©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Notre Dame Loses

by Deirdre N. McCloskey
Eastern Economic Journal 29 (2, 2003): 309-315
Filed under brief academic items and editorials

A Notre Dame logo

Not in football.

This morning I was planning my courses for next academic year, thinking what books I would assign, what balance of topics the students and I would pursue, when it struck me, "I love doing this. In fact, I love almost everything about my job as a professor." But the paradox is, if I love the job so very much why are there days on which I can taste my pension, years down the pike?

I'll tell you why. University presidents, provosts, vice-presidents, deans, and chairs, that oxymoron parallel to "military intelligence," "academic administration." That's why. It must be a difficult job, because it's seldom done well, this administering.

I've done a little of it, and was no good at it, which shows the problem: professors are not trained as administrators. They often don't approach it in a businesslike way. Former professors of German or chemical engineering or church history do not understand that business actually depends on Love and Justice as much as on Prudence and Courage. (The point was made by Peter Drucker in a famous article in the Harvard Business Review in 1989 that businesses are coming to resemble voluntary organizations like churches: in a free society people will exit if they aren't loved.) The academic bosses take their view of American business from anti-bourgeois artists and intellectuals since 1848: Marx, Shaw, Diego Rivera, Sinclair Lewis, Kurt Weil, Oliver Stone. And so in playing at being businesslike they reckon they have to be brutal and impulsive and thoughtless. And so they don't succeed.

Let's see: some common-sense and Druckerian rules for success might be: Mainly encourage. Threaten sparingly. Support all your people. Use actual reading and reflecting, your own, to decide who has the most exciting ideas. Don't depend on mindless rankings devised by quantophiles who don't know econometrics and don't believe in judgment, such as the economist David Laband (see McCloskey 2001, pp. 140-148). Depend on your faculty to read seriously their colleague's works for hiring and promotion and an intellectual life, discussing the work together and reporting to you on their deliberations. Make them do it. . . well, encourage them to, and if they come to you with tables of rankings as substitutes for engaging intellectually with their colleagues' work, cut their budgets, to get the dough to encourage departments that take intellectual life seriously. This above all: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

What the administration is doing right now to the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame has become a case study in violating such common sense.

Academically speaking Notre Dame was once not much of a place. When the sainted Father Hesburgh first got there in 1952 he called a press conference to announce the raising of academic standards, and was chagrined when only sports writers showed up. But it's gotten a lot better. Notre Dame's philosophy department, for example, is very interesting, studying "Continental" philosophy seriously, which is to say that it's not devoted exclusively (as are most American departments) to the deadening orthodoxy of what is known as "analytic" philosophy (cf. Samuelsonian economics). And when a brilliant colleague of mine at Iowa named Gerald Bruns went to Notre Dame's English department, I took note. Around 1980 Notre Dame showed the good taste to ask me if I wanted to be chair of economics there, and I was tempted. Though not at the time a Christian, much less a Catholic, I thought the idea of a heterodox place that took religious and similar thought seriously in its relation to economics would be a good idea. Even then I knew we had an excess supply of low-grade imitations of MIT, and that economics was going down a bad road in trying by Stalinist thuggery in refereeing and hiring and other honor-granting to make every department identical to every other.

The Department of Economics at Notre Dame has 23 faculty. It's known as a "heterodox" department-post-Keynesian, Marxist, institutionalist, rhetorical, though it has its Samuelsonians as well. Everyone gets along fine. I know the work of two of the faculty pretty well, David Ruccio and Philip Mirowski, and of one slightly, Esther-Miriam Sent. By "know" I mean "have read with some seriousness," not "have heard about as objects of gossip" or "have seen as names in The Leading Journals" or "have taken the measure of through Laband's statistically amateurish work on reputation." If you haven't read anything by Ruccio, Mirowski, and Sent, well, you need to broaden your reading in economics. You're spending too much time with The American Economic Review.

Ruccio is a leading Marxist economist. (If your reaction to that is to exclaim, "Marxist economist!" then you really need to get out more. Does it strike you as a reasonable hypothesis that every one of the thousands and thousands of very intelligent people who take the Marxist tradition seriously are just dopes from whom you can learn nothing at all?) Ruccio is an expert in Latin American economies and a leader in bringing the humanities and economics into conversation (if you've been reading my columns you know why I think such a conversation is a good idea). The words "value" and "deconstruction" and even "postmodernism" have figured heavily in Ruccio's work over the past decade. Such terms are I know pretty scary. But may I suggest gently-I've experienced the difficulty economists have in hearing the suggestion-that The New York Times is perhaps not the last word on literary theory, and that failed-English-Ph.D. journalists might not really grasp the words they hate so passionately? Ruccio does grasp the words of the humanities. A quinti-lingual economist is rare enough (sextilingual if you count math/stat as a language). But one who uses the languages to read seriously in comparative literature and the humanities, and then applies his learning to economics, is practically unheard of: see for instance the new book Ruccio and Jack Amariglio have written, Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, this fall from the Princeton University Press. Even the great Albert Hirschman, long at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and my favorite example these days of a missed yet blindingly obvious candidate for a Nobel Prize (until last November it was Vernon Smith; before that it was George Akerloff: non-mainstream, both), has been timid by the Ruccio standard in bringing the humanities to bear on economic issues:.

Philip Mirowski is also something special in economics. He started as an economic historian, a highly original one, but then became a student of economics itself, especially its history, and even more original. His original idea is the shocking one of actually looking at how economists argue. Craaazy. Again, you can see why I like what he does: just as I think it's a mistake that economics has not faced up to the issues Marxists and English professors draw attention to, I think it's a mistake that economics has not faced up to its actual persuasive character and history. Mirowski exposed one of the con games in modern economics in More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics (1989) and Against Mechanism: Why Economics Needs Protection from Science (1988), and then took off in an entirely new direction in Machine Dreams: Economics becomes a Cyborg Science (2001). Mirowski is one of the most original minds examining the character of economics that has ever graced the discipline (Sent works with him on the same project, and so far as I can judge is pretty good in her own right).

A correct use of statistical significance is the following: if out of the 23 people in the Department a majority of 12 (say) were by a high standard Not Competent, Bad Economists, Weird, Non-Mainstream and Therefore to be Punished, what would be the odds that out of the three balls I have drawn from the urn all three turn out to be outstanding economic scientists? Answer: about ten to one against.

What's the problem nowadays at Notre Dame? One way of putting it is that the administrators don't believe these are the odds. The Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, one Mark Roche, together with his agent in Economics, Richard Jensen, and with the backing of the Provost, Nathan Hatch, and the apparent entrepreneurship of the Dean of the Graduate School, Jeffrey Kantor, has decided that Notre Dame's Econ Dept is broke . . . and should become mainstream. For example, the department is to abandon courses on Political Economy and the History of Economic Thought (which set economics in its wider social context) as requirements in the graduate program. It is to make its graduate program look like nearly every other program in the United States, e.g. make the theory courses duller and more "mathematical" and more useless for actual scientific work; hire more econometricians, to teach the kids even more completely how to misuse statistical significance (when is the profession going to catch on to the con in more and more and more econometrics?). Or else.

The Department has resisted. It's being punished with appointments imposed on it; its promotions have been turned back. It may be abolished entirely, its distinctive graduate program scrapped, and a new one started that will be drearily Samuelsonian. I infer from the rhetoric when this threat is raised that the Graduate Dean, Kantor, who is a chemical engineer, is behind it. He's been fooled, it seems, as so many physical scientists have, by the absurd claim that modern Samuelsonian economics is mathematical and quantitative "like physics" (as the Samuelsonians put it; for which see Mirowski's work). That the math is existence theorems from the mathematics department, not magnitude-math from physics and engineering, and that the allegedly "quantitative" work is vitiated by its entire dependence on meaningless tests of statistical significance hasn't seeped into the consciousness of outsiders. (Don't tell them: we may get away with this phony way of claiming scientific status for another decade or so. Heck, we may never have to explore the actual magnitudes of economic phenomena! We could go on being Samuelsonian solvers of chess problems forever, and get high rankings in the journal counts without having to learn anything about any extant economy!) Dean Roche and Company argue that the faculty don't publish in enough Top Journals. That they do publish important books doesn't seem to cut any ice: publish in the so-called refereed journals or die. That the Department is famous for its unusual character is not to be tolerated: either you do Dull-Normal Though Bankrupt "Science" or you better watch out.

This is shooting yourself in the foot. True, a lot of university administrators do it. They are besotted with the alleged accuracy and objectivity of rankings of journals and (therefore) of departments. The ranked-and-refereed-article standard is you will note strange for senior people: how many times do you have to crowd out junior people in your sub-field hoping for a big hit to show that you can do that trick? (Listen up, Jeff Williamson.) But it's unhelpful for evaluating junior people, too. The standard should be Notre Dame's, not that of the editorial board of the American Economic Review (I have served on it, and know). Read the stuff. Isn't that obviously the only way of raising standards-having some? Who cares that an economist has demonstrated that he knows how to misuse statistical significance and existence-theorem proofs so he can get through the idiot's screen of major-journal refereeing? ("Show me your existence theorem for this economic idea," the Idiot Boy demands. "What's the statistical significance of that coefficient?") Where the paper is published is under such circumstances irrelevant to the question whether Professor X is doing good scientific work. Just irrelevant. For Lord's sake, read it.

Let's think this through. Dean Roche, leading the charge against his abnormal Department of Economics, is a professor of German literature and of film. He is also an adjunct in the Department of Philosophy. Now, let's see. What would have happened to Dean Roche's academic career if the normal in American academic life had been enforced by his present methods? What if Dean Roche had had a Dean Roche? I think that's a fair test. If mindless belief in conventional wisdom and mindless use of rankings would have ruined American academic life in the past, maybe, just maybe, it will ruin it in the future, too.

In 1960 (say) it was unheard of that an academic student of literature (except outsiders like crazy French intellectuals smoking up cafés, and a German Marxist or two) would discuss movies. Really, so vulgar. But discussing movies is among the things Dean Roche actually does. Under the Dean-Roche Plan we should increase his teaching load, to give him the right incentives (note: teaching as punishment) to publish only mainstream, conventional criticism of Thomas Mann's novels (he sometimes does write such criticism, come to mention it, in the same way that Ruccio sometimes writes mainstream work on Latin American economies and Mirowski on economic history). The sort of philosophy that Dean Roche studies is embargoed in most American departments of philosophy. It's that same "Continental" philosophy in which Notre Dame is so prominent, Hegel and such stuff. Continental philosophy in American departments has a standing similar to that of Political Economy (interpreted in a Marxist mode) in American departments of economics. Most American (or indeed most English-speaking-and, oddly, Finnish-speaking) philosophers don't regard anything but the demonstrated sterilities of analytic philosophy 1955-style as Real Philosophy. (Does that ring a bell, oh economist?) When I asked a famous analytic philosopher of my acquaintance named Searle whether he had read any Hegel he replied, to the amusement of the grad students in philosophy listening to our exchange, "No. I've never read a page of Hegel, and I propose never to do so." (Hey, John, does it strike you as a reasonable hypothesis that every one of the thousands and thousands of very intelligent people who take the Hegelian tradition seriously [among them Marxist economists, such as David Ruccio] are just dopes from whom you can learn nothing at all?)

So I think we ought to cut Dean Roche's salary, don't you? Probably close down the Department of German, too, and remake it into a Department of German Literary Subjects Covered in 1960: Middle High German, Goethe, Heine, that sort of thing, right? I mean, Roche sometimes doesn't do normal, mainstream, conventional work. Terrible. Of course I've not actually read any of his work. I'm too busy meeting with deans and provosts to engage seriously with his scholarship. But like Roche, Kantor, and the rest I know without reading what constitutes academic excellence: Normal work. The average. The mainstream. Preferably what has been done in the field ever since 1960: no novelties, please. And I have a really neat measure in which I ask normal, average people who have not read a serious book outside their field for thirty years to tell me what kind of work they like best. No need to read and consider. Calculate the outcomes of a corrupted scientific hierarchy; measure out-of-date scholarship, incompetently.

The Provost at Notre Dame, Nathan Hatch, is a distinguished historian of American religion. Anything strange there? Well, his main book is about the democratization of American religion. Power to the parishioners (Boston Catholics, take note). But not power to the professors, I guess. The Dean of the Graduate School as I said is a chemical engineer. None of these people, except the Chair, Richard Jensen, knows anything about social statistics, which is what the mindless rankings they depend on are. Probably Jensen doesn't actually know anything about survey research itself, since few economists do. I wonder if any of the Notre Dame administrators intent on killing off abnormality in their Department of Economics know of the survey of journal rankings in economics done around 1980 that inserted two fictitious journals with hard-to-mistake names into the list of 100 or so. It will surprise no one who believes that you actually have to read science and scholarship to evaluate it (and, to get technical, that surveys have to be tested for reliability) that large numbers of those surveyed claimed to be "familiar" with The Journal of Inapplicable Theory and The Journal of Idiotic Applied Stuff (I am making the titles up: will someone give me the exact references to this piece?), and ranked the theory journal high, and well above the applied one. Garbage in, academic ruin out.

Academic economics in the United States has a methodological and ideological range all the way from M to N. This is not because it is such a smashing scientific success, unless you count numbers of mainstream articles certified by mainstream scientists as "success." Real insight into the economy does not come from existence theorems buttressed by statistical significance, that is, the cargo-cult method of Samuelsonian economics. Insight comes from the dwindling number of individual economists and sometimes whole departments of economics (fortunately the political scientists, sociologists, and policy mavens are taking up the slack) who think, as the present Department of Economics at Notre Dame does (wait a while), that economics is the study of the economy and is a part of the conversation of humankind.

Works Cited

Drucker, Peter. 1989. "What Business Can Learn from Nonprofits." Harvard Business Review 67 (Jul/Aug 1989): 88-93.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2001. How to Be Human* *Though an Economist. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.