“a third rate MIT,” an issue in academic strategy

A few months back, the Coordination Problem had a discussion on the Notre Dame economics program. If you don’t know the story, Notre Dame’s program had a mix of heterodox and neo-classicial economists. The administration initially split the programs in “economics” (mainstream) and “economic studies” (heterodox). Last year, they shut down the heterodox program, leaving the neo-classicals in charge.

Let’s put aside issues of intellectual merit and focus on academic strategy. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that the only difference between neo-classical and heterodox economics is simply popularity. Is it good academic strategy to shut down heterodox economics? In the comments section, Barkley Rosser emphatically says no:

In particular, I have said in more than on forum that 30 years from now more people will be citing the books by that department’s Phil Mirowski than will be citing the entire output of the current members of the new “neoclassical” department. Robert Solow publicly opposed the creation of this department, declaring that “what we do not need is another third-rate MIT department.” And that is what they have.

Of course, Rosser was corrected, a little. Notre Dame does have respected economists. But Rosser’s point remains: It is unlikely that Notre Dame will have in the near future the cash to buy up the best mainstream economists, who can command hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The option is to buy competent, but not exceptional, economists. You then become a cut rate version of the elites.

The right economic answer requires you to ask: what is a dean trying to maximize?

  • Disciplinary prestige: Copy the elites. Heterodox economics is really low rated in econ. They are barely represented in leading programs and journals. The mainstream also gets you jobs.
  • Impact: High quality heterodox people are cheap. Also, if they can manage decent graduate training, their students can get teaching jobs and promulgate heterodox ideas when second rate mainstream ideas are long forgotten.

Given academic choice making, the preferences seem to be: prestige + impact > prestige > impact. Only the top 20 schools or so can consistently buy prestige and impact. The rest must choose and it seems disciplinary prestige trumps impact. What’s the argument to be made for impact first?

Written by fabiorojas

October 5, 2010 at 12:25 am

Posted in academia, economics, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. “30 years from now more people will be citing the books by that department’s Phil Mirowski than will be citing the entire output of the current members of the new “neoclassical” department.”

    This could very well be true. However, where will those citations be published? I am not convinced that his impact will be in the economics profession as a whole but will likely be among other heterodox economists and non-economists. Thus, the impact will not be in the “proper” place.

    If this is true, then your ranking

    prestige + impact > prestige > impact

    is not accurate. Perhaps the ranking is:

    prestige in econ > impact in non-standard econ.

    This is more understandable, I think, even if it is narrow-minded.


    Mike M.

    October 5, 2010 at 12:57 am

  2. In 30 years, perhaps the current orthodoxy will be all but forgotten, and the current heterodoxy will be the new orthodoxy. In Lakatos’s terms, one should ask: is the current orthodoxy a progressive paradigm or a degenerating one?


    Benjamin Geer

    October 5, 2010 at 7:52 am

  3. As far as I understand it, the growth strategy is not based on senior hires, but almost exclusively on junior hires from the usual prestigious institutions (with—according to the grapevine—about six more positions to be filled in the next three or four years). So I’d say that this is (a) good news for young PhDs coming out of top mainstream programs, and (b) obviously betrays a “bet on youth” and “grow your own” strategy (which is cheaper than the big senior route). But I doubt that anybody is dreaming MIT dreams in South Bend; I think catching up to Boston College might be more what they have in mind.



    October 5, 2010 at 10:40 am

  4. I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years. There are many, many third-rate MIT departments all over the world. To understand the Dean’s preferences, I think you need to consider the second moment of the distribution as well. Most Deans are highly risk averse. They will stay in their positions only so long. Investing in a heterodox program or department may pay off, but only down the road, and it’s a highly risky investment. The Dean is better off, on average, choosing the low-risk, low-return strategy.

    Of course, my hypothesis is empirically testable. Name some good heterodox programs in economics or another social science, and see if they emerged under unusually strong, long-serving Deans or Provosts.


    Peter Klein

    October 5, 2010 at 5:14 pm

  5. Good question, Peter. The case that comes to mind is Austrian economics at Mason. Still, the rank isn’t so great, but they’ve been able to place students and garner a non-econ reputation. I think they had a strong dean. In the humanities, Irvine specialized in deconstruction, which is still considered out there. A few American philosophy programs have gotten heterodox prestige by specializing in topics like pragmatism.



    October 5, 2010 at 6:02 pm

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