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Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

Economics split divides Notre Dame

Creation of two unequal programs decried by some as threat to academic freedom

By GILL DONOVAN
Notre Dame, Ind.

The University of Notre Dame’s economics department, long distinctive because of its commitment to social justice and other concerns considered out of the mainstream for university level programs, has been split into two separate but unequal bodies. The move has some members of the university community, as well as leading economists at other schools, questioning Notre Dame’s commitment to academic freedom and to the issues its economics department has historically pursued.

Where once the university had one Department of Economics, it now has a Department of Economics and Econometrics, and a Department of Economics and Policy Studies.

The Department of Economics and Econometrics will seat four of the five members on the economics graduate program committee, leaving only one seat for Economics and Policy Studies. Until Economics and Econometrics grows to equal size with Policy Studies, Econometrics alone will be allowed to hire new faculty. According to Notre Dame’s Web site, seven professors now reside in Econometrics and 18 in Policy Studies.

The split, characterized by a Nobel prizewinner in economics as a “cruelly bad idea,” became effective July 1, 2003, despite opposition from professors placed in Economics and Policy Studies. They say it is a sign that Notre Dame no longer places the same high value on studies in areas such as labor.

Proponents, however, say the split was essential to raise the standards of the department, which ranks near the bottom of surveys of comparable economics schools.

The decision to split the department, which was finalized in the spring 2003 semester, followed months of debate and negotiation between administrators, faculty governmental bodies and economics professors. Another compromise allowed professors from both departments to share in the teaching of undergraduate economics classes.

As for graduate courses, professors from Economics and Policy Studies will be allowed to teach them if there is demand, but control of admissions and of which courses to require will reside in Economics and Econometrics. Thus, according to associate professor David Ruccio of the new Department of Economics and Policy Studies, “If you’re only admitting mainstream students for a mainstream program to get mainstream jobs, they’re not going to want [non-mainstream] courses.”

Earlier, in spring 2002, a moratorium on accepting doctoral candidates was announced for the 2003-04 academic school year, according to the economics faculty Web site, to allow Economics and Econometrics to restructure the program. Current economics graduate students will be allowed to complete their studies following the degree program in place when they began.

However, once new graduate students are admitted, the list of required classes will not include the classes in political economy and the history of economic thought that most distinguish the program from nearly all other economics programs.

Why would school administrators take such drastic steps?

According to Richard Jensen, a mainstream, neoclassical economist who was appointed chair of the economics department two years ago, “The issue here was completely one of standards.”

Though a number of professors who now reside in Economics and Policy Studies told NCR Jensen’s tumultuous leadership was responsible for much of the conflict experienced in the department over the last two years, Arts and Letters dean Mark Roche named Jensen to chair the new Department of Economics and Econometrics last spring.

‘Heterodox’ economics

Since the mid-1970s, Notre Dame’s economics department was widely known for the diversity of economic theories it explored and the diversity of its faculty. However, the program has never been ranked highly when compared, using standard measures, to other university economics departments.

According to Jensen, the low ranking occurred largely because many economics professors did not publish in leading peer-reviewed journals, and thus were not taking part in the larger conversation of economists.

Ranking of leading journals, he said, is figured through the number of citations a published article is likely to get in other journals. He said that the process may not be perfect, but is “a commonly used way to judge the impact of an article.”

The majority of the leading journals predominantly explore issues in terms of neoclassical free-market economic theory, Jensen said. However, many economists at Notre Dame specialize in non-orthodox economic thought, often called “heterodox” economics.

Heterodox economics encompasses a variety of schools of thought, including post-Keynesian economics, which emphasizes the influence of uncertainty in economies, Marxist economics and the study of the influence of such issues as feminism on economics.

“There are some journals that focus on heterodox economics,” Jensen said. “Most of them don’t even rank in the top 50, which means that they don’t have a great deal of impact. And they don’t have a great deal of impact because they are kind of small fields or even sub-fields.”

He said that as chair he applied the standards of the profession at Notre Dame. In doing so he found that many professors had difficulty accepting the standard that an article published in a low-ranking journal would no longer be valued as highly as a publication in a leading journal. “Before I arrived the answer was always everybody should publish in whatever outlet is best for them,” he said.

Ruccio finds fault with that decision. He told NCR that such a system doesn’t refer “to the quality of teaching and research.” The only focus, he said, is “on the quantitative ranking of the research profile of the department.”

Ruccio is a Marxist economist specializing in Latin American economics. His latest book, Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, is to be published this fall by Princeton Press. He said that under Jensen’s standard, “If I continue to do that work -- publish books with Princeton, one of the major publishers in the world -- I would not satisfy the criteria for promotion.”

An unacceptable ranking

Jensen said that a number of groups rank university departments. At Notre Dame, he said, the National Research Council’s rankings are among the most carefully scrutinized. “They have a complex formula that depends on publication of the faculty, success of grad students and so on. There are 108 schools in the last survey, and we [in economics] ranked 81st.”

Overall, the University of Notre Dame’s National Research Council ranking is 18th, Jensen said. “Every time the administration asked external reviewers what to do about [economics] they said, ‘You have to publish more in the mainstream journals.’ ”

Associate professor Lawrence Marsh, now in the department of Economics and Econometrics, explained the need for the university to improve its ranking, saying that one of the university’s goals is to be numbered among the country’s leading research universities. “The university is determined not to be seen as simply some football school but to be understood as a much richer, broader university in its teaching on research.”

Provost Nathan Hatch told NCR, The economics department has been a quandary for the university for 20 years. He said that in 1999, Id gone to the department and made an offer of considerable resource, and tried to move the department in a certain kind of direction with a number of new faculty lines. Some of those first efforts failed, however, when current faculty successfully opposed economists Hatch hoped to hire. In more recent instances, he said, administrators failed to attract desirable candidates because “we didn’t have a strong enough base to recruit talented economists.”

Jensen told NCR that when he first interviewed at Notre Dame, he faced a hostile environment created by some of the tenured economics faculty. A neoclassical mainstream economist specializing in micro theory, Jensen was told, “Graduate students don’t come here for that. ‘We don’t specialize in that. When you teach that class, those students will be hostile to what you are doing. How are you going to deal with that?’ ”

He said that such questioning over the years has kept a number of other mainstream economists away from the university. “If you are a mainstream economist, would you feel that you are going to be warmly received in that department or that they really wanted to hire you?”

Jensen said that his attempts over the last two years to improve the department’s stature have met with resistance. “To be quite honest, my experience as chair the last two years has been very unpleasant,” he said.

Academic freedom

Though the provost has assured everyone in the Department of Economics and Policy Studies that their tenure is not in jeopardy following the split, associate professor Jennifer Warlick, who chairs the new Department of Economics and Policy Studies, told NCR she thinks the split violated the spirit of academic freedom. She said people in the department think they are being punished for publishing in heterodox journals. She said administrators are saying, “ ‘You can publish what you want, but don’t expect us to respect it in ways that are usually shown to our leading scholars at Notre Dame: promotions, positions of authority on various committees, respect given to your judgment.’ ”

If that’s not a question of academic freedom, she said, “then I think I fail to understand the protections that academic freedom is supposed to give you, other than saying you won’t be fired for what you say or what you write.”

Roche told NCR he rejected that position.

“I think to say that any work that we do once we have tenure should be supported by the institution in ways x, y and z is not really the presupposition I would bring to the table,” Roche said. “I would say that if I’m doing work that meets quality standards then probably I should be supported.”

The idea of splitting the department was first proposed Dec. 9, 2002, in a report by a Blue Ribbon Committee created by Hatch to offer an advisory opinion about the department’s problems. The committee studied the issues of the department for several months. It was composed of a handful of tenured Notre Dame faculty members.

In the report, the committee recognized the difficult position of many economics professors. The report said that if there is any blame to be assigned for the department’s failure to achieve a ranking acceptable to the university, “it rests with the administration for mandating and encouraging the department to move in a heterodox direction, while expecting scholarly visibility comparable to that at leading orthodox departments.” It further said that “tenure should be respected throughout this process,” for all faculty.

The committee recommended the department be split and explained that “conditions have deteriorated to a level where individual faculty are frustrated and angered, morale has declined and many believe their particular contributions are neither respected nor valued. This has resulted in tensions among individuals in the department as well as between some on the faculty and the administration, both at the college and the university level.”

When NCR asked the provost why both new departments wouldn’t manage a graduate program, Hatch said, “Resources is one issue.” He said there are also issues of quality. “I don’t think there’s enough quality and reputation in the field to warrant a full doctoral program in [Economics and Policy Studies].”

According to Ruccio, there is demand for such a grad program. “There are a lot of young people out there, many of them religiously oriented, not only Catholic, but more generally religiously oriented, social-justice oriented, concerned about sweatshops and globalization, as well as taxes and inequality … who would love to come to Notre Dame and get an economics degree.” The new department, he predicted, won’t attract such students.

As for the quality of the program, he said, “In the past, we tended to get graduate students who were admitted to much higher ranked programs, and they chose to come to Notre Dame precisely because it stood out amongst all the programs.”

‘Confession of incapacity’

When news of the proposal to split the department was first reported in the media, it generated concern in the profession. One leading neoclassical economist, Robert Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responded to the news with a Jan. 30 letter to Notre Dame president Fr. Edward Malloy. In an attempt to dissuade him from supporting the split, Solow wrote, “Economics, like any discipline, ought to welcome unorthodox ideas, and deal with them intellectually as best it can. To conduct a purge, as you are doing, sounds like a confession of incapacity.”

He called the split “a cruelly bad idea,” and recommended constructing a “curriculum that equips your graduates with solid training in mainstream economics, but also exposes them to good working examples of other approaches.” Solow is the recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in economics.

According to Warlick, many faculty members did feel as though the split were a purge. “There are some,” she said, “who, if invited [into the other department], would have gone, even after everything that had happened, because they wanted to be with the graduate program. And there’s still lingering suspicion that the purpose of splitting us as a department is to marginalize us so that we will eventually be dissolved.”

Another leading economist, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Deirdre McCloskey, attacked the idea of a split in the Eastern Economic Journal, protesting that the university’s intention seems to be “to make its graduate program look like nearly every other program in the United States.”

The idea of splitting the department also attracted the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which published a story in its Jan. 24 edition. That piece reported that heterodox economists often feel that “their efforts to open the field to diverse views are smothered … by an orthodoxy -- neoclassical economics and its derivatives -- that is indulgently theoretical in its aspirations to be more ‘scientific’ than any other social science.” In the story, the split at Notre Dame was treated as a case in point.

The split at Notre Dame did not separate professors strictly along ideological lines.

Warlick said that in her case, it might have been reasonable to think she would have been invited into the other department. “I am a neoclassical economist,” she said. Another Economics and Policy Studies associate professor, James Rakowski, told NCR he also is an orthodox economist.

When NCR asked Rakowski if he thought the names of the two new departments might lead one to think that the split was made along ideological lines, Rakowski said that the department names are misleading. “There are people like me who never did any real policy studies in the one department. And there are people in the other department who don’t do any econometrics.” The split is “basically kind of incoherent,” he said.

Asked about the process in which faculty were placed in the new departments, Roche said that, in accordance with the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Committee, the professors invited to join Economics and Econometrics were “those persons who are actively contributing to mainstream economics,” professors who are publishing in leading journals.

They will lead “a graduate program that could become competitive” with other top universities, he said. They alone will be allowed to hire new faculty, “because if you have persons who aren’t conversant with the mainstream or people who are opposed to the mainstream, you’re not going to get the hires you need to advance the department in mainstream economics.”

Gill Donovan is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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