Q&A with Ben Polak: The former provost returns to teaching

Monday, December 14, 2020
Ben Polak portrait

Ben Polak, the William C. Brainard Professor of Economics, stepped down as Provost in February 2020 after serving seven years in the position. He has rejoined his faculty peers in the department resuming his teaching. We asked Professor Polak what his time was like as Provost and how his time has been back in front of the class (albeit virtual this term).  

As an economist, what strengths do you feel you brought to the provost position?

Economists, me included, bring strengths but also weaknesses to administration.  On the strength side, administrators have to make decisions. Provosts have, in particular, to allocate scarce resources.  Economists know how to frame those problems, how to use data, and how to think through tradeoffs.  That helped. On the weakness side, the typical economist  – certainly this typical economist – is a little less good at the human-interaction side of management.  We are sometimes a little better with numbers than we are with people.  Luckily, I had people around me (including a president who is a famous psychologist) to help me through that.

What do you feel was you biggest accomplishment as provost?

Provosts don’t really have accomplishments. First, the ideas, the vision, come from the president.   Second, anything we do in the provost office or beyond is a team effort.  But there are things that happened while I was provost that make me happy.  Here is one example.  

Three consecutive deans of Yale College, Mary Miller, Jonathan Holloway, and Marvin Chun led an amazing effort that has made Yale more accessible than ever before to students from lower-income families.  Among the many things they did, I particularly like the financial support that Marvin now provides to such students who want to take summer internships in science labs or in the arts.
Internships have become increasingly important steps on the career ladder in the US. They are access points for certain jobs. Some internships pay, particularly those in sectors where internships are part of the recruitment efforts for particular firms.  But science labs and arts organizations typically cannot afford to pay, and this makes these crucial work experiences and gateway research experiences inaccessible for students who cannot afford to forgo summer income.  This in turn becomes a barrier to social mobility into these jobs. Marvin used data to understand this problem, and then did something about it: directly funding these students for these opportunities.  As provost I got to watch as Marvin and senior associate dean Jane Edwards made it happen, and that makes me happy.
By the way, the Yale economics department has led in this area.   The department and SOM offers paid research positions for undergraduates in the summer (the Herb Scarf Summer Research Opportunities) and during term time (the James Tobin undergraduate research assistantships).   Rebecca Toseland, the Director of Research Support at the Tobin Center, makes sure that the students involved get a great training and have a valuable educational experience.  It is a model, not just for the rest of Yale, but for the world.   These scholarships were funded through the generosity of friends and alumni of the department.  So if you happen to be thinking of giving to Yale this year, and are looking for a way to create great learning opportunities for students, increase access to good jobs, and produce great research, please think about supporting these fellowships in the economics department and those Marvin created in Yale College.   They are a great way to improve the world.
Having served as provost and a faculty member, how does each position contribute to strengthening Yale? 
Yale’s mission is research and teaching. The provost can facilitate that, but the faculty do it.  These past months, as COVID disrupted the university, have been a reminder of that.  It has been inspiring to watch my colleagues in the department and in SOM turn on a dime, and get on with the job.   Faculty like Joe Altonji and Judy Chevalier dropped other things they were doing, and worked tirelessly to make major contributions to our understanding of the pandemic and of how to manage through the crisis.  Their work saves lives.  The people who were teaching big classes in the spring, for example, Cormac O’Dea, Aleh Tsyvinki, Giuseppe Moscarini, Mira Frick, and John Eric Humphries immediately developed new ways to make on-line teaching work. They made it priority one that we still provide a great education for our students.  And of course the effort was university-wide, not just in economics, and it involved staff and students as well as faculty.  But the useful reminder for me as someone coming out of a leadership role, was that the real work – and it is wonderful, enriching, creative, valuable work – the real work is done by faculty, staff and students.  In the end, it’s not that they contribute to Yale.  It’s that they are Yale.  It’s that simple.
What did you miss the most about teaching when assuming the role of provost?
That’s easy.  I missed the students.   There is no better feeling in the world than when you are trying to explain some idea, some new concept, to a class of students.  You try once, and you look out and, at first, you see a sea of puzzled faces, some deer in the headlamps, some even slightly irritated perhaps.  So you try again, and maybe a third time.  And then something clicks.  The puzzled and dazzled faces turn to comprehension, to relief, the joy of enlightenment, the realization that they have understood this new, difficult thing for the first time.  It’s magic.  There is nothing else like it.   If a provost of a great university doesn’t miss that, if they’d never known that magical moment and why it matters, they probably shouldn’t be a provost in the first place.

There is no better feeling in the world than when you are trying to explain some idea, some new concept, to a class of students. -Ben Polak

How have you seen the economics major change during your time as an instructor, and what would you like to see improved?
To be honest, I think the major is in good shape.   The main core course sequence is very good.  The department takes (and has always taken) huge pride in the excellence of the major, and that tradition continues under the leadership of Tony Smith and Ebonya Washington, the chair and DUS.  I think we’d all like to see a couple more big courses, still at the 100 or 200 level but beyond the core:  courses that allow students to extend and apply the methods they have learned.  Good examples of this are Robert Shiller’s Financial Markets course, Peter Schott’s International Economics course, and Naomi Lamoreaux’s American Economic History course.  Realistically, to do more of these would require a larger faculty, but it would be nice to get there one day.
You teach Introductory Microeconomics and Game Theory. How do you approach each course?
I am team teaching introductory micro for the first time, and it is a steep learning experience for me.   But I am getting to observe Steve Berry do just a masterful job.  It’s a great example of Yale at its best.  You have one of the world’s most able and accomplished researchers in Steve, a recognized leader in his field.  And for untold hours each week, in class but far beyond, Steve is 100% committed to the task of teaching economics to the 400+ students in the course.  The approach Steve has taken from the start is that we understand that for incoming first-years having all their classes be on-line is difficult, maybe even disappointing.   But we are going to go the extra mile to make this on-line learning experience in intro micro as good, as memorable, and as valuable as it possibly can be.    That means adding extra activities, extra ways to interact, finding new ways to use the on-line technology, and re-examining everything we teach to make it better.   I hope the students are enjoying it.  I am having a blast.
What drew you into the field?
Originally for me, like so many others, it was about the relevance of economics to the real world, to politics, to history, to human well-being.  But as soon as I took my first course, I came also to love the intellectual rigor of the discipline both in the use of logical argument and in the use of data.  People sometimes complain that economics seminars are too aggressive – and they can be – but part of that aggression is just a deep commitment to get things right, from the smallest detail to the largest issues that affect the most lives and livelihoods.  It’s that commitment, that rigor and that relevance that continues to attract the best students to the field, and that continues to keep make the field and its methods a powerhouse within the academy and beyond. 
What advice do you have for economics majors wanting to pursue a career in the field?
Immerse yourself in the field and all it offers.  But, at Yale, also pursue other areas of knowledge.  You’ll be a better economist if you have taken a great class in poetry or in physics or in music or in math.   A Yale education, more so than almost any other in the world, gives you an opportunity to deepen and broaden your knowledge.  Do both. But more important than any of that: have fun.