike larger schools in which most faculty members don’t know who is making administrative decisions this week and don’t feel they have any meaningful say in the direction the university takes or have to spent countless hours in meetings that accomplish nothing.

2) The group legitimately respects each other and gets along. When hiring, attention was paid to how different people appeared to “fit”. In a small group this is exceptionally important. You need someone who is going to be of a complimentary temperament. Many academic units ignore this to their detriment. Ideally, you need someone who agrees with just enough not to make you insane. I’ve seen this group subject their own (and my work when I visit) to intense thoughtful scrutiny. It isn’t always the velvet glove sort either, but it is always done in a way that lets you know it’s about making it “right”.

3) Really bright, engaged, students. I’m not even talking about graduate students, though they offer fill this role. The students I have encountered there are genuinely engaged, willing to challenge, and capable of putting up a really good intellectual fight. There is accordingly a great atmosphere of academic debate and thought.

Considering all these factors, it really makes me wonder if Universities in Western Canada have taken a wrong turn in pursuing size. Would a larger number of smaller universities better achieve the stated objectives?


Anonymous said...

Amen! Now make it so!

Ah, but with the stalled research careers, a robust administrative ladder is the only way to continued career progress and improved self-esteem (well-being / happiness).

I am going to talk to Alina re: the data before the end of the week.

PPT for MRU?

Anonymous said...

3) Really bright, engaged, students. I’m not even talking about graduate students, though they offer fill this role. The students I have encountered there are genuinely engaged, willing to challenge, and capable of putting up a really good intellectual fight. There is accordingly a great atmosphere of academic debate and thought.

I remember I was one of those students constantly bugging you.
Eventually, I graduated from a smaller university in BC, it's not all about dollars and sense....those intangibles that come with a smaller institution are priceless, that is, greater than the tangible costs/benefits.

What's the point of university education if all students do is rehash what's given, and albeit, that happens a lot. It's not just a matter of right or wrong, many many things in academia is gray, and it's about challenging the status quo, asking questions that usually start with WHY/WHY NOT, and etc. It's about going further than what's given and research, research, research. It might sound corny, but personally, my education was all about learning and this goes beyond what the prof tells you - it's a start - but that's all and I think that what the prof would expect you believe as a student. Good way to "separate the wheat from the chaff."

Anonymous said...

What is the product? I think once you narrowly define the product, the optimality of varying sizes become apparent.


Anonymous said...

A return to sports economics (from a previous student of yours):

We all know the connection between baseball and statistics. It was arguably conceived by the Oakland A's and used somewhat successfully. However, if one were to count the number of final playoff and world series appearances - than not so great.

Blue Jays have started on this path with mixed if not disastrous results.

Begs to reason - what stats are compiled? How are those stats analyzed? Also, what variables are used? I do think that it's just a giant regression equation that is ultimately used at the end of the day. I doubt that the stats capture the intangibles. Reminds me of the option pricing model - although much approved over the years - it's still at best an estimate because how the hell can you with much accuracy capture the intangibles, that is, behaviour of a large market (global market). Somewhat easier to do in a case study or control test group or smaller group but in reality somewhat difficult if not impossible for "real" life.

I know we had this discussion years ago, but one teams stats group isn't the same as another - some are more successful as others for many reasons. I propose that if you want to win a sports bet, try to figure out who has the better stats team and its correlation to wins. As a result, this type of analysis really ignores solely looking at team talent, coaching, and amount of payroll as individual reasons for team success. It's the stats - just give me the stats and I'll tell you who wins. Makes for a good "weekend project."

Cheers Dr.J.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add this interesting link concerning baseball and statistics:

Actually, here's another thought:

I wonder whether certain sports are more inclined to statistical analysis than others? Also, how much an impact does the usage of statistical analysis impact the particular sport, if any? That is, does it improve your overall win/loss ratio? Does it improve your championship wins/playoff appearances ratio?

Makes for a good case study to applied over all major sporting events. I am seriously thinking of trying out this research concerning Formula 1 racing and perhaps boxing in my spare time.

economistatlarge said...


You're right - my enjoyment is not the intended product :(. In all honesty you are correct. There is a justification based on different definitions of the goal.

@ Sports Anon
The skills of the stats team would be an interesting thing to try to assess. I wonder how you'd measure that in a meaningful way. There are intangibles that play a role (are they always going to be unmeasurable?). The other problem is feedback loops, a couple of really good guys can change a team. One or two meatheads, well..

I think there are some sports that lend themselves to stats more readily than others - these tend to be those with lots of individual action, lots of repetitions (trials), and such. Baseball is an excellent example of a good fit. It isn't clear that hockey is (there's got to some application - Sabermetrics from your link might apply) and football poses a particular challenge - I'm not sure you get enough reps in a season to do much, a qb likely only makes the same throw in the same situation a few times (at most) in a game.