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Diversity has its limits

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, April 16, 2004

“Diversity” has been a buzzword at Notre Dame for the past few years. Diversity is lauded in terms of race, gender, socio-economic class and countless other classifications. Sadly, there is one place at Notre Dame where diversity is slowly being eliminated: diversity of thought. In particular, economic thought.

This past year the College of Arts and Letters decided to split Notre Dame’s Department of Economics in two: a Department of Economics and Econometrics and a Department of Economics and Policy Studies. Notre Dame’s Economics department had long been one of the few departments in the nation committed to cultivating a variety of approaches to the study of economics. This includes scholarship and teaching outside of the mainstream or neo-classical approach. So-called heterodox economics often does not receive the same attention garnered by mainstream approaches. It does, however, frequently focus on broader issues of social concern: labor standards, income distribution, environmental quality, fair trade and poverty. Such approaches often resonate with Catholic social teaching on economics which, in the words of the U.S. Bishop’s Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All, “does not embrace any particular theory of how the economy works.”

In contrast, the Economics and Econometrics Department is committed solely to neo-classical theory. It also focuses on a particular method of studying the economy known as econometrics. Econometrics emphasizes the use of mathematics and statistical research to forecast economic trends and make policy decisions. Unfortunately, not all of the economy’s effects on individuals can be measured quantitatively. As Economic Justice for All observes: “Our faith calls us to measure this economy, not by what it produces but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.” Econometrics does not offer a formula for measuring concern for human dignity. Like any single approach it has its limitations.

The decision to split the Economics department has led many to worry that heterodox economic thought will eventually be eliminated at Notre Dame. The new Economics and Econometrics Department is allowed to hire new faculty, while the Economics and Policy Studies Department is not. In addition, the graduate program will, when it is restarted, be located in and controlled by the smaller Econometrics Department.

The National Catholic Reporter’s most recent issue reports on the split. The article was based in part on an interview with the Econometrics Department’s chairperson, Richard Jensen. Jensen stressed that the decision to split the department was due to a need to raise the program’s ranking, which is defined solely in terms of the number of articles faculty members publish in leading peer-reviewed publications, most of which focus on neo-classical approaches. Hence conformity to this accepted paradigm of how economics should be done trumped any desire to question the merits of this approach to judging the quality of a program, or, for that matter, any desire to critically evaluate the suppositions of neo-classical economics. Most heterodox publications do not rank in the top 50 economics journal, and hence Jensen questioned their impact. The same logic might be used to argue that opinions which are not popular and already accepted are simply not worth expressing. So much for positive social change.

Perhaps more ironic is the perspective offered by Mark Roche, the dean of the College of Arts and Letters. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Roche described the professors chosen for the Econometrics Department as “those persons who are actively contributing to mainstream economics.” Roche said that they alone will be able to hire new faculty members “because if you have persons who aren’t conversant with the mainstream or people who are opposed to the mainstream, you’re not going to get the hires you need to advance the department in mainstream economics.”

This commitment to mainstream thought contrasts with Roche’s thoughts in his recent booklet “The Intellectual Appeal of Catholicism and the Idea of a Catholic University.” There he spoke admiringly of “The Catholic tradition, inspired by the concept of the unity of knowledge.” This commitment to “the lost ideal of holistic knowledge provides, precisely in its foreignness, a valuable antidote to some of the weaknesses of the modern age and of the contemporary University. Not only does familiarity with a contrasting ideal offer the formal advantage of fostering critical distance toward the reigning ideals of one’s own era, in this case the holistic model presents us with a substantive alternative, an ideal toward which a Catholic University is obliged to strive.” It appears that such “critical distance form the reigning ideals” and the desire to offer a “substantive alternative” is useful only in so far as it does not affect academic rankings, rankings determined by conformity to those very “reigning ideals.” The distinctness of Catholic identity is wonderful when it serves to attract students and faculty but should Catholicism’s commitment to social and economic justice compel questions with regard to the assumptions of neo-classical economics tradition no longer serves its purpose.

This is not to say that Notre Dame should not teach neo-classical economics or econometrics; an understanding of both is crucial for anyone who hopes to engage in reflection and debate on economic matters. The decision, however, to focus on neo-classical approaches and eliminate graduate studies in heterodox economics, largely due to a desire to improve an academic ranking determined by allegiance to a single theoretical approach, is troubling. It was troubling enough to compel Robert Solow, a neo-classical economist and the 1987 Nobel Prize winner, to write a letter to University President Father Edward Malloy encouraging him to rethink the split. Solow declared the decision “a cruelly bad idea” and remarked that “Economics, like any discipline, ought to welcome unorthodox ideas, and deal with them intellectually as best it can.” Unfortunately Solow’s opinions do not affect academic rankings. Until that changes, neither his opinions, nor those of heterodox economists, will receive much attention here at Notre Dame. Diversity has its limits.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at jinfran1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.