Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Appointment of the ANU's First Professor of Economics

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

The Appointment of the ANU's First Professor of Economics

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Australian National University (ANU) was established in 1946 by an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament. This study reviews the University's search for an inaugural professor of economics. After three frustrating years of trying to attract some of the biggest names in economics from Britain and the United States, the appointment went to Trevor Swan, formerly Chief Economist at the Department for Postwar Reconstruction. Consideration is given to the role of W. Keith Hancock, who was in charge of the search, in this long and protracted process.

1 Introduction

Trevor Winchester Swan was appointed to the foundation chair of economics in the ANU's Research School of Social Sciences on 1 July 1950. (2) His appointment was the culmination of a protracted international search for a distinguished economist of 'world reputation'. (3) Among those approached as possible appointees were James Meade, Nicholas Kaldor, Richard Stone, Arthur Smithies, Paul Samuelson, Austin Robinson, Donald McDougall, A. M. Henderson, Brian Reddaway, Roland Wilson and Leslie Melville.

Shortly after the enactment of the ANU's charter in August 1946, an Interim Council, chaired by Professor R. Mills, (4) was created to bring to fruition the four research schools of medicine, physics, social sciences and Pacific studies that had been foreshadowed in the university's legislation. At the inaugural meeting of the Interim Council in September 1946, it was decided to invite several eminent Australians and a New Zealander holding senior academic appointments in Britain to advise the Council on how to proceed with the establishment of the research schools; the group was to constitute the Academic Advisory Committee. Professor W.K. (later Sir Keith) Hancock, Fellow of All Souls and Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford, was appointed to the Academic Advisory Committee to advise the Interim Council specifically on the creation of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS).

2 1947: Hancock's Vision

Due to heavy work commitments--Hancock was the General Editor of the civilian volumes of the official British War History, and co-author of the volume on the war economy--little was achieved until July 1947, when Hancock wrote to Mills, setting out his preliminary thoughts about the nature and structure of RSSS. (5) He expected it to evolve 'around 7 or 8 good men, each a master of his own craft, each working cooperatively with his neighbours. I think of these men settling down in Australia as a working party for the advancement of knowledge'. In economics, he thought 'it would be necessary to have one man capable of making original contributions to modern theory and another man well grounded in history'. Of the work of RSSS as a whole, Hancock 'put the accent heavily upon the advancement of knowledge ... The first duty of the members of staff would be to prosecute their own research'. Of overriding importance would be the 'existence of a staff capable of doing work which will measure up to the best standards of any other country'.

With time, the University might recruit capable staff from within Australia, either from other universities or from among its own graduates. But Hancock had 'no doubt that the largest proportion of the original appointments must be by importation'. He conceded that the ANU would experience difficulties in recruiting staff of high quality from overseas. Prospective staff would have to be convinced that there were sufficient opportunities in Canberra to undertake work at the highest international standards. They would be confronted with limited library resources, a small academic community (which would place limits on the opportunities for academic discourse), a restricted cultural milieu and the particular difficulties pertaining to Canberra itself, with its isolation from other cities and its small population. 'British and even American scholars', Hancock admitted, 'would be certain to put forward all these and perhaps other objections if they were invited to give the whole of their time or even a substantial term of years to research work'. …

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