A Posthumous Ph.D.

Professors at the University of Chicago pay tribute to slain Ph.D. student's ideas by defending his dissertation.

June 9, 2021
 
Photo courtesy of the Fama-Miller Center.
Yiran Fan

After Yiran Fan was killed during a mass shooting in Chicago in January, his professors at the University of Chicago defended his dissertation for him.

The university will posthumously award a Ph.D. degree to Fan at commencement ceremonies this Friday. University officials also plan to present the degree to Fan's parents at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing this fall.

Fan was a fourth-year doctoral student from China and was studying financial economics at the university. His professors and advisors described him as stand out student who was deeply committed to his intellectual pursuits.

He died before proposing a dissertation topic, but after his death his professors were able to access research stored in his Dropbox account, according to a UChicago News article.

The professors defended Fan's dissertation in March. It consists of two essays: “Screening Competition under Flexible Information Acquisition” and “The Interaction of Bankers' Asset and Liability Management with Liquidity Concerns” The second paper explores how rational behavior by bankers who want to increase liquidity can lead to risky lending practices, according to a summary published in the Chicago Booth Review.

“We dug into Yiran's Dropbox and found two polished papers, which were then distributed to a four-person committee (Professors Lars Peter Hansen, Veronica Guerrieri, Doron Ravid, and me),” Zhiguo He, the Fuji Bank and Heller Professor of Finance and co-chair of Fan's dissertation committee, said via email.

“Lars and I read both papers carefully, digested their key economic messages, and prepared the slides for each paper,” He wrote. “We then scheduled a public lecture with a wide audience (following the Ph.D. dissertation defense rules at UChicago), to which we presented the two papers. During the presentation, it became clear to the four-person committee that Yiran's papers had met the bar for a Ph.D. degree. We voted right after the lecture, and Lars announced it after the public lecture.”

Lars Peter Hansen, the co-chair of Fan's dissertation committee and the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Statistics and the Booth School of Business, said in a written statement that “there was sadness” at the dissertation defense, “because it was both a reminder of the loss of someone we knew well on a personal level, and the loss of a truly gifted young scholar who would have wanted the opportunity to make further improvements on an already impressive Ph.D. dissertation.”

Hansen lamented Fan's tragic death from “a senseless act of violence, which has been happening far too frequently.”

Hansen, a Nobel laureate, said he had known Fan since he worked as a research professional at the university's Fama-Miller Center for Research in Finance, and was glad to write recommendation letters for Fan to apply to top Ph.D. programs. He was pleased when Fan chose Chicago's program in financial economics.

Hansen described Fan as having quickly established himself as “a remarkable Ph.D. student.”

“He won the Lee Prize from the economics department for being a top performing student in the macroeconomics core curriculum,” Hansen said. “My colleagues and I have been pleased to have him as a teaching assistant. Indeed, he always showed a deep commitment to help his fellow graduate students learn. He has been an invaluable intellectual resource to our economics and finance community. I have had many superb Ph.D. students over the years, but Yiran will stand out as someone truly special.”

In addition to awarding a posthumous degree, Chicago is establishing a fellowship in Fan's name, with contributions from Fan's parents.

Nishant Vats, Fan's classmate and friend, described Fan as a “brilliant but humble” student and researcher who always understood the concepts but never showed off in class. He said Fan was helpful, kind, generous and funny.

“He had a lot of skills apart from being this very nice and talented academic. He was also involved in theater and a very funny person,” Vats said.

Vats, who attended Fan's posthumous dissertation defense in March, had mixed feelings about the event.

“I feel like he should have been there defending his work,” Vats said. But he also was grateful to the professors who organized Fan's defense so he could still earn his degree.

“One of his biggest dreams was to get a Ph.D.,” Vats said.

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