May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.
President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her SIP.
“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”
“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”
Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.
Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.
“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.
“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”
Senior Katie Moffit answers discusses her research with “SIP Czar” Ahmed Hussen.
“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious. Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.
“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.
Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?