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Opportunity Cost and Colby’s Center for Teaching & Learning

The Apr. 26 issue of The Wall Street Journal included an article, “You Need a Personal Theme Song,” in which the author noted that “music can inspire us and spur creativity.” I don’t have a personal theme song or intend to adopt one.  However, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, “Inner City Blues,” has been in my head ever since I (along with all other tenured faculty) received an Apr. 4 email from Colby’s Center for Teaching & Learning (hereafter CTL) announcing its Lost at Sea retreat.  


Before I share some thoughts about the CTL’s proposed retreat, I want to highlight one of the great takeaways from Inner City Blues. For those unfamiliar with the song, it begins with the following — lyrics that wonderfully demonstrate one of the most important concepts in economics: “Rockets, moon shots.  Spend it on the have-nots.” Rather than devote resources to military spending and space exploration, Marvin Gaye called for those resources to be allocated to those who are less fortunate. Any current and former student of an introductory economics course knows that Marvin Gaye was singing about opportunity cost.  


Slightly different definitions of this concept can be found in textbooks. David Colander, for example, defines opportunity cost as “the benefit that you might have gained from choosing the next-best alternative.” We, therefore, can use opportunity cost to evaluate how we allocate our discretionary income. For example, each $15 spent on a four-pack of one of Maine’s great craft beers could have been spent on something else, given to charity, or saved to pay for future consumption.  


So, how is the CTL’s proposed Lost at Sea retreat related to opportunity cost at Colby? To help explain this, I copy in the next paragraph parts of the Apr. 4 email.  


“Are you feeling lost at sea with your teaching? Is something missing from your courses? Are you searching for the next big thing in your teaching career? If you answered yes to any of these questions, we invite you to apply for a faculty fellowship program offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning designed for tenured faculty at or past the mid-phase of their career. ‘Your Next Big Thing’ is a yearlong fellowship that supports a small group (5–6) of tenured faculty to chart a path to transformed, authentic teaching during the 2023-2024 academic year. The fellowship kicks off with the Lost at Sea retreat on Allen Island May 22-25, 2023 (the week after commencement). During the retreat, the fellowship group will work together to reflect, explore, and examine past teaching experiences and uncharted teaching waters. These conversations will inform a collective plan for diving into the academic year with a renewed sense of purpose, direction, and motivation.”


The email further outlined how each participant would receive $5,000 for the island retreat and an additional $2,500 if they complete additional work by May 2024. If six ‘lost at sea’ tenured faculty members participate, a total of $45,000 will be devoted to this initiative. What is the opportunity cost of this $45,000? I discuss this at the end.


I remain at a loss as to why such a retreat should ever be needed by tenured faculty. Is not this nontrivial allocation of Colby resources a ‘retreat in search of a problem’? As noted in Colby’s faculty handbook (p. 9), the decision to grant tenure will be partly based on “the candidate’s excellence as a teacher and advisor (this is the paramount criterion) … .” Therefore, faculty who have been awarded tenure have already achieved that excellence.  


As I have wrestled with whether I should write this piece and continue to wrestle with whether I should even submit it to The Colby Echo, I have reflected on my teaching years at Colby.  When I was tenured (so many decades ago), the senior faculty in the Economics Department were Hank Gemery, Jan Hogendorn, Jim Meehan, Randy Nelson, Cliff Reid, and Tom Tietenberg.  Each, in their own way, was deeply committed to Economic education (in and out of the classroom).  They were great role models for any member of the Colby faculty.  I remain forever grateful for having the opportunity: (1) to “grow up” as a Colby faculty member in “their” department; (2) to have the freedom and support to develop my courses; and (3) to fine-tune the courses I teach and, just as importantly, to continue to improve how I teach them.


Why do I share these reflections here? Because I also believe that Colby faculty have a responsibility to do the same in whatever discipline they teach. Yes. We can have a bad class or two during a semester — where things don’t go the way one planned.  More profoundly, we can experience events (e.g. a serious illness of a family member) that significantly impact our lives.  Of course, in this latter case, the College generously provides resources (e.g. family leaves, medical leaves, ..) that assist individuals who experience such difficult periods in their lives.  So, if one is “lost at sea” for personal reasons, we have the Provost’s Office and Human Resources Office to assist us as Colby employees.  Centers for teaching and learning are not designed, nor should they be, to address these situations.


Rather than write this piece, I toyed with the idea of simply letting the application deadline for the Lost at Sea retreat pass and then contacting the CTL and asking how many tenured Colby faculty (i.e., associate professors and full professors) actually applied for this opportunity.  I obviously decided not to do that — aware how I might respond to the final tally.  


This proposed retreat sends the wrong message to faculty, students, and families who allocate some of their hard-earned resources to send students to Colby. Suppose we have TENURED Colby faculty who answered yes (for non-personal reasons) to any of the three questions included in that April 4 CTL email.  Would this not imply that Colby has tenured members of the faculty who require an island retreat (will there be t-shirts too?) so that they can dive “into the [next] academic year with a renewed sense of purpose, direction, and motivation”?  If so, Eustis, we have a serious problem.


So, back to opportunity cost and the above $45,000 figure.  Some of our fellow Colby employees are currently earning an hourly wage that is close to the hourly wages paid by local fast-food establishments.  40-year high inflation rates have significantly affected the cost of living for these same individuals and families.  Here is a thought.  Take the $45,000 and use it to send a one-time check for $250 to the lowest earning 180 Colby employees.  I am confident that they would appreciate this gesture.  Rather than being a next-best alternative use of funds, it just might be a superior use of Colby funds.  

So, how would Marvin Gaye have commented on this proposed Lost at Sea retreat?  It might go something like this.  Associate profs, full profs? Spend it on the have-nots.


Dave Findlay, Economics Department

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