Faculty Stories

Academic Abodes: Allen Sanderson

If you walk into Allen Sanderson’s apartment on Dorchester Avenue, you will immediately notice the large set of shelves filled by organized clusters of objects—rocks, books, photo albums, and even a collection of flower vases. The sum of these objects reflects a wealth of experience, gained on Sanderson’s journey from Idaho to Chicago and beyond.

After graduating from Brigham Young University and teaching at the College of William and Mary and Princeton, Sanderson came to the University of Chicago in 1984. Although he is now known for teaching ECON 19800 and 19900 (Introductions to Micro- and Macroeconomics, respectively), Sanderson joined UChicago as an associate provost and as a researcher at the National Opinion Research Center. After 2-3 about three years, D. Gale Johnson, a former provost and then current chair of the Economics Department, suggested that he start teaching again.

Beginning in 1988, ECON 19800 and 19900 were offered once a year with about 25 students per class. He held the lectures on the first floor of the Social Sciences building at 8:30 a.m., Sanderson recalled, and then went on to do his work as Provost — “I could teach at 8:30 in the morning, then start my day job, the thing I was getting paid for.” Now a Senior Lecturer in the Economics Department, Sanderson teaches each of his courses twice per year; with an enrollment that has grown to 150-200 students per class.

As you move forward and survey the large set of shelves, it is clear that Sanderson is a collector. One cubby is filled with tokens representative of his origin in Idaho’s Four Corners area. Below is a basket overflowing with photo albums, and above, the surprising shelf of vases. (He’s not quite sure how that collection started—they’d be the first things to go.) The collections continue throughout the apartment: in his kitchen, he has a door plastered with magnets; a bookshelf next to his TV contains the chronologically arranged Academy Award winners for Best Picture since 1940; on a windowsill, you’ll find a tidy collection of toys for his cats, some from France, his favorite destination.

The collections continue into his home office, though the space feels more like a shrine to one of Sanderson’s academic focuses: sports economics. On the wall you’ll find a collection of tickets from famous baseball games that he has attended over the years, and just to the right you’ll see two covers from the University of Chicago Magazine in which Sanderson’s articles were featured on the front page. One article, titled Base Instincts, is about the economics of baseball — structured as nine myths for nine innings, the piece covers questions such as how player salary changes ticket prices. “Sports are a fairly good lab for economic theories,” he said, and explained that although markets within sports are closed and are at much higher stakes than, say, a pizza restaurant, sports can reveal answers to questions like how pay affects performance or whether teams discriminate against foreign or black or Hispanic players. Baseball in particular is useful because it simply has the most data, as yielded by the one-on-one interaction between batter and pitcher.

In addition to his teaching and writing, Sanderson is a frequent lecturer at home and abroad. At engagements ranging from the lectures at universities in India and China to Family Weekend, Sanderson speaks on topics like the economics of higher education or the economic impression that a university has on its surrounding community. In April 2014 in New York City, Sanderson will deliver a Harper Lecture, one of a series of talks offered to the global alumni community, that relates sports to the University of Chicago and to economics.

In addition to lecturing, he often hosts international guests on campus, typically mid-career government officials from developing nations, who come to the United States to study subjects like public policy and economics, and learn about topics like factors in economic growth. As expected, Sanderson has tokens from these experiences on his shelf—for example, a large jade horse from a delegation that came to Chicago from China.

Returning to the large set of shelves, the row of Supreme Court Justice bobbleheads pops out — a gift from Dennis Hutchinson, Master of the New Collegiate Division, with whom Sanderson and others have taught a multidisciplinary course titled “Sport, Society, and Science.” Over lunch at the Quadrangle Club, Sanderson posed a question to a small group of professors: “How would you talk about your discipline and the way in which it relates to sports if you had just a week to do so – and would you do that for free?” The course was thus born, and each year has maintained a group faculty willing to donate their time by pulling lecturers from a range of departments. Thomas Rosenbaum, a former provost, has explained why baseball pitches curve, and whether it makes sense to cork a bat. John Kelly, a professor in the Anthropology Department, has talked about race issues in sport. Sian Beilock in Psychology has explicated choking. “It’s not like we’re just going to spend the day at Wrigley Field; this is a serious academic offering,” Sanderson said.

“The Ivy League has approached us, asking how we do this,” Sanderson added. “It is something that University of Chicago can do because of its commitment to the life of the mind...the intellectual stimulation and collegiality here — these are interesting intellectual questions: let’s explore them.”