Flung On Their Own Catapult

Posted in Issues

When Kenneth Sokoloff died at 54 last month, of liver cancer, the economic history profession lost one of its best men, and the University of California at Los Angeles one of its brightest stars. Sokoloff had built UCLA’s economic history program into one of the strongest in the nation, sufficient to persuade a major figure like Dora Costa to forsake the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But death and taxes are not UCLA’s only foes (house prices around the Westwood campus average $1.2 million). The California system, like other public university systems around the country, is finding it harder to grow its budget. Last year, in connection with the epic economics hiring spree at Washington University in St. Louis, EP noted that twelve senior UCLA economics faculty had put themselves on the market in the previous couple of years.

By now eight of them have left: Janet Currie to Columbia, Carlos Vegh to Maryland, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal to Caltech, David Levine and Costas Azariadis to Washington U., Harold Cole to the University of Pennsylvania,  V. Joseph Hotz and Duncan Thomas to Duke. (Enrico Moretti, a fourth-year assistant professor, was promoted to full professor and still left for Berkeley; Matthais Doepke is going to Northwestern next spring.) Professor Kathleen McGarry may leave as well.

That’s nearly half — the vital younger half — of the complement of 25 full professors listed on the department Website (not counting three courtesy appointments of economists from the business school, Edward Leamer among them, and one from political science).

Besides Costa (and her husband, Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at Tufts University, who has been hired by UCLA’s Institute for the Environment), the only other senior figure UCLA has attracted in the last three years is econometrician Rosa Matzkin, from Northwestern University, arriving next year.  This is not for lack of trying.

Those who entertained offers from other universities but decided to stay are Andrew Atkeson, Moshe Buchinsky, Jinyong Hahn and Lee Ohanian — meaning macroeconomics and econometrics at UCLA are in good shape. Heavy hitters in several other fields remain — historian Naomi Lamoreaux, for example. As always, bright junior faculty abound — Sandra Black and Daniel Ackerberg declined offers elsewhere, and Christian Hellwig, newly tenured, may spurn Columbia’s offer. “I am cautiously optimistic,” says John G. Riley, who served as chairman in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, citing UCLA’s opportunity to invest in younger investigators.  “It’s not an anxiety crisis or anything like that. We’re not falling apart.”

Still, it’s a long way from UCLA’s former glory, when its applied microeconomics earned the joke that UCLA stood for the University of Chicago at Los Angeles. Professors whose names contributed much to UCLA’s luster include Armen Alchian, Robert Clower, Harold Demsetz, Arnold Harberger, Jack Hirschleifer, Michael Intriligator, Axel Leijonhufvud, Jacob Marschak and Lloyd Shapley.

For that matter, it’s a long way, too, from the vision staked out by UCLA’s Board of Visitors (a group of wealthy alums, including Nobel laureate William F. Sharpe), who boldly proclaimed a couple of years ago that the economics department  “has growing potential to catapult itself into the elite top five” economics departments in the nation, thereby “becoming the top economics department within a public university….”  (At least that was the department’s plan back in 2001.)

UCLA ranked 11th in the nation in the last decadal survey of doctoral programs made by the National Research Council, behind California’s Berkeley campus (7th) and the University of Minnesota (10th). (Harvard, Chicago, MIT, Stanford and Princeton were 1st through 5th.)  It is hard to imagine it will fare as well when next survey appears in December. Something is clearly wrong at UCLA. Some of the problem must have to do with the university’s administration — but not all. “Because of the way private university endowments are managed, they have grown substantially,” says Gary Hansen, the current chairman. State budget appropriations haven’t kept pace.

He’s right, of course. Being a good economics department in a public university has gotten harder. The California system in particular has seen compensation become a political football. But Berkeley and San Diego economics haven’t lost half their roster (though Berkeley’s department, in particular, is besieged by offers.)  And some outsiders maintain that the situation at UCLA is not so much a distressing sign of the growing disparity between public and private universities’ funding than it is the kind of supernova that occasionally occurs in small organizations when big egos clash.

“UCLA is a mess, no matter what the people you’ve talked to have to say about it,” says one competitor. “It’s not very much due to their public status, either, but to a cataclysmic split in the department.  One group of true-believers blocks every appointment that the other group wants to make and vice versa.  I’ve heard this time after time from the people there that we’ve interviewed.  Still another example of people who think they’re geniuses acting like pinheads.”