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Archive for September 11th, 2009

Re: Dean McGreevy’s Comments

I feel like the comments made by Dean McGreevy in this article deserve special attention (and elucidation):

First:

“We’re trying to create the best economics conversation we can have at Notre Dame,” McGreevy said.

These words blatantly ignore the recent history of economics at Notre Dame.  As Nick has shown here and here, the forced-split of the department in 2003 resulted in ECOE growing four-fold in number of faculty while ECOP’s saw its faculty halve.  ECOE also became home to the graduate program.  Looking at the evidence, we can conclude that by the word “best,” McGreevy cannot possible mean “widest,” “broadest,” “most diverse,” or “open,” because the trend at Notre Dame points to the opposite.  It seems that the “best” conversation, in his view, is not even a conversation, but rather a monologue.

Second:

“There are lots of places around the University where we need economists,” including at the Kellogg Institute, the Kroc Institute and the Poverty Studies program.

These words blatantly ignore the current situation of economics at Notre Dame.  ECOP currently has five faculty who are fellows at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; ECOE has zero.  ECOP has seven faculty affiliated with the Poverty Studies program; ECOE has two.  ECOP has four faculty that are members of the Higgins Labor Research Center; ECOE has zero.  This isn’t an issue of “maximizing” the economics faculty’s reach and “impact,” as the faculty in ECOP already have a large and active presence in many programs and institutes around the university.  Citing the “need” for economists elsewhere in the university ignores the numerous examples of collaborative and cross-disciplinary work already done by ECOP faculty while overshadowing the near-absence of any ECOE faculty outside of their narrow disciplinary boundaries (whether this is a good thing of a bad thing is another issue…).

And third:

McGreevy said that moves to other roles in the University could allow Economics and Policy Studies professors to have a larger impact.  “Our colleagues in Economics and Policy Studies have much expertise,” he said. “We’re asking where in the University they can have the most impact.”

Here is one of the biggest ironies, for “impact” (or lack of impact, according to mainstream, quantitative standards) was one the primary reasons for splitting the department in the first place.  However, I think it is an important concept, but the utilitarian argument (“most impact for the most people”) is really a farce.  The issue, it seems, is not “impact” in the abstract, but about who the faculty of ECOP are able to impact.  The goal of disbanding the ECOP faculty is not to disperse the “impact” of these faculty, allowing more open “conversation,” but is intended to delimit their impact to certain groups – that is, anyone who isn’t an economics or business student.  By denying ECOP faculty the ability to teach introductory economics courses, a vast amount of students will be presented neoclassical and ONLY neoclassical theory as “economics.”  This does not only “impact” economics students, but political science, business, sociology, and many other disciplines whose students take an introductory economics course.

McGreevy’s comments clearly show that the economics “conversation” he wishes to see at Notre Dame is one in which only neoclassical economists have a voice.

Note: While this post focuses directly on the comments made by Dean McGreevy, he is only one of a number of administrators involved in the decision to close ECOP.  Still, I find his tone and rhetoric to mimic other administrators who have worked to carry out this decision and frame it as a non-political, “benevolent” decision.

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This latest update is from Prof. David Ruccio’s blog. Ruccio is one of the remaining ECOP faculty. He teaches political economy and Marxian economic theory (and teaches a lot of neoclassical theory while at it). His excellent instruction earned him a Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching this year. Here is what he had to say:

It’s official: the University of Notre Dame has decided to eliminate the Department of Economics & Policy Studies. The existing faculty in that department have been encouraged to find a position in another unit, at ND or elsewhere.

No explanation has been given as to why such a move is necessary. What it means, however, is that the only department of economics that will remain at ND is devoted exclusively to neoclassical theory.

This is a blow to academic freedom. And, of course, the irony is that the university is embracing neoclassical theory precisely when, in the context of the current crisis, that theory is being called into question and the conversation about economics is, after a long period of neoclassical hegemony, finally opening up.

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Matt made some nice points on the article in Notre Dame’s student newspaper, highlighting the tenuous status of heterodox economics at Notre Dame. Of course, he failed to post the Drudge siren, which is a shame.

On a serious note, however, the writing has been on the wall with regards to this decision for a while. Last spring I posted empirical evidence of the sharp decreases in  teaching and faculty from the Department of Economics and Policy Studies, which houses all the remaining heterodox faculty at Notre Dame. Even before that research, however, it was clear to most people familiar with the department that without hiring power, things were not looking good. The department chair of the mainstream Department of Economics and Econometrics even admitted as much in another student newspaper article:

Richard Jensen, chairperson of the Economics and Econometrics Department commented that one reason for the split was that all hiring would be for Economics and Econometrics until “the two departments were at equal strength.”

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I express concern about the sins of omission and commission lying behind these decisions. However, I want to make it clear that these developments do not surprise me. The decision was made over a decade ago, when the External Review was conducted at the behest of then business professor, and now Executive Vice-President John Affleck-Graves, that mainstream economics was the only relevant party in economics discourse at Notre Dame. Everything since then has been dotting i’s and crossing t’s. The strategy has been an intelligent one: divide and conquer; pay lip service to pluralism and discourse but allow them only outside the context of a true economics department; cite publishing and citation rankings that are more a function of the discipline than of the writer.

When Richard Wolff, a Marxian economist, visited campus to deliver a talk in April (which attracted over 200 attendees on a Thursday evening), he commented that Notre Dame was choosing to enshrine neoclassical economics as the only form of economics just when it was seeing its nadir. The fact of the matter, however, is that these decisions are completely walled off from current conditions. Instead, they are part of a natural progression, the result of the sociology of an entire profession that has developed over the course of decades.

It is encouraging, nonetheless, that the Dean of Arts and Letters does pay lip service to pluralism and conversation in a discipline like economics, both publicly and privately. However, he is entirely misguided in thinking that true conversation occurs best horizontally, across disciplines, and not just vertically. Of course, at the end of the day, conversation (at least substantive conversation) is quite difficult between neoclassical  and heterodox economists. Fundamental assumptions can be entirely different, to the point that there is really nothing to talk about. Of course, some economists, like Paul Krugman, for example, seem to straddle this divide a little more delicately than most in policy discourse (see The Night They Reread Minsky), but at the end of the day, his models are decidedly neoclassical. And, most of the neoclassical macro folks at ND haven’t read Minsky (and don’t even ask about Polanyi, just hope that they’ve at least read Keynes).

Despite that reality, the proper place of heterodox economists is in an economics department, one that has a vibrant discussion within itself, and also present meaningful alternatives to the neoclassical paradigm that dominates. That doesn’t happen under the current arrangement, and it certainly won’t happen if ECOP is disbanded. Surely some mechanism can be invented whereby two sets of economists exist in the same department, with equal strength. It will be tough, but disbanding ECOP is without a doubt the easy way out of this situation for the Dean. He will take a lot of heat in the short term from people like myself, as well as the to-be-dispersed faculty, but that pales in comparison to the long-term difficulty of balancing those divisions.

So, the way forward is not just about making the short-term very difficult for decision-makers, but by challenging them intellectually to better serve the campus. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the will exists in the campus community to hold the Dean and others to account for their decisions, expose their plans, and demand true pluralism.

Update: More discussion on Anti-Capitalism as well as on this blog.

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The latest news about the future of economics at Notre Dame comes from a news article in today’s Observer, the University of Notre Dame’s campus newspaper.

While still vague, the comments did spell out a few certainties, namely that the

College of Arts and Letters plans to discontinue one of its two economic departments in the next two years, according to College Dean John McGreevy.

The other especially interesting comments regard the future of the heterodox economists role at the University.

“We’re trying to create the best economics conversation we can have at Notre Dame,” McGreevy said. “There are lots of places around the University where we need economists,” including at the Kellogg Institute, the Kroc Institute and the Poverty Studies program.

McGreevy said that moves to other roles in the University could allow Economics and Policy Studies professors to have a larger impact.  “Our colleagues in Economics and Policy Studies have much expertise,” he said. “We’re asking where in the University they can have the most impact.”

That sounds nice, until one reads between the lines.  If the heterodox economists are not allowed to join the Department of Economics, the University hierarchy is saying that they do not consider pluralism a legitimate voice in economics. Their pursuit for high rankings takes precedence over everything, including Notre Dame’s commitment to social justice.

It will be interesting to see how this story continues to unfold, especially to what extent economic pluralism finds its way into the new department.

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