Strategic Hiring

January 31, 2007

Duke's department of economics has revived its ranks with a hiring coup that administrators see as a model for boosting other departments.

James Yang

The economics department hired nine new faculty members and researchers this year. No other department at Duke has hired so many regular rank professors—seven—in a single year in at least a decade. The nine new professors come in addition to seven others who have joined the department over the past four years.

A major component in the strategy to attract the new crop of scholars was "cluster hiring"—recruiting groups of researchers who share an approach to an academic discipline and have existing relationships. "When you go to different places and have different offers, you can also see the set of other people they're interested in," says associate professor Patrick Bayer, who left Yale to join the department this year.

Provost Peter Lange, who helped in the department's recruiting efforts, notes, "A lot of the techniques that we've used in economics are built into the Faculty Enhancement Initiative in the new strategic plan, and we're going to use them in a number of other departments across the university."

The enhancement in economics was the result of a plan that dates back at least six years, to a departmental review commissioned by Lange. "It was clear economics was an extremely important core discipline in the social sciences," Lange says. "It has a very strong paradigm, and so a lot of the other social sciences draw on that core, either in a way of organizing some of their work or as the paradigm against which they work.

"Furthermore, we had a great deal of undergraduate enrollment in that major." The review found that "the department was understaffed given both the size of the major and our comparative look at other economics departments around the country and the size it had been historically," he says.

In July 2003, Professor Thomas Nechyba, who had been working on a strategy for transforming the department, became department chair. He had conceived a plan to recruit early-career faculty members accustomed to working across economics sub-disciplines. The plan is not entirely implemented; the department is slated to hire three additional people this year.

The success in the economics department notwithstanding, "cluster hiring" can also work against Duke. Earlier this year, the university lost a group of renowned geneticists to the University of Miami. Margaret A. Pericak-Vance and Jeffery M. Vance, director and associate director, respectively, of Duke's Center for Human Genetics, accepted an offer from a former Duke colleague to join him at Miami's medical school. As part of the recruitment package, the Vances were able to bring along twenty of their colleagues, including eight other faculty members. At Miami, the couple and their colleagues plan to create a new Institute of Human Genomics and a department of human genetics. The couple founded Duke's Center for Human Genetics in 1996.

R. Sanders Williams, dean of Duke's medical school, praises the Vances' contributions to Duke, but says he is not worried about the future of the genetics center, noting that it has more than 250 employees.

While those leaving for Miami "will be missed," he says, "Duke will regroup."