Economics Split Divides Notre Dame; Creation of Two Unequal Programs Decried by Some as Threat to Academic Freedom

Article excerpt

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 new 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. …