As a 1993 graduate who is married to a 1993 graduate and who hopes that his son may be a 2022 graduate in its college, the future of the University of Chicago is of mild interest to me. In recent days, there have been interesting blog posts about the debt the university has taken on to finance new construction and anonymous posters have shared their constructive thoughts about the future of the school's renowned Economics Department.
I was back at the University of Chicago in late October 2013 and early December 2013 and I saw a thriving economics research community. In early December, the University was celebrating the Fama/Hansen Nobel Prize in Financial Economics.
The Economics Department is small in size but the Becker Friedman Institute allows the Department to import ample visiting talent both for short term visits and for conferences and as Post-Docs. My friend Rob Metcalfe is an example of the type of talent that UChicago attracts. Dora and I both believe that UCLA would be a much more interesting research community if it could finance luring more Post-Docs to Westwood. The BFI didn't exist when I was a student at Chicago. I never attended a single economics conference until I graduated from Chicago. Now, there appears to be an interesting conference at Chicago almost twice a month. At the Department, an ambitious new faculty hiring plan is already yielding strong results.
The construction of the new Economics Department Building will place leading economists only 200 feet from the Booth Business School. Location matters and this close physical proximity will facilitate learning and more interaction. Harvard's various sets of economists at Littauer, HBS and the KSG sit far apart and I never saw much interaction between the MIT Econ faculty and the Sloan School faculty. The Booth School faculty is loaded with young talent from the top Ph.D. training programs such as Harvard and MIT. By co-locating the Booth School very close to the new Economics Department, the gains to trade will flourish.
Across the Midway, the Law School and the Harris School both have many excellent economists. While the Law School will not be able to replace scholars such as Cass Sunstein and Richard Epstein (guys who were there when I was a student), the faculty remains quite strong and the Harris School faculty has significantly improved since I was a student.
The University of Chicago has never had much "social capital". The place celebrates competition, raw competition. At both Harvard and MIT, I have seen more camaraderie among the faculty and students. I believe that my UChicago needs to invest in some social capital and find some new faculty members who are loyal to the institution and willing to provide public goods. Back in the day, Sherwin Rosen played this key role. Such "Jedi" still do exist.