Haresh Sapra is the Charles T. Horngren Professor of Accounting. He joined Booth in 2000.
For me, The Chicago Approach is about how you frame questions to shed light on important issues. We don’t teach specific problems, because the world is a moving target, and we have no idea what problems are going to arise in the future. The coronavirus is a good example of that. It created massive uncertainty and, to many, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
So instead of focusing on specific problems, we focus on creating frameworks or models drawn from fundamental business disciplines, such as economics, psychology, and statistics, that allow students and businesspeople to evaluate and test responses to various problems.
Basically, what we’re saying is, “Here is a model based on certain assumptions. Let’s try to understand how a problem or situation is likely to play out given these assumptions.” It’s a disciplined way of thinking that allows you to alter your approach as new information becomes available.
Without models, you’re basically dealing with anecdotes and conjecture. And that’s dangerous, as we found out earlier this year when certain untested drugs were being proposed as possible cures for the coronavirus.
When we hire faculty at Booth, we want people who are working on ideas, not methodology. And if you learn that your ideas are incorrect, you have to be humble enough to change your views.
For instance, I used to believe that people are rational in their decision-making if given the right information. But I’ve learned over time and experimentation that that’s not true. Even though we try to treat all agents equally, not all agents have the same starting point or the same ability to do things. So I have had to adjust my thinking.
The students who do best at Booth have analytical minds and do not take things at face value. They’re willing to challenge and question things because the animating idea at Booth is that nobody knows the truth. It’s all about thinking through a problem and saying: Given the information we have right now, what should we do? We know we’re going to make mistakes, but that’s better than doing nothing.
Students do enjoy an unusual degree of flexibility at Booth. There are certain basic requirements you have to fulfill, such as accounting, finance, microeconomics, and statistics, but once you get those out of the way, you can essentially create your own curriculum. The freedom to choose ideas that excite you—to follow your dream—is an important part of The Chicago Approach.
And, ethics is very much part of The Chicago Approach. We should be fair. We should be altruistic. We should think about what’s best for society. And by society, I mean everyone, not just one privileged group.
I always ask my grad students, why is this an important idea? How is it going to improve society or the way people think? And behind that is the hope that we can improve, that we can get better. That’s what The Chicago Approach is all about.