Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Desegregation and dissent at MIT's PhD program

I read recently this paper (subscription required) by Sandy Darity and Arden Kreeger in HOPE. In the paper they show how the 1970s efforts to attract more African-American PhD students were eventually abandoned, since faculty deemed the project a failure. They argue that the:
"factor that shaped the MIT faculty’s conclusion that the experiment had failed was their impression that black graduate students—particularly when they entered the program in sufficiently large numbers to form a Black Graduate Economic Students Association—were too concerned with social issues and the black community to participate in 'real' economics. MIT’s faculty, which did not include any black faculty members (and never has included any black faculty members on tenure track), seemed to want its black graduate students to replicate their own interests and style of doing economics. There was little enthusiasm for black economists bringing a set of intellectual questions and perspectives to the field separate from their white mentors’ interests and expertise. The experiment might have been deemed a success if black graduate students simply pursued economics in the same way as their more senior predecessors."
Beyond the issue discussed in the paper, the subsequent absence of African-Americans from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the near absence of African-Americans at all, it is interesting to note what the quote above says about mainstream economics. The social issues close to the black community experience were not seen as real economic issues.*

Note that this is a very similar problem that heterodox economists face within mainstream departments. And I should add that the 1970s, when the desegregation of MIT's Econ Department failed, is the same decade in which heterodox economists where segregated from most mainstream departments and journals. The creation of the Cambridge Journal of Economics and the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics in that decade attest to the fact.

I am not suggesting that African-American graduate students were per se heterodox, although some obviously were (Sandy himself, a student of Lance Taylor, and co-author of an alternative macro textbook, would be an example), and that might have caused further problems.** One wonders what would have happened if the desegregation efforts had started earlier, in the 1960s. In a sense, I think that the failed experiment is also, to some extent, the result of the closing of minds within mainstream economics departments in the 1970s, something rooted in the rise of conservatism in a broader sense.

* In this context, the quote from Solow on Sam Myers is priceless. He says: "Sam feels the normal conflict between the desire to do good academic economics and the desire to be useful to the black community." That both things are in conflict is taken for granted.

** Here again Solow's comments are invaluable. He says about Sandy's work that: "his paper on the Pasinetti model [indicates that] he should have been steered toward topics of more permanent interest."

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