Notre Dame Plans to Dissolve the 'Heterodox' Side of Its Split Economics Department

Brendan Apfeld

The 11 faculty members in the U. of Notre Dame's department of economics and policy studies have been told that their department will be dissolved within two years.
September 16, 2009

Early in this decade, the University of Notre Dame's economics department was bruised by a long series of quarrels over methods and ideology. So in 2003 the university's leaders came up with a Solomonic solution: They split the department in two.

Some of the faculty members stayed in what became known as economics and policy studies, a heterodox department that made room for post-Keynesians, Marxians, and historians of economic thought. (Broadly speaking, that had been the character of Notre Dame's economics program since the 1970s.) Others moved into economics and econometrics, a more-mainstream department with an emphasis on quantitative tools.

But this was not a divorce made in heaven. University officials now say that the experiment has not worked, and that they expect to dissolve the department of economics and policy studies within the next two years.

A few of the department's 11 faculty members might be invited to join the mainstream department—indeed, one scholar already made the leap this summer—but most of them expect to be scattered into various other departments, institutes, and research centers at Notre Dame.

For those faculty members, most of whom opposed the 2003 split in the first place, the news is a bitter pill. They say that the administration has failed to consult with them or with their students. And they say that it will be peculiar, at best, for them to move into other academic units when the university originally hired them because of their doctorates in economics.

Above all, they say that the dissolution would represent an intellectual loss for the university. While Notre Dame once had an economics program that was distinctively shaped by currents in Roman Catholic social thought, they say, it will now be left with a neoclassical department much like the ones at almost every other major university.

"In light of the crash of the economy, you would think there would be some humility among economists, some openness to new approaches," says Charles K. Wilber, a professor emeritus of economics at Notre Dame. "There's not a lot."

A Death Sentence

A leading administrator at Notre Dame, meanwhile, insists that the department's dissolution will be healthy, and that the historic character of economics at Notre Dame can be maintained. John T. McGreevy, dean of Notre Dame's College of Arts and Letters, says the two-department framework has proven to be cumbersome and unsustainable. "It doesn't lead to a good conversation about economics on campus," he says.

Mr. McGreevy adds that the economics and policy studies department's long-standing interests in poverty, labor, and development can be preserved through interdisciplinary research centers and academic minors.

"One new minor I can imagine coming down the road is one in development," he says. "We have a major gift related to development in sub-Saharan Africa, and there is no reason why we couldn't pull together some people from economics and policy studies and have them play a central role."

Mr. McGreevy also says that the university's investments in the new econometrics department since 2003 have paid large dividends, including a sharp growth in the overall number of economics majors and stronger visibility for Notre Dame in the world of mainstream economic research.

The heterodox department's death sentence, which was first reported last week by The Observer, an independent student newspaper at Notre Dame, is not exactly a surprise. The department has not been allowed to admit graduate students since the 2003 deal, and its requests to fill faculty vacancies have been denied.

"The year before last, we were told that we would not be allowed to hire again," says Jennifer L. Warlick, the department's chair, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1982. "The handwriting was on the wall."

But it was only in late August that Ms. Warlick and her colleagues officially learned that their department's days are numbered. The formal dissolution of the department would require approval from the university's Academic Council, a 51-member body that is partly elected by the faculty and partly appointed by the administration.

Mr. McGreevy says that he has no timetable for bringing such a resolution before the council. He suggested that he would like to find new homes for the department's faculty members before he makes that move.

"We have asked each person in the economics and policy studies department to think through where the best places might be for them to be located," he says. "We don't want to force anybody to go anywhere, and we don't want to force any academic units to accept anyone."

David F. Ruccio, a professor in the economics and policy studies department, says that he cannot imagine being comfortable anywhere other than an economics department. "We have a letter from 2003 guaranteeing our tenure," he says. "But we have no idea at this point how this is going to work. Which departments will be our tenure homes? What's going to be my course load? Who's going to be my boss? Who's going to be paying my salary? None of these questions have been answered, so I don't even know how to approach somebody in some other unit."

Calling for a Reprieve

Most of the dozen people interviewed for this article said that they expect the Academic Council to approve the dissolution of the department, if and when a formal proposal comes forward. But some students and recent alumni are campaigning to save the department, planning (among other things) to appeal to Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins.

"I'm preparing a proposal for a meeting with Father Jenkins," says Felipe Witchger, a 2008 graduate. "It would be a serious problem if there were no longer a home for critical engagement with economics or for an analysis of the current crisis."

Mr. Witchger, who now works as an analyst with Cambridge Energy Research Associates, in Washington, says that he took a roughly even mixture of courses from the two economics departments. (Since the 2003 split, undergraduate majors at Notre Dame have still received a single "economics" degree, and have been free to pick and choose among courses from the two departments.)

"I valued the exposure to mainstream quantitative approaches that I received in the econometric courses," he says. "But I'm most grateful that I was exposed to other approaches, which allowed me to put the neoclassical model in its proper context."

Alli deJong, a 2007 graduate who now works for a nonprofit organization in New Orleans, echoes that view. "The major taught me to question my assumptions and to question the logic of social systems," she says. "I could only have gotten that in a department with a strong heterodox component." Orthodox economic models of human behavior, she says, would never have allowed her to make sense of post-Katrina New Orleans.

But another recent alumnus says that the university's turn toward econometrics and the neoclassical model has been the right move. The economics program as a whole "is in a far better place than it was 10 years ago before the split," says Matt Gunden, a 2004 graduate who is now a doctoral student in economics at Northwestern University, in an e-mail message. "I feel that had I graduated even three or four years earlier than I did, that I would not have had the opportunities I now have to pursue graduate study."

Mr. Gunden is exactly the kind of student that the founders of the econometrics department wanted to cultivate: mathematically inclined students who could win admission into highly-ranked doctoral programs. Mr. McGreevy, the dean, says that this development has been a great success. "Economics is our fastest-growing major," he says. "And we've had several students move into top-20 departments."

Different Perspectives of Mission

Not everyone agrees, however, that preparation for doctoral programs should be a central aim of undergraduate programs in economics. David C. Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College who writes widely on economics education, points out that only a small fraction of economics majors pursue doctoral education. That small minority, he says, should get the econometrics preparation they need by taking courses in departments of mathematics or statistics. For the large majority of students who will go elsewhere, he says, it is wiser to build the major around a liberal-arts model. (Mr. Colander and a colleague recently expanded on that argument in a white paper for the Teagle Foundation.)

"If you're looking at a school like Notre Dame, with a long Catholic tradition of looking at how values fit into economics," Mr. Colander says, "that seems to make much better sense than becoming a neoclassical department like every other neoclassical department. There is a pervasive attempt in economics for everyone to try to become just like a small set of elite schools. And that's crazy."

Richard A. Jensen, the chairperson of the econometrics department, says Notre Dame is not taking that direction. He notes that the number of economics majors at Notre Dame has more than tripled since 2000, and he denies that his department has been narrowly focused on improving doctoral admissions. He makes no apologies for increasing the quantitative requirements in the department's undergraduate curriculum, and he notes that a majority of the faculty in each of the two departments approved those new requirements when they were added in 2006.

One way to measure his department's success, Mr. Jensen writes in an e-mail message, is to assess "how well we teach economics majors the analytical and communication skills and depth of understanding they need to succeed in any and all of the careers normally pursued by economics majors in the private sector, the public sector, or postgraduate study in economics, law, public policy, or business. This requires sophisticated training in quantitative methods in addition to a liberal-arts emphasis."

Mr. Jensen also rejects any suggestion that his department is detached from the real world. He notes that his colleagues have recently created courses in environmental economics, migration and assimilation, and speculative financial bubbles.

And what will be the fate of the courses taught by the heterodox department? Mr. McGreevy says that faculty members in economics and policy studies will be able to continue to offer their upper-level courses, from whatever new departmental perches they find. But they will no longer teach any of the major introductory or intermediate economics courses, a prospect that makes Mr. Ruccio despair.

"When we are no longer in the core of the economics curriculum, students are not going to be getting these diverse perspectives," Mr. Ruccio says. "And what that means is that nonmainstream ideas, openness to a variety of traditions, are no longer going to be central."

Mr. Ruccio is on leave this semester, completing a book in Vermont. "I'm actually a bit conflicted about this," he says. "On the one hand, I'm sorry to be far away from my colleagues as they're going through this. But on the other hand, I'm glad to have some distance. It's hard to watch."