Econ 100 Midterm Question Sparks Twitter Debate

Bernie Sanders, rising price levels, and a real economist’s response—a “real-world” question on an Econ 100 midterm sparked debate on Twitter. After a fourth-year shared a picture of the question on February 9 on Twitter, the tweet went viral.

The question reads: “An economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Bernie’s favorite institution of ‘higher education’, wrote an op-ed column on December 30 arguing that to tackle our current 40-year-high bout with rising price levels (an Econ 102 topic for sure) ‘we have a powerful weapon to fight inflation: price controls.’ How would a real economist respond?”

Senior Instructional Professor in Economics Allen Sanderson, who confirmed he wrote the question, had no idea how controversial it would prove. “When possible, I like to use real-world, real-life questions, drawing from newspapers, books, and speeches instead of made-up, contrived examples,” Sanderson told The Maroon, confirming the viral question as his. “The principles involved come directly from a chapter in the text I use and assigned to the students in the course.”

Among the academics who raised concerns over the question were Joshua Dean, assistant professor of behavioral science and economics at the Booth School of Business, and Steven Durlauf, Steans Professor in Educational Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy.

When Durlauf first read the question, his first reaction was “embarrassment, as a Chicago faculty member, and offense,” he told The Maroon. Durlauf’s frustrations focus on the political nature and insulting tone. “Exam questions should not mock, or for that matter support, political candidates. And in this case the candidate was someone many students supported,” Durlauf said.

Durlauf also took offense at the comments about the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Sam Bowles, the most famous UMass Amherst professor [emeritus], is Nobel Prize–worthy. He has also been a mentor to me, so there is a personal angle,” Durlauf said. “The posting of the exam question caused hurt among UMass faculty, students, and friends, and it was appropriate to make clear it was wrongheaded and wrong and to say that at least one economist at UC repudiates it.”

“I find it deeply amusing how, at an institution of higher learning, we are taking time to take political shots on exams. I’m aware that our business school is notoriously conservative, but this is taking it to a whole new level,” said a first-year who took the midterm and was granted anonymity out of concern that speaking with The Maroon would result in grade retaliation.

“Sanderson has the right to do what he wants, but there is something to be said about respecting other academics and presenting questions in a non-leading way so as to avoid a certain politically driven answer. Academics, like everyone else, have a responsibility to respect others,” another first-year in this class, granted anonymity for the same reason, said.

On the other side, Sanderson was unaware of the controversy surrounding his question. “I don’t have the time, and hope to never have the time, to follow Twitter and Facebook,” he said, calling these platforms “chatter.” To his critics, Sanderson has a two-word response: “Grow up.”

He claimed that, in his experience, he has encountered criticism “only from those who didn’t do well in the course. And given I’ve taught over 15,000 UChicago students, the most of anyone in our history, I assume that population could be sizable,” he said.