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Information, Reputation, and the Impact of College Athletics: My story about TCU

2010 January 8
by John Palmer

[Note: this was originally posted at EclectEcon, but Phil urged me to cross post it here. I've revised it slightly.]

Way back in the days before people ranked economics departments according publications or citations to publications by their faculty members, departments’ reputations seemed to be based more on who knew whom, on who had written important papers, and (perhaps sadly) whether you had even vaguely heard of the school or any of the people who taught there.

When I was finishing my PhD at Iowa State University and beginning to look for a university job, like all good job seekers I went to economics conventions, did my best to meet people and find out who was hiring economists in my field, scoured job listings, and tried to arrange as many job interviews as I could. But in my naivete and ignorance, I had little to go on. And my lack of information and my ignorance let me down several times, with some interestingly poor fits.

One instance that I remember involved Texas Christian University [TCU]. Growing up, I had heard of TCU because of the prowess of their football team, even back then. So when I learned they had a position open, I thought, “Hey, I’ve heard of them. They might be an okay place.” I don’t remember thinking that, explicitly, but I certainly behaved as if I did. In fact the only reason I had heard of them was because of their football team, not because of their economics department.

I know, I know. My behaviour likely doesn’t seem very smart or very rational. But I bare my soul here for the purposes of illustrating a point.

It turned out they were looking for someone who was willing to teach 4 courses per term (“only” three preparations) and do so for less pay than was offered by other economics departments. I’m sure things have changed since then.

In the end, they weren’t interested in me and I wasn’t interested in them. But when I saw them playing in the “Impolitic” Bowl this past week, I realized that the reputation created by their football team had at least gotten them in the door with me (so to speak).

National television exposure due to a winning football team is undoubtedly worth something. The question is, how much? And is it worth the costs?

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