A Conversation with Dr. Eric Parsons about Diversity and Inclusion in Economics

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The Department of Economics at The University of Missouri – Columbia was this year's inaugural winner of the AEA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diversity and Inclusion. This award is given to recognize departments and organizations demonstrating outstanding achievement in diversity and inclusion practices. To learn more about the award-winning program, we talked to Dr. Eric Parsons, an associate teaching professor of economics at the University of Missouri, who teaches Principles of Microeconomics to nearly 2,000 students each year.

Marisa Bluestone: The University of Missouri Department of Economics expressed a purposeful determination to create a more open and welcoming learning environment for under-represented students. How did you come up with the plan to do that?
Dr. Eric Parsons: Improving outcomes for under-represented students is an issue that has rightfully received much attention and discussion in recent years. This is perhaps even more true in economics, which historically does not have a good track record on these issues. Hence, the first step was recognizing the problem and then actively looking for opportunities to implement initiatives designed to improve performance in this regard. 

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One of the first developments was the creation of the Diversity in Economics seminar series, which leveraged our departmental research seminar series as a platform to invite economists from diverse backgrounds to campus to present their research but also to speak to my large-lecture introductory economics classes and meet with smaller groups of students outside of class. The ultimate goal of these interactions was to spark interest in economics among all of my students and particularly those who may not traditionally consider economics as a field of study. The seminar series has been a great success and even received significant social media attention when our first speaker, Damon Jones (University of Chicago), tweeted about his visit. Subsequent guests have included Lisa Cook (Michigan State), Anne Winkler (UMSL), Peter Blair (Harvard), Jennifer Doleac (Texas A&M), Trevon Logan (Ohio State), and Laura Gee (Tufts). Conrad Miller (UC-Berkeley) was also scheduled to visit, but his trip was postponed due to the global pandemic.

Another key initiative in this program came about through our College of Arts & Science development of diversity-intensive course offerings. Following a redesign of the course curriculum to highlight diversity intensive topics (more on this below), we were able to have our Principles of Microeconomics course designated as Inherently Diversity Intensive. The department has also implemented a variety of other programs and policy changes designed to support our diversity and inclusivity goals, including the development of a mentorship program that includes mentors from a diverse array of backgrounds, the appointment of a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the creation of a Women in Economics Group and a Freshman Interest Group on Economics and Social Problems.

Marisa: You re-designed your Principles of Microeconomics course curriculum to highlight diversity-related topics. Can you give an example of one of the changes you made?
Eric: What’s great about economics, particularly if it is taught through a public policy lens as is frequently the case in the Cowen and Tabarrok text, is that it provides many opportunities to tie the course concepts to diversity-related topics and questions. In fact, almost every chapter has one or more connections along these lines. As one example, the textbook uses the War on Drugs to illustrate an important policy implication of the total revenue rule of demand elasticity – specifically, in a market where consumers are not price sensitive (in this case, due to drug addiction) policies designed to restrict supply of the product ultimate increase the amount of revenue received by producers (drug sellers). The analysis of this issue then leads to an examination of alternative policy solutions to the drug problem and provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the disparate impacts that the War on Drugs has had on different communities and how well-designed policy changes may help improve these negative outcomes.

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Marisa: One of the goals of the AEA award of "Outstanding Achievement in Diversity and Inclusion" that your department won is to increase participation of underrepresented minorities. What changes have you seen in that regard
Eric: As with any initiative of this nature, the progress is often not as fast as we would like, and we still have much work left to do. That said, these efforts combined with other departmental programs designed to enhance recruiting and improve our student experiences have led us to realize a 44% increase in overall student credit hours and a near doubling of undergraduate majors and master’s students in just over a two-year period.

Marisa: What role did the Modern Principles of Economics course materials play in supporting the new curriculum?
Eric: As mentioned above, Modern Principles of Economics is an excellent textbook to use in supporting the new diversity-intensive curriculum as it is well-written, uses interesting and timely examples, and includes lots of policy-related examples to illustrate the key economic concepts. Moreover, it is clear that the authors care about these issues and have put thought and effort into their inclusion.

For example, the textbook includes an extended treatment of labor market discrimination that goes beyond the traditional economic model to include models of discrimination that are not necessarily competed away by the market over time. The Cowen and Tabarrok textbook really does provide much of the overall framework for our course and, as a result, was an important factor in our achieving the diversity-intensive designation.

Marisa: How was the Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy section used to facilitate conversations about diversity?
Eric: This is another chapter of the textbook that I think really illustrates the authors’ willingness to address these important issues and make them part of the economic conversation. It is also a chapter that I think is unique among Principles textbooks (at least the ones that I have examined, which covers quite a few). This chapter directly exposes students to questions of exploitation and fair and equal treatment and also introduces them to the work of John Rawls, as well as other social justice paradigms. It also includes a discussion of whose views generally count the most in the policy process (in the context of immigration) and, with some additional questioning along these lines, allows students the opportunity to explore their own (sometimes contradictory) viewpoints on this question. Hence, overall the chapter provides a great springboard for thinking about these issues and how these ideas compare and contrast with the typical economic viewpoint. 

I always tell the students that this chapter is more about getting them to think critically about the topics and begin asking questions than it is about providing answers. It also gives another nice opportunity to highlight the positive versus normative distinction that we take so seriously in economics and hopefully provides students with some of the tools they will need to discuss these issues intelligently and civilly with one another while considering other viewpoints and worldviews. In fact, I think this chapter is so important that I save it until the end of the term, as it provides an excellent bookend to our semester’s worth of economic study.

If you are interested in learning more about the University of Missouri’s Diversity-Intensive Principles of Microeconomics curriculum or their efforts in this regard more generally, please feel free to contact Eric Parsons at parsonses@missouri.edu.