A slain Chinese student earned his PhD based on papers discovered on Dropbox

Dr. Yiran Fan, 1990-2021
Dr. Yiran Fan, 1990-2021
Image: Liang Tian/University of Chicago
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There was one painful absence at the University of Chicago’s graduation ceremonies this year. Yiran Fan, a brilliant and beloved fourth-year PhD student from Beijing, was just one requirement short of finishing his studies when he was killed during a shooting spree in January.

Determined not to let Fan’s achievements be forgotten, the school awarded him with a posthumous doctoral degree in financial economics, through a joint program offered by the university’s Booth School of Business and Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. The PhD was made possible largely due to the efforts of two faculty members who developed and defended Fan’s dissertation on his behalf, based on papers they discovered in his Dropbox.

“Granting this posthumous degree acknowledges his maturity as a scholar and allows him to take his place among the joint program graduates,” said Zhiguo He, Fan’s finance professor and program advisor, at the June 11 graduation ceremony held at Chicago’s storied Soldier Field stadium. “There is nothing we can do to save a young and promising life, but we are sure that Yiran has left a mark in the financial economics community at the university.”

Professor He at the 2021 graduation ceremonies.
Professor Zhiguo He honors Yiran Fan at the 2021 University of Chicago graduation ceremonies.

Professor He worked with Fan’s former economics professor Lars Peter Hansen to develop a dissertation based on two of Fan’s papers.

Models to avoid future banking crises

Although Fan didn’t have a chance to formally propose a final topic, they discovered that he had already done considerable thinking on how seemingly rational decisions by individual lenders can endanger the entire banking system. Based on his analysis of the 2008 financial crisis, he questioned the efficacy of privacy laws that absolve banks from having to disclose the reasons behind transactions. Fan argued that promoting transparency about lending decisions would motivate financial institutions to do better.

Hansen and He, with input from professors Veronica Guerrieri and Doron Ravid, presented Fan’s theories at a public lecture in March, as required of all of the university’s doctoral candidates.

“Yiran’s research built models that helped us understand better how best to monitor and regulate financial institutions to avoid future crises,” explains Hansen, a Nobel laureate in economics.

A quiet and purposeful manner

“He has already proven that he is very deserving of the degree; we only completed the last requirement,” He tells Quartz, describing Fan as one of his best students. “Yiran fought so hard to get into this program. We wanted to do something for him.”

Apart from being a good student, Hansen commended the spirit of generosity that Fan displayed as his teaching assistant. “I would see students clustering around him after the class, not me, to better understand the ideas and concepts. He was the one to be trusted with his deep understanding,” he said at Fan’s memorial. “Caring for everyone’s understanding and insights might be expected of a distinguishing faculty member, but it was truly remarkable to see it manifested in so many ways by a graduate student. He accomplished all of this with a quiet and purposeful manner.”

A chapter of Fan’s 65-page dissertation, titled “The Interaction of Bankers’ Asset and Liability Management with Liquidity Concern,” will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Political Economy.

The university has also established two fellowships in Fan’s name, and will present his diploma to his parents in Beijing later this year.