December 1, 1996
To anyone following politics--whether local, state, national or international--the term "political economy" might seem an oxymoron. Hundred-dollar toilet seats and political perks aside, most people seem to view governmental money management with, at best, a weary cynicism.
As a field of study, however, the blending of political science with economics, history and philosophy is a natural. What could be more relevant in today's political climate than to expose students to fields of thought that will help them become better informed and more fiscally responsible leaders, educators and voters? At Tulane, the Murphy Institute of Political Economy has been doing just that for the past decade, and doing it very well, if a recent alumni survey is any indication.
Following the May graduation of its 10th class since establishing an undergraduate political economy major, and in the early stages of a $2.2-million campaign to raise money for endowed faculty support and enhancement of its summer internships, the Murphy Institute recently asked former students to assess the program.
"The survey had two main purposes," explains Rick Teichgraeber, a professor of history and director of the institute. "The first was to gather information about the career paths of our former students. The other was to develop a portrait of their current perception of the program. In particular, the Murphy Institute was interested in knowing what its alumni now consider useful and valuable in the undergraduate program, and whether they think it might benefit from any changes in its curriculum."
Teichgraeber admits it is unusual for a program to solicit such input from alumni: for one thing, if the results are negative, what do you do with them? Fortunately, the results were far from negative. Ninety-three percent of the Murphy Institute alumni responding indicated that, given another chance to select an undergraduate major at Tulane, they would again choose political economy--primarily, Teichgraeber says, because the interdisciplinary nature of political economy brings out the best of the liberal arts education.
"It's a tremendous vote of confidence in the Murphy Institute's vision," he says. "I used to joke that I majored in economics to get a job and political economy to be proficient at cocktail party conversation," wrote one alumnus. "Now I know that what I learned in my political economy courses also helps in business meetings, law school classes, understanding politics and just being an educated citizen."
Asked about the strengths of the program, 51 percent of the survey respondents indicated teaching, while 30 percent pointed to the curriculum. Nineteen percent thought the institute's advising program was its strongest asset. Alumni were also questioned about favorite courses as well as suggestions for program improvement.
They cited expanding the curriculum to cover more contemporary political and economic issues, stressing quantitative analytical skills more in the core program, reviewing the academic advising system to address students' career anxiety, and maximizing the use of information technology in the program. The suggestions, Teichgraeber says, will help the institute strengthen the quality of its teaching and advising.
Some 324 students have now graduated with degrees in political economy, Teichgraeber says, and many have gone on to pursue professional degrees in business, law, medicine and public policy. The Murphy Institute is in an unusual--many would say enviable--position within not only Tulane but higher education in general. It is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program funded not entirely by general university monies but largely through an endowment established by Charles H. Murphy Jr. The funds of the Tulane Murphy Foundation Inc. are restricted to support of the institute.
That funding, Teichgraeber says, has allowed the institute not only to weather university restructuring without major reductions to programs but also to escape many of the usual departmental budget constrictions over such matters as equipping faculty members with computers and Internet access. If alumni response--and the presence of a steady 75-85 majors at any given time--is any indication, the institute's stability has paid off for students. Graduates have included Sean Berkowitz ('89), recipient of the William Wallace Peery Medal for Academic Excellence, as well as four past presidents of Tulane's Associated Student Body.
The faculty, which is composed of seven members funded through the Murphy Institute, is thriving as well, Teichgraeber says. For example, Jonathan Riley, associate professor of political science, is president of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies and on March 21-23 will host the group's annual conference, to be held at New Orleans and funded by the institute. Kevin Grier, professor of economics, has been named one of the co-editors of the prestigious Southern Economic Journal.
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