Economics Department Cancels Senior Thesis Amid Faculty Turnover

In an email sent to students majoring in economics on Monday, Professors Paul Shea and Daniel Riera-Crichton announced that the senior thesis will be canceled for the 2021-2022 academic year due to the recent departure of four faculty members. The professors leaving are Abraham Asfaw, Luke Chicoine, Julietta Yung, and department chair Nathan Tefft.

Instead of writing a traditional thesis, seniors will be able to complete their W3 graduation requirement by taking a 300-level course. However, the departures, Shea and Riera-Crichton wrote, mean that five out of the seven 300-level electives scheduled for the fall semester are canceled and will be replaced with new electives taught by the remaining faculty members. 

The two professors wrote that “given the magnitude” of the faculty losses, seniors will be expected to re-register for their 300-level economics courses. Students will receive a survey to indicate whether or not they want to complete their W3 in the fall or winter semester and give them an opportunity to rank their course preferences. 

For the 300-level courses, Shea and Riera-Crichton wrote that “the most important component is that to count an elective as your W3, you must complete a term paper that includes original empirical or theoretical content.”

The professors added that “this change is especially painful,” but wrote that the alternatives “either made it impossible for many seniors to graduate on time or would have made it impossible for many younger students to major in economics.”

Shea and Riera-Crichton are assuming the duties of co-chairing the department.

In a follow-up email on Tuesday, Dean of Faculty Malcolm Hill wrote that one of the departing professors landed a tenure-track position at another institution and the other three professors decided to leave academia altogether in pursuit of different career goals in business and government. The department did not have time to find permanent replacements for these four professors; instead, three new visiting professors will join the program to help cover a variety of courses this year. 

The department will be down one professor compared to a typical academic year, and because the tenure-track faculty usually carry a heavier load than visiting professors, the department ultimately will not have enough resources to support seniors in writing individual theses. 

Students are not permitted to approach individual faculty about writing a thesis with them, the email says. “This is a departmental policy and individual faculty lack the discretion to advise a thesis,” the professors wrote. 

A number of students responded to the department’s emails expressing their frustration at this news and proposing possible alternatives while acknowledging the difficulties of the situation. For example, some seniors have already completed their required 300-level courses since those courses are often open to sophomores, juniors, as well as seniors, so there were requests for the department to consider different solutions that might better resemble thesis. 

Nahida Moradi, a senior majoring in both economics and European studies, is disappointed that one of her theses is cancelled. She first found out that Professor Chicoine, her thesis advisor, was leaving the college from the department-wide email. 

“In the beginning of the summer he sent out an email to our thesis group he was supervising,” she said. Chicoine’s email, she said, stated that his students should “send him some topics of interest during the summer.” She was surprised to see that he was leaving in the email from Shea and Riera-Crichton.

“Four professors in a popular department, just leaving, was super surprising,” she said. “I was kind of shocked because I was thinking about the reputation of the department and the longer term implications that this has on the department.”

Though there will be new professors to fill in the gaps, Moradi says it will not be the same. 

“It takes so long to get to know the professor and feel comfortable with them,” she said. 

In addition, she believes the new professors should take on the classes being taught by returning faculty, and those returners should be advising theses.

Shea, Riera-Crichton, and Hill hosted a webinar over Zoom on Friday night to give economics students an opportunity to ask some of their questions directly. While the professors were understanding of the students’ frustrations, they reiterated that they are doing the best they can given this difficult situation. Despite multiple requests, Malcolm Hill could not be reached for a comment. 

Economics is one of the most popular majors at Bates, and the senior thesis is publicized as an integral component of the Bates experience. Julie Hobbis, another senior economics major, also expressed disappointment at losing the opportunity to write a thesis.

 “Everyone looks forward to writing thesis because it is part of the Bates experience and our professors have talked about it since we started the major,” she said. “It is something that ties up our academic careers and is our chance to use what we have learned to pose our own questions and guide our research. The major kind of feels incomplete without it.”