Late UChicago student Yiran Fan to be awarded posthumous Ph.D.

‘To recognize such a special person,’ faculty defended Fan’s dissertation on his behalf

A doctoral student’s dissertation usually marks a new beginning—the last step in a long academic journey and the start of a promising career. But as Chicago Booth professor Zhiguo He read through the work left behind by his former student, the late Yiran Fan, SM’15, he felt a profound sense of loss.

Fan was shot and killed on Jan. 9, devastating the University of Chicago community. Originally from China, the 30-year-old student was in the fourth year of the Joint Program in Financial Economics. Fan had not yet proposed a dissertation topic at the time of his death, but when his professors and classmates examined his work, they began exploring the possibility of completing Fan’s Ph.D. in his honor.

In June, Fan will be awarded a posthumous Ph.D. at UChicago’s Convocation ceremonies for the class of 2021. This fall, university officials also plan to present Fan’s degree to his parents at the UChicago Center in Beijing.

“This is a very small thing we could do to recognize such a special person,” said Lars Peter Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Departments of Economics and Statistics and at Chicago Booth, and one of Fan’s former professors.

‘Doing something meaningful’

After Fan’s death, He and Hansen reviewed research that was found on Fan’s Dropbox folder.

Reading through Fan’s work, He thought of questions he would have asked Fan to help refine the student’s ideas.

“I see many students who get straight As but can’t do the critical thinking or challenge existing theory like Yiran could. He had the right mind to do this type of work,” said He, the Fuji Bank and Heller Professor of Finance and a Jeuck Faculty Fellow. “It was a great pleasure to chat with him.”

To develop and defend Fan’s work, He and Hansen formed a committee alongside Booth’s Veronica Guerrieri, the Ronald E. Tarrson Professor of Economics and a Willard Graham Faculty Scholar, and assistant professor Doron Ravid in the Department of Economics. Hansen, a Nobel laureate, said the committee wanted to ensure that the process was as rigorous as any that a UChicago student would face.

Like He, Hansen spent a lot of time working to present Fan’s work in an interesting way. “We were doing something meaningful intellectually, not just because a tragic thing happened,” Hansen said.

On March 2, He and Hansen presented Fan’s work over Zoom to more than 100 people—a much bigger audience than the usual Ph.D. defense. One of Fan’s research areas focused on the aftermath of the 2008–09 financial crisis, a time when many people questioned why bankers kept issuing subprime loans that were likely to fail. Fan’s work examined how rational bank behavior can lead to risky lending.

Nishant Vats, a fourth-year finance student who was Fan’s friend and classmate, said the Ph.D. would have meant a lot to Fan. Vats described Fan as a rigorous researcher who loved theory, with a seemingly endless appetite for making conversation and helping other students understand complex issues.

“It was very apparent, once you spoke to him, that he knew what he was talking about,” Vats said. “Whenever you asked him a question, he knew how to answer it. But he was extremely honest—if he didn’t know something, he’d tell you that he didn’t know it.”

Honoring Fan’s memory

He said he has been inspired by meeting Fan’s parents, who traveled to Chicago from China for a January campus vigil with the university community. He said the opportunity to present Fan’s work helped him process his grief and honor his former student.

“I wish this thing didn’t happen. It was just so tragic and senseless,” He said. “Yiran impressed everybody here. People who read his papers will benefit.”

Along with conferring a Ph.D., an annual fellowship will be created in Fan’s name to further honor him. The fellowship, which includes contributions from Fan’s parents, will be awarded to students in the Joint Program in Financial Economics.

Vats wants any student who receives the fellowship to know that Fan worked hard and took his studies seriously, but he also greatly enjoyed his life.

“That’s something I would want them to know: Work is important, but life is more important,” Vats said. “Yiran worked very hard, but he enjoyed his life. I would want people who get this fellowship to actually live his dream of also enjoying life.”

—This story was first published by the Booth School of Business. To learn about Fan’s research, read more at Chicago Booth Review.