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New Economics chair initiates revamp

By Drew Keller     10/21/14 4:07pm

A multiyear revamp of the Rice University economics department has begun under newly-hired professor and department chair Antonio Merlo, who plans to take major steps to develop Rice’s economics teaching and research.

Merlo, a native of Italy, moved from the University of Pennsylvania to Rice this summer to head the economics department and the Rice Initiative for the Study of Economics (RISE). In these roles, he will lead the effort launched by President David Leebron to rework the department, which Merlo said is currently not fulfilling its potential. 

“[The Rice economics department is lagging] in a very basic way,” Merlo said. “The economics department at Rice for several years has not been ranked in the place that Rice University deserves. Rice University has been consistently a top-twenty institution; the economics department is not that status. I think that this is something Rice University [should] strive to have: a first-rate economics department that is on par with the quality of the institution overall. That’s why I’m here.”

Merlo said Leebron’s vision for the future of economics at Rice is what attracted him to the job at the university. 

“The stated goal is really to make this a vibrant department that is able to attract the top researchers from around the world, where faculty are actively engaged in teaching and can give the quality of teaching the students deserve and be a vibrant intellectual community where economics thrives,” Merlo said.

According to Merlo, RISE is taking several steps towards this goal, starting by hiring 10 more faculty members. Merlo said four academics from the University of Pennsylvania, including himself, and one from Johns Hopkins University have already been hired. 

“The fact that distinguished scholars were willing to embrace the vision and come here to Rice should already be a testament to how things are changing and evolving,” Merlo said. 

Merlo said the department is also working to revise the curriculum to better fit the needs of Rice’s undergraduate and graduate economics students.

“The curriculum is trying to offer a broader set of classes, but also a different set of classes,” Merlo said. “So it’s not just a matter of a sheer number; it’s also how do we envision a natural progression in the fields of study so that everything makes sense.”

The addition of new faculty involved in research will also enhance economics at Rice, according to Merlo.

“The way I view the research enterprise is that there are individual faculty who are all interested in different areas, and once you bring them together it expands the set of questions they can address,” Merlo said. “We want faculty who can bring their research experience into the classroom.”

Merlo said research experience in addition to teaching ability are important qualities the department is searching for, especially for lower-level classes.

“For teaching introductory courses, a combination of people who are really invested in the teaching mission and really invested in the research mission may be the way to go,” Merlo said. “Certainly, the goal is to have a department that is recognized worldwide for their research but also their excellence in teaching.”

Mathematical economic analysis major Andrew Jacobson agreed that a focus on introductory economics classes would improve the department.

“The gap I see is in the lower level, especially because you have a lot of different [professors], and they all have different teaching styles, so when you get up into the upper levels, people are going to have different levels of knowledge and that’s kind of where an imbalance happens,” Jacobson, a Brown College senior, said. “My experience has been really good once [I reached] the upper-level classes.”

According to Merlo, RISE is a five-year-long plan, and the department has just begun to implement changes; more specific plans are under development.

“I think we’re just at the early stages, but certainly things are going very well,” Merlo said. “It’s amazing how our alumni, the board, all the friends that Rice has, how energized the whole community is and how responsive people have been to the initiative.”

Merlo said he is optimistic about the initiative’s prospects.

“We can do something really amazing together, starting with the students and working all the way up to the administration,” Merlo said. “I think the chemistry is there, and there are certainly some positive vibes in motion that are making people understand it is a viable initiative, which is very exciting and the potential gains are very large.”

According to Merlo, a strong economics department is important due to the field’s ability to address a wide range of topics.

“I was always fascinated by economics as a discipline that really allows you to answer a very diverse set of questions, but at the same time uses a common language and diverse set of tools to answer those questions,” Merlo said.

Merlo taught at the University of Minnesota and New York University before beginning his latest tenure at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the course of his career, he said he has researched topics ranging from conventional economics to crime and the choice of politicians by political parties.

“My view of the field of economics is a little different than the traditional view; I actually view economics as the science of choice subject to constraints,” Merlo said. “Economics is not just macroeconomics; it’s not that if you’re an economist the only conversation you can have is what’s going to happen to the interest rate.”

According to Merlo, the department will incorporate this expanded view of economics as it adapts to changes in the field.

“Economics is so central to everything we do in human life,” Merlo said. “It can really help a lot in almost every aspect of whatever career an individual may choose to have.”

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