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Faculty challenge plan to phase out Food Research

STANFORD -- The faculty of Stanford's 74-year-old Food Research Institute will challenge a proposal from the dean of humanities and sciences to close their institute and partially replace it with a new research center. The recommendation to close the small academic department was made by Dean John Shoven last week and will be considered by Provost Condoleezza Rice in a meeting with institute faculty on Monday, Nov. 13.

Under university procedures, she then will pass the dean's recommendation and her comments to the Academic Council's Advisory Board, which will consider the issue on Friday, Nov. 17. The president then weighs all arguments and evidence and reports to the Board of Trustees.

In a letter to institute chair Scott Pearson, Shoven wrote, "Certainly those I talked with thought the quality of student and faculty research would be higher in traditional disciplinary departments. They unanimously thought that it would be easier to attract top quality faculty to traditional departments. Further, they thought that FRI was not as distinguished as it ought to be."

In its evaluation of the program, Shoven said, the advisory committee found that FRI, "as currently configured and staffed, does not measure up to Stanford's standards of academic excellence."

Faculty members and students of the small department say they oppose the proposed closing because the department is unique in providing practical, applied research to development policy makers and because the closure would be costly. The faculty will meet with the provost and advisory board in an effort to change the dean's recommendation, Pearson said. "There is only so much you can do because the power is in the hands of the university administration," he added.

Shoven said that his recommendation was based on a review by an advisory committee of three faculty members. The committee recommended replacing the institute, arguing that a new research center would lead to higher quality academic work. Because a number of institute faculty are close to retirement, Shoven said, "a leading factor is [that] we face a transition no matter what we do."

Nine tenured faculty in the department will remain at Stanford under Shoven's plan. Some are likely to be placed in other departments. Several faculty members might be expected to join the Economics Department, since all of the current Food Research faculty are economists, Shoven and Pearson said.

Four assistant professors will be guaranteed employment through 1997-98, and the department probably will continue to function for four more years so that the 31 current doctoral students can finish their degrees, Shoven said. The institute also has 40 students in a master's degree program, which may or may not be combined with another master's degree program in future years.

The institute is well known in international circles for its unusual emphasis on the economic development problems of largely agricultural Third World countries. It also has a reputation for placing a large number of its graduates in development-related jobs in international policy or research agencies and foreign agricultural ministries.

Shoven said the advisory committee and a majority of the outside experts he contacted recommended against retaining the institute as a separate, degree-granting department. The university, he said, would remain committed to studying economic development and food research in the Third World by using funds that now go to the institute to sponsor research, symposia and policy papers in a new economic development center that may be attached to existing research-oriented centers, such as the Institute for International Studies or the Center for Economic Policy Research.

The students and faculty who participate in the new center would be based in more traditional academic departments such as economics, political science and history, Shoven said. "What we are going to try to do is ensure the highest quality on this topic. I do believe there is a connection between structure and quality."

In an interview, Shoven said that many distinctive features were involved in the review of the institute, including the demographic structure of the department and its relationship to other missions of the university. "I'm not sure people [in other departments] should read into this a template for [other] reviews."

"FRI clearly works on socially and academically important matters," Shoven said in his letter to Pearson. "As a department, however, it is not high on a measure of academic centrality to a great university. Evidence for this is that many, if not most, great universities have nothing comparable.

"It would be unthinkable, for instance, for a great university not to have a math department or an English department. It is not comparably unthinkable to be without a Food Research Department or a Department of Economic Development."


Academic standing also was a factor, Shoven said. In one published review of citations by researchers in agricultural economics, the institute dropped from a number two ranking from 1966 to 1985 to 11th place from 1986 to 1990.

FRI's Pearson countered that citations "are never even permitted in influencing tenure decisions, so it's rather odd that they are using citations as a way of evaluating a whole department."

Two of the three members of the faculty advisory committee, A. Michael Spence, dean of the Graduate School of Business, and Professor David Brady of political science and business, were out of town and could not be reached for comment. The third member, Stephen Haber, professor of history and an associate dean, said that "the report is not a public document yet, and I don't feel comfortable talking about a report that is going to the university advisory council."

Pearson and other FRI faculty argue that there has been no decline in the department's reputation or overall productivity. They note that 70 percent of applicants accepted by FRI and doctoral programs elsewhere choose to attend Stanford. They point out that FRI has had two winners and one runner-up in the last three annual competitions for best dissertation among approximately two dozen agricultural economics departments.

The dean and his advisory committee "are inducing a trend in these [journal] citation counts that I can't see," said Associate Professor Jeffrey Williams, who recruits doctoral students for FRI and says an equal number of students decide on Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley.

Some supporters of the institution ask why the closure is being proposed now, when the institute seems to be on the rebound, under Pearson's direction. Stefano Pagiola, an economist with the World Bank who graduated from the institute in 1993, said, "For a while, let's be frank, [FRI] was coasting a bit on past glory. . . . You could have made a much better case to shut down the institute five years ago."

Financial considerations

Shoven and Pearson agree that closing the department is not likely to save the university money in the short term. Pearson thinks a shutdown actually would cost the university money, perhaps as much as $600,000 per year.

The institute has two types of endowment - four endowed faculty chairs, and funds given by the Carnegie Corporation in the 1930s and by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s. At current Stanford payout rates, Pearson said, the endowments together pay out about $1.1 million annually. Shoven said there would be some consultation with the foundations on use of the funds, if the institute is closed.

Funds for the endowed chairs, Pearson said, "were raised by institute faculty going back into the '80s. This is an issue Stanford faculty must be interested in - how easy is it for the university to decide to appropriate faculty chairs raised by departments? In this case, all are still here or emeriti."

Pearson said most of the $1 million revenue comes from a growing master's degree program that institute faculty began emphasizing three years ago in response to the university's budget crunch. The program has expanded from eight to 40 master's students, half of whom came from foreign countries, including mid-career professionals of foreign government agencies.

"You don't do that by blowing smoke," Pearson said. "You do it by teaching. You have to have a central core of courses."

The expanded emphasis on the master's program, he said, has created synergies that also have spurred improvements in the doctoral program.

Shoven said he acknowledged that "transitions from one structure to another are difficult, and therefore it's a tough decision." But he said Stanford "should use the demographic opportunity to get [the structure] right."

History of program

The institute was organized in 1921 to conduct research in response to the lack of information about world food supplies after World War I. Herbert Hoover, who headed American relief efforts in Europe after the war, helped to secure initial financing from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

It began granting doctoral degrees in the 1950s and became an academic department within the School of Humanities and Sciences in 1975. It never has had an undergraduate major, although undergraduates do take some courses taught by FRI faculty, and the institute has some co-terminal degree students.

Initially, the institute's work was oriented to U.S. problems. Pearson and others cite as an example the annual "wheat reports" that were produced for 20 years. Those studies attempted to determine if the United States and the world were producing enough food to feed the world's population.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the institute was similar to UC-Berkeley's agricultural economics department, hiring faculty with expertise in developing new mathematical methods that were important to economics as a whole, said Peter Berck, a professor and former chair of Berkeley's agriculture and resource economics department, one of FRI's chief competitors for faculty and graduate students.

At Stanford, Berck said, institute director Holbrook Working was an "outstanding" contributor to the field, as were George Kuznets and Ivan Lee at Berkeley.

"Mathematics in economics came first to agricultural economics, but that situation is no longer true," Berck said. "Now the primary focus on methods has shifted to economics departments."

Partly because Stanford was a private university without obligations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the recipient of state funds, Berck said, FRI began developing expertise in international agricultural economics and now is firmly established in that field.

"No one else could do it to the same degree that Stanford could because no one else was as free, as long as we were funded by the state and federal governments," Berck said.

Berck noted that Harvard has a program in agricultural economics, and that Yale has a Growth Center. But it is "hardly an agricultural enterprise," he said. "Stanford is the only program in a private university that was so focused on international agricultural development."

The institute still is the logical choice, Berck added, for students interested in careers in international agencies such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

In a statement, graduate students at FRI supported Berck's view. David Widawsky, who has a job lined up at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila when he finishes his doctorate this year, said that when he was at Colorado State, "I ended up [studying] corn-buying patterns of Colorado feedlots because that's what the USDA funded. You have the freedom to ask more interesting questions here."

Berck declined to evaluate the dean's recommendation to close the program, however.

"It's very hard to say from this distance," he said. "It depends upon how much Stanford values Ph.D,s oriented toward teaching in top universities, relative to practitioners. They are known for developing professional people to serve in places like the World Bank and historically some for [producing faculty members]."

Food Research faculty have spent more time producing reports for, and working with, international agencies than they have producing academic journal articles, Berck said.

"If [Stanford] takes the money and puts it into a research center, they will end up with people in economics and political science departments who will be almost solely interested in publishing academic articles. . . . I'm a journal article producer, but that doesn't mean I look down my nose at the others. They'll be losing a business and practical aspect and possibly gaining journal articles."

Five economic departments

Shoven argued that Stanford is perceived by some to have four economics departments in addition to FRI - a department of economics, a graduate school of business, a department of engineering-economic systems and a sizable contingent of economists within the Hoover Institution. This, along with "the general and increasing tightness of resources" in the school and university, he said, "led me to the conclusion that it was an appropriate time to reassess all aspects of the FRI department."

The advisory committee, he said, recommended to him that FRI be closed and that students and faculty with interests in economic development, agricultural economics and commodity futures be relocated in traditional disciplinary departments.

According to economics Professor Ronald McKinnon, economists are spread throughout the university, partly because of the economic department's emphasis on theoretical issues rather than applied problems. McKinnon said he would prefer that the department have a less theoretical bent.

"The economics department has always been remote for - example, not studying how education should be funded - and the education school found a number of years ago [that] it had to hire its own economists if it wanted education public finance studied."

McKinnon cited valuable work by three recent FRI students whom he has taught: One student studied credit constraints on farm households in India, another explored exchange-rate expectations of Mexican business people, and a third studied the Colombian banking system. All three studies involved gathering data in the field that was not previously available, he said.

"My feeling is that [FRI] does a pretty good job training people and in some ways their strengths in student training are the offset of the economics department's weaknesses and vice versa," McKinnon said. "They are very good at monitoring students carefully and then placing them in the field for their Ph.D. thesis with financial support."

FRI graduate Pagiola, who taught development economics for a year in the economics department before joining the World Bank, said that the tension between the two departments stems from a difference in emphasis on applied problem solving and theoretical modeling. FRI students do modeling, but often their data leads to less "elegance" in the modeling, he said. As a result, Pagiola said, many on the economics department faculty may view FRI graduates as inferior because they often don't finish at the top of theoretically oriented courses since their background and interests are different.

Economics faculty and graduate students as a group "consider the work we do [in FRI] somewhat beneath them," Pagiola said. He added, however, "I'm sure we have said things about their having their heads in the clouds, so it goes both ways."

Where students end up

About 20 percent of the institute's graduates work for the World Bank, Pearson said, and many others are employed by international research institutes and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank, he said, "hires 50 out of 5,000 applicants each year, and we usually have one or two hired."

The institute successfully places graduates in academic jobs, but according to both students and faculty, many graduates prefer policy-related jobs, even when they have academic offers. Academic placements have been shrinking, some say, because there are fewer agricultural economics positions available in the United States today as a result of the smaller role that agriculture plays in the domestic economy.

UC-Berkeley's Berck said that "as agriculture has become a smaller and smaller part of the American GNP, it's natural to expect universities will, one way or another, decrease emphasis on agriculture. At Berkeley, that has been [accomplished] through a shift in resources to natural resource and environmental issues."



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