University Restructuring, Agricultural Economics Edition

17 January 2011 at 8:40 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

The current issue of AAEA Exchange, the newsletter of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (formerly American Agricultural Economics Association), features three perspectives on the long-term viability of maintaining separate departments of economics and agricultural economics. (Much of the discussion would apply to business economics departments too.) Ron Mittelhammer of Washington State argues for consolidation, Ken Foster of Purdue for keeping separate departments, and Rob King of Minnesota for the transformation of agricultural economics departments to applied economics departments.

The issues are organizational and strategic and familiar to O&M readers. Mittelhammer emphasizes tangible resources and a shared intellectual heritage and downplays accumulated routines and capabilities, organizational culture, etc.:

Arguably above all other rationale, mergers are also warranted because, fundamentally, economics is economics. Agricultural economics is a field of economics, not some other paradigm of economics, and is no more distinct from its parent discipline than other fields such as labor economics, international economics, health economics. . . .

Too often of late, it appears that the last ditch attempt at justifying the separation of economic units degenerates to the issue of faculty personalities, the correlated issue of seemingly unbridgeable differences in “professional cultures,” and the fear of open faculty warfare that might be ignited by a merger, rather than the existence of truly distinct and defensible differences in the methodologies used to do economic analysis in agricultural and applied, versus the “other” economics disciplines. In fact, the frequently proclaimed “professional cultural differences” is often merely a euphemism used, by other economists, to categorize agricultural-type economists as being “down and dirty,” atheoretic, and highly empirical, and by the agricultural-type economists to categorize “other” economists as being ethereally theoretical and producing tight economic conclusions based on logically elegant methods at the expense of substantial simplifications that render a model solvable, but also result in conclusions that are often devoid of real world relevance and divorced from reality. These are straw men; a quick perusal of the journals and other professional output of the “two camps” makes it abundantly clear that members of each camp produce economic analyses that run the gamut between both polar views, and there are an ample number of professionals in each camp practicing the so-called cultures of the other.

Foster, by contrast, suggests that agricultural economics departments possess unique core values, associated in particular with the outreach mission of the land-grant university. King describes Minnesota’s hybrid approach which maintains separate economics and applied economics departments but operates a combined graduate faculty of economists from colleges of agriculture, business, public affairs, and public health.

Interesting stuff for those interested in higher-education reform and those interested in the application of organization and management theory to the nonprofit services sector.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Food and Agriculture, Institutions, Management Theory, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Scott Masten  |  17 January 2011 at 11:56 am

    In the end, the question comes down to whether or not a university wants to maintain a significant number of economists specializing in agricultural issues. Over the medium to long term, it won’t be possible to do so with merged departments because of the way academic departments hire. Even if a way existed to designate a certain number of slots for ag economists, the definition of ag economist will gradually be loosened so that anyone who ever ate anything grown on a farm qualifies. (I’m exaggerating, but only a little.)

    Historically, the way we ended up with multiple science departments (physics, chemistry, etc.) in U.S. universities, at least, is that that was the only way to guarantee that faculty in these “subfields” would be hired. It may be that some state universities have decided that they no longer want to support ag econ as an area of concentrated study, in which case, merging departments is a subtle way of eliminating the smaller department. But the notion that the ag econ will survive more than nominally is very unlikely.

  • 2. Randy  |  17 January 2011 at 3:55 pm

    I agree with Scott’s comments. I am reminded of a senior person in the agricultural economics profession who spoke of the development of “hyphenated-scientists” in the college of ag: ag economists, ag engineers, crop biologists, etc. In a growth period , particularly with respect to external stakeholder preferences (cf. Ken Foster), it was easy to add hyphenated-scientists in “their own” college, since generalists were not dedicated to the mission.

    The less dismal future would look like Rob King’s vision, though one or two other hybrids should develop: one around cognate fields in management aside from economics (the b-school, industrial relations, org soc, etc) and the other around natural resources.

    Mittelhammer ignores the fact that many of the faculty that he counts in agricultural economics have heterodox beliefs that make them unwelcome in merged departments of unhyphenated- and hyphenated-economists.

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