Stanford Lures Alvin Roth and 2 Other Economists From Harvard

Courtesy of Alvin Roth

Alvin Roth
June 18, 2012

As one of the nation's leading market-design economists, Alvin E. Roth has helped plan systems that place medical residents in hospitals, children in public schools, and kidneys in sick patients.

In recent years, the Harvard professor has helped a number of cutting-edge young economists land jobs at Stanford University, and now he'll be joining them there this fall.

"The chance to be a colleague with my former students seemed like a lot of fun," says Mr. Roth, a professor of economics and business administration at Harvard.

Mr. Roth, who is 60, will also be joined by two Harvard colleagues who decided to switch coasts after he did. Susan C. Athey, another top expert in market design who serves as Microsoft's chief economist, and her husband, Guido W. Imbens, a noted econometrician, have accepted jobs at Stanford's graduate business school, which works closely with the economics department.

"Stanford is building in areas that I'm interested in. They're a real center of market design and experimental economics, which will also be exciting," says Mr. Roth.

He and his colleagues have used the mathematical tools of game theory to design markets for the optimal placement of medical residents and schoolchildren, among others.

"He's been remarkably successful in bridging between topics of interest to academic economists and problems that have practical, real-world applications," says the chairman of Stanford's economics department, Jonathan D. Levin.

In addition, "he has a sensational record at Harvard of working with postdocs and producing new Ph.D.'s."

Mr. Roth received his doctorate in operations research from Stanford in 1974 and has taught at Harvard since 1998.

The field of market design got its start when Mr. Roth was tapped to help revamp the National Resident Matching Program, a service that each year places nearly 25,000 new physicians in teaching hospitals where they receive supervised training.

The system had been plagued with problems, including employment contracts that were signed before the formal matches took place and married couples who couldn't find placements near each other.

By changing the mathematical algorithms used in the matching process, Mr. Roth and his colleagues created a process that discouraged participants from gaming the system and gave married couples more bargaining power to find jobs together.

Since then, he has helped design a centralized system for placing students in New York City public high schools, where the choices are immense. He has helped redesign Boston's school-choice system.

He has also applied a similar algorithm to help set up a registry and matching program that pair compatible kidney donors and recipients.

Among the former students who helped persuade him to move West was Muriel Niederle, an associate professor of economics at Stanford who completed her Ph.D. under his guidance at Harvard in 2002.

"I think my role was not only in persuading Al, but also in persuading my colleagues that it was worth the effort to make an offer," she says. "No one had the remotest doubts about his qualities, but many worried that he would not be movable. Harvard is not used to losing people."

Mr. Roth said it took him a year and a half to decide to leave Harvard. "Stanford basically set out to match my Harvard conditions, which they did."

His other former students at Stanford include Fuhito Kojima, an assistant professor of economics, and Michael Ostrovsky, an associate professor of economics in the school of business.

Mr. Roth has also collaborated closely with Paul R. Milgrom, an internationally known expert in auction design at Stanford.

Asked about speculation by some that Stanford's latest hires from Harvard threaten the Ivy League institution's dominance in the economic rankings, Mr. Levin demurred. "Harvard has an incredible department and all-star faculty. We win some and we lose some with them, and we were just incredibly lucky this time."