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    Preparing for the 21st Century

The Bottom Line on the Economics Department

By Joyce O'Connor Davidson

Economics DepartmentFrom its business curriculum origins, the economics department has evolved into a challenging discipline that combines cutting-edge analysis with philosophical debate.

Economics has long been a popular major at Holy Cross, but alumni who received degrees in the 1950s and '60s will find the department far different from the one they knew as students. Thomas Gottschang, department chair, explains that in the period just prior to the presidency of Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., the economics department shifted its focus from teaching business-oriented subjects to an emphasis on the broader issues addressed by theoretical economics. Similar to other departments at Holy Cross, the economics department now compares favorably with top liberal arts institutions around the country. Faculty members hired in recent decades are accomplished researchers as well as topnotch teachers. Holy Cross has retained a program in accounting, and students who major in either economics or in economics-accounting learn from professors who are actively engaged in practicing and advancing their fields of expertise.

Professor Emeritus Frank Petrella played a key role in the effort to modernize the department. After serving in the Korean War, Petrella earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and then became the first of the new wave of scholar-teachers to join the Holy Cross economics faculty. Although he no longer teaches, Petrella continues to advise and assist department members.

John F. O'Connell, a current member of the economics department, was one of Petrella's students in the 1960s. Gottschang turns to O'Connell, "the unofficial department historian," for background on the department's evolution. O'Connell, who received his degree from Holy Cross in 1964, returned to the College as an instructor in 1968. J.F., as he is commonly known, to distinguish him from senior accounting professor, John D. O'Connell, is soft-spoken and careful in his choice of words: "The department has changed since I was a student. In the early '60s it had more of a business curriculum. Since that time, the emphasis has shifted to more analytical and pure economics, rather than applied business kinds of courses. It was a deliberate effort in the late '60s and early '70s because it was more compatible with the mission of the school and a liberal arts tradition."

Nicolas Sanchez describes himself as a "bridge." Sanchez, a noted teacher and scholar, works in the area of "popular writing" as well. "I feel that I have to give something back to America," he says, "by building bridges between the Hispanic and Anglo communities." Sanchez spent the first 16 years of his life in Havana, Cuba. He came to this country with his 12-year-old cousin as part of the "Pedro Pan Children," a program supported by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church, to bring children whose families were contemplating leaving Cuba to the United States. Sanchez says his popular writing, for a bilingual newspaper in Lawrence, Mass., is important because "through this medium, Anglos may see the experiences of someone Hispanic who is well-educated despite going through poverty and the immigrant experience. It is important to bring out the differences in perspectives of the cultures. I am a bridge in the sense that I know both worlds."

The department's economists have received recognition for their scholarship. Two articles in the Fall 1997 issue of the Journal of Economic Education ranked economics departments at national liberal arts colleges according to their output of scholarly articles. Holy Cross placed well within the top 20 in all of the rankings and came in second in publications in top-ranked journals for the years 1989-94. Gottschang says that faculty members take publishing seriously. "In the summer, on any given day, you can walk down the hall here and you would find six or eight people working on research."

While the department is proud of its achievements in research, Gottschang says each member is also a dedicated teacher. "No one gets tenure without doing very well in the classroom. That's the number one priority, but you have to be involved in the field in order to teach well." Gottschang himself meshes his research interests in the economies of Asia with his teaching, particularly in his courses on comparative economic systems and development economics. He has enriched his classes with firsthand experiences garnered while living and working in China and Vietnam at several different times during the past two decades.

Another member of the department, John R. Carter, says the clear commitment to teaching at Holy Cross has been important to him. "Our first responsibility is to the students," Carter says succinctly. Recently, he has found it possible to combine teaching and research by collaborating with students on research projects. Carter's most cited article, "Are Economists Different, and, If So, Why?" (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 1991) sprang from collaboration with student Michael D. Irons '89. Carter enjoyed the experiment: "I learned that students could be part of the designing and conducting of research, that they could actually participate, not just be subjects."

Miles Cahill, who teaches macroeconomics and topics related to money, banking and financial markets, says he teaches because "I think the process of learning economics gives people very important skills that can be used throughout life. Aside from the practical knowledge of how the economy and markets work, economics teaches critical thinking, careful research, and decision-making skills. I very much enjoy guiding students through the process of learning these concepts."

Cahill collaborated with Professor George Kosicki, doing research on the uses of spreadsheet programs, such as Excel, in teaching economics classes. They will present their findings at the upcoming American Economic Association meetings, another example of the economics professors of Holy Cross combining research and teaching.

Kosicki, for his part, has been working to further integrate computers into his classes. "Computers allow us to do things we couldn't do otherwise," he says. "They enable us to get into things more deeply by alleviating some of the tediousness of calculations. I really see my teaching as a way to help students develop their analytical skills. That type of skill is so valuable as they go out into the world, in whatever direction or career they choose. That makes me feel that what I'm doing is important - take a problem and break it down - that's a really valuable life skill."

"I made a decision as a sophomore in college that I wanted to teach," says Professor David Schap. And although he is fascinated by his specialty, forensic economics, and his work as a litigation expert in that field, Schap says, "It is very clear to me that teaching is the mission of the College. It is the primary focus." Schap has also published research with a student, about recoverable damages in cases of wrongful death.

Schap's interest in this relatively new research area of forensic economics grew out of his initial study of law and economics. Forensic economists use economists' tools of analysis to provide an estimate of the value of damages during litigation. They may be called as experts to prove the value of lost profits to a business, or to assess the damages in personal injury cases. Schap says 90 percent of the work he does ends up in settlement, but 10 percent of the time he is called as a specialist to court. This work, Schap explains, all comes together when he can explain what he's doing in his research and as a specialist to his students in the classroom.

Charles Anderton disputes the reputation economists have for being cold, calculating materialists. Anderton, a gentle, thoughtful man, father to two children adopted from Brazil, and an active member of the Faith Baptist Church in Auburn, Mass., seems the perfect person to set the record straight. Anderton works in the area of peace and conflict studies, drawing on economic methods to analyze the complex forces that influence decisions of war and peace.

Katherine Kiel is new to Holy Cross. As she returns from teaching class during her second week on campus, she tries to answer the question: Why are economists perceived as cold and humorless?  Kiel says there are pages of jokes on the Internet about economists. "The public perception is that economists are nerds, that they're spacey and too theoretical," she says. But her own work in environmental economics and urban economics argues against this stereotype. In a research project on the town of Woburn, Mass., Kiel explored the relationship between housing prices and environmental problems. The questions her work attempts to answer are "real-world policy questions," she says. Another economics professor with a young child - son Ryan is 22 months old - Kiel declares that she can manage being a professor and full-time mother only by "juggling madly."

Jill Dupree is another young faculty member who has learned to balance the demands of teaching, conducting research on American and European economic history, and caring for a new family member, six-month-old Maria Rose. Dupree, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also brings to Holy Cross her expertise in international financial economics and economic demography, fields that are increasingly important to understanding global markets.

Although the economics-accounting program is described by Gottschang as "an historical anomaly," unique among liberal arts colleges, John F. O'Connell comments, "It's a harmonious union. It's mutually advantageous to have us together like this. Economics is a broader area of study, whereas accounting is more focused on the business sector of the economy. We use the same tools of analysis in many cases."

David Chu, an accounting professor with a Ph.D. in business, links accounting and economics in his research, collaborating with J.F. O'Connell on one project, and with Charles Anderton on another. Recently, Chu examined the role of accounting in China's transition from centrally planned socialism to a market economy with Kolleen Rask and Tom Gottschang. The article will come out in the December issue of the journal Comparative Economic Studies. Like Sanchez, Chu sees himself as a bridge; but in his case the bridge is between the disciplines of economics and accounting. He notes that the collaboration with Gottschang and Rask "is a wonderful illustration" of the harmonious union.

Chu explains that he was attracted to Holy Cross because of the liberal arts setting. "Accounting strives to tell the truth about the financial condition of a person, a business, or any institution," he says. "In that sense it fits with other liberal arts questions: What is truth? What is beauty? What is good?"

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chu came to this country as an undergraduate. His parents followed him to the United States in 1994 and now live with Chu, his wife, Ruth, and 15-month-old son, John. After receiving his M.B.A., Chu decided that he was not interested in joining the corporate world. "I decided to be a professor. I liked what professors did. Business has always interested me as the engine that runs all organizations, but I was never interested in the rat race. I am interested in looking at business from the outside. For me that was the right move. Academia allows me to pursue excellence at my pace."

Accounting Professor Nancy Baldiga studied as an undergraduate at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., and then went on to work as an accountant for Price Waterhouse. Baldiga believes that accounting students with strong reading, writing, and thinking skills are most valuable to businesses. And that's why Holy Cross students, she believes, are so heavily recruited by the Big-Six accounting firms. Baldiga says the part of public accounting she liked most was working with people. "It's not just numbers," she says. In the classroom she attempts to incorporate students' reading and writing skills into the curriculum. Students write memos and give oral presentations. They go out to local businesses and get to see the world outside the lecture hall, making connections between the College and the community.

Baldiga is very interested in community service. She says she likes to use her skills to work with people on committees. Besides her work on various committees at Holy Cross, Baldiga coaches youth soccer in Hopkinton. Her daughters, Katie, 13, and Kristen, 10, both play the sport. Their mom put her accounting skills to work to help build a playground in Hopkinton, and she has assisted with projects in the local public schools.

Accountant and pre-law advisor Scott Sandstrom is emphatic when discussing the successes of accounting students at Holy Cross. "Enrollment in the accounting major is limited to 35 students each year and admission is competitive," he explains. "The program's strength lies in the fact that students take a wide range of courses in the liberal arts, in addition to the necessary courses to sit for the Uniform CPA exam. In a typical year, recruiters from each of the Big-Six will hire approximately two-thirds of the graduates of the program, a hiring percentage that is likely to be the highest in New England. Economics-accounting majors from Holy Cross won gold medals in both Massachusetts (Jon Monson '96) and Rhode Island (Ted Shallcross '95), for the highest marks on the CPA exam." (Monson achieved the second-highest score in the nation out of almost 60,000 exams.)

Much of the accounting program's success in training and placing its majors is credited to the tireless efforts of John D. O'Connell - the "other" Professor John O'Connell. J.D., as he is sometimes called, has taught at Holy Cross since September 1957, an amazing 41 years. The legendary demands of his exams and the solid grounding they produce are known to many generations of Holy Cross alums, some of whom are now among the prospective employers that seek out today's Holy Cross accounting graduates.

Department secretary Bev Bylund, described as "the nerve center for the whole department," by Gottschang, marvels at how hard all of the professors work. A mother of three children and grandmother to two, Bylund gives advice and words of encouragement to the professors who are also parents of young children. She tells them not to worry about how they're going to keep up with their schedules for the next three years, but just to take it "day by day." 

"Department historian" J.F. O'Connell has some perspective on the department's progress after teaching economics at Holy Cross for 30 years. "The fascination with economics is that it is always changing. It's very vibrant. It never gets boring to teach students how a market works. I think people need to know this in order to be informed members of society."

As a younger man he was interested in the analytical rigor of the field. "As I get older," he says, "I am more concerned with questions of justice within economics. The broader questions are more intriguing to me now. I encourage people to do the mathematical work when they're younger. Unless you know economics well, you can't make judgments about it. It's easy to be judgmental and uninformed. It's more intellectually honest to make judgments when you know economics."

O'Connell says Holy Cross has changed a great deal since his days as a student. And although he's pleased with the majority of changes, there are things he misses. He says the most impressive aspect of his days as a student was the presence of the Jesuits. The irony is that, as a student, he rebelled against some of the regimentation and restriction of the old College, yet looks back now with tenderness for a system that "taught perseverance and self-discipline."

"The Holy Cross mission is so meritorious that I am confident it will survive no matter what," O'Connell says. "Faculty will come and go, but the College and its mission will endure."


"Spotlight on J.D. O'Connell" Sidebar >

"Spotlight on Kolleen Rask" Sidebar >


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