Using the hype surrounding the economics bestseller Freakonomics as context, New York Magazine has a feature article ("Freakonomizing") on Columbia University's attempts to build a Freakonomics-friendly economics department. Apparently, there are all kinds of world-class, but largely anonymous, economics researchers in the world coming up with Freakonomics-type findings, and Columbia made a one-time, blow-out-the-doors effort to attract 13 of them within a two-year period.
Only four years ago, explains the article, Columbia was nothing close to being a hot destination for rising stars in the economics world: "The once-formidable economic department at Columbia University was stuck in a rut. Its stars were aging... and the few first-rate faculty still in their prime faced a constant pull from rival schools."
That all changed once Columbia devoted its attention and resources to building a first-rate economics department. And it came with a bang, not a whimper. Columbia decided that the only way it could compete with the likes of Princeton or Yale would be by hiring ten to fifteen star economists within a 24-month period - a "game-changing move designed to alter people’s perceptions."
What's interesting is that the school scrapped efforts to go after high-profile "names" like potential Nobel Prize winners. Instead, the university focused on lesser-known world-class economists who were coming up with novel ideas like those found in Freakonomics. The university also made it a point to go after "people who had reasons to want to work together—co-authors, people with similar interests, etc." Once the first economist accepted, then the next one accepted, and so on, and so forth, until all 13 had accepted.
It's an interesting article - the only problem is that New York Magazine claims (in quite some detail) that the impetus for Columbia's unprecedented move was something called "Sunspot Theory." Are you joking? That theory has long been discredited. Check out what Economy Professor has to say:
"Advanced by English economist William Jevons (1835-1882), sunspot theory is a trade cycle theory stating that trade is linked to the regular occurrence of solar flares, or spots, which affect the earth's climate and agricultural output. Critics, while acknowledging the cyclical nature of the sunspot activity and that of agricultural production, view the theory as unduly simplistic. Consequently, it has little validity today."
Maybe that's why Columbia was able to attract 13 professors so easily -- would a real economics department like Harvard or MIT or Princeton really give tenure to someone spouting off about a 200-year-old theory about the sun and moon?