Are Centers a Mistake?
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose you want to convert the world to belief X. You decide that professors are the best spokesmen for X. There are ten universities, and you have enough money to fund ten professors. There are two possible ways to spend the money:
1. Give ALL the money to one school to create a Center for the Study of X – an academic cluster where all ten pro-X professors work together.
2. Give EACH school enough money to hire ONE professor, so every university has a lone proponent of X.
Question: Which option will provide the best return on your charitable investment? Definitionally, #1 is better if there are economies of scale, and #2 is better if there are diseconomies of scale. But which description best fits the real world?
My main thoughts: #1 is probably much more fun for the faculty. Being part of a center of like-minded folks beats being a lone voice in the wilderness. #1 also plausibly attracts more media attention. A Center of ten professors is more visible than ten isolated professors. However, #2 also has a big advantage: It avoids redundancy. When a lone pro-X professor converts a student, it’s hard to say, “It would have happened even if this professor hadn’t been hired.” But if one out of ten pro-X professors converts a student, “It would have happened even if this professor hadn’t been hired” is quite plausible.
Bonus question: Suppose #1 is definitely better than #2. If each school already has one pro-X professor, would it be worthwhile for a donor to give one school enough money to “poach” all the pro-X professors from the other schools? Could clustering really be that valuable?
Please show your work.
P.S. Thanks to all the great people I met in Ohio. I’ll be back!