Essay on the message it sends students when academic stars take jobs at public universities

Practicing What He Preaches

March 11, 2014

I recently went with a friend to an event at Columbia University, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ph.D. program in sustainable development. At the beginning of the event, the organizers screened a short clip with interviews of students and faculty in the program. One of the students said that one of the most amazing things about the program is that you read op-eds of great thinkers and practitioners, such as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, and then you see them in the halls and in class. I was completely in awe.

As a Hunter College student who came to this event with a copy of The Price of Inequality to have signed by Stiglitz (I already have a signed book by Jeffrey Sachs), I couldn’t grasp what it would be like to have such a well-known thinker as your professor. The next day, after finishing an econometrics exam, I saw that Paul Krugman has decided to move from Princeton University to the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. My first reaction, naturally on Facebook, was “This is epic!” It is epic, but not only for the students of CUNY. Paul Krugman’s decision should also start a discussion about inequality, prices of education, and the role of prominent scholars in this debate.

Krugman’s announcement came shortly after Cathy Davidson, a prominent English professor and expert on the digital humanities – and a scholar who frequently talks about the centrality of public higher education -- announced that she was moving from Duke University to CUNY’s Graduate Center.

Professor Krugman, is a New York Times columnist and a Nobel laureate in economics. He wrote in his New York Times blog that he is moving to work in CUNY’s Luxembourg Income Study Center because, “more and more of my work has focused on issues of income inequality, and nobody does more important work producing the hard data on which all of this work relies than the Luxembourg Income Study.” Professor Krugman sees CUNY and the Luxembourg Income Study as a natural continuation of his work. In addition, Krugman added, “I also, to be honest, like the idea of being associated with a great public university.”

Almost any intro-level economics class will start with the explanation that consumers and suppliers are both rational decision makers, working for their own self-interest. The assumption (or maybe the hope) is that when all actors work in their own-self interest, the “invisible hand” works so they are also serving the needs of the society at large. Krugman, in his self-interest, moved to CUNY, and in doing so bolsters a system of colleges and universities in which most of the students don’t have the resources to go to private universities where Nobel laureates roam the halls on a daily basis.

In his writings, Krugman has frequently discussed inequality and the importance of regulation on the market to reduce inequality. But what about the inequalities students face when they choose their university? I frequently hear great scholars praise public universities such as CUNY for allowing access to higher education to many New Yorkers who would not have otherwise been able to fund their education, but many of these scholars choose their intellectual homes to be the same private universities that cause most of their students to end their undergraduate education with huge levels of student debt. Elite private universities offer professors resources and name recognition, which can help them pursue their ambitions.  Of course, private universities also on average pay much more than public universities, even top public universities.

This is a very mixed message. On one hand, these scholars say that the government should invest more in public institutions so more young people can get quality higher education. On the other hand, by choosing to work in private institutions they send the message that state universities are not good enough for them. Too many students at public universities, including those who are passionate about social equity and social good, dream about Ivy League graduate schools, or – for those seeking careers in academe – jobs at the kinds of places that Professors Krugman and Davidson are leaving. These universities are the homes of their intellectual heroes.

Those who wish to inspire will be much more effective if they also act as role models, like Krugman. Through his move to CUNY, Professor Krugman demonstrated he is willing to practice what he preaches, and is joining a university with top faculty and students.

As an international student from Israel who came to New York City with the hopes of earning a liberal arts education, I was extremely intimidated by the prices of many of the universities where I considered applying. Hunter College, as part of the CUNY system, offers affordable in-state and out-of-state tuition, which gave me the opportunity to pursue my academic ambitions. Before coming to Hunter, I completed national service in Israel as a medic, and I was sure that I wanted to be a doctor. However, at Hunter I was given the opportunity to explore other disciplines, and I discovered through inspirational professors that my true passion is economics and politics.

Currently, universities like CUNY are homes to amazing scholarship opportunities for both students and faculty, but the gap between the opportunities at public and private universities could be bridged if more distinguished scholars joined public institutions. I am not diminishing or dismissing the value of the amazing private institutions here in America, but just like minimizing the income gap would still leave some people wealthier than others, so too can this gap in education be minimized. I don’t expect Hunter College to compete with Harvard University in scholarly opportunities or in faculty pay, but having distinguished faculty such as Paul Krugman in a public institution lifts the level of attractiveness of affordable education.

Finally, on a personal note, Professor Krugman, thank you so much for coming to CUNY. I am a B.A./M.A. student in economics at Hunter, and I will come and knock on your door when I start looking for a thesis adviser. You will probably say no because it isn’t your job, but it won’t be the answer that is important. It will be the fact that at that moment I got an opportunity to approach you, at the graduate school of my university.



Abraham Gutman is a student at Hunter College.



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