Episode III of Keeping the Wolf at Bay, in Which the Wolf Bites Itself

If you had a sharp eye out, you would have been struck last week by the full-page advertisements in the front section of The New York Times burnishing the reputation of the University of California at Los Angeles. In one, studio chief Sherry Lansing (and UCLA alumna) asserted, “It’s Clark Kerr’s fault!” (Why? His long-range plan for California’s higher education system greatly over-performed.) In another, property baron Richard Ziman beckoned “Welcome to the Capital of Now.” (That would be the City of Angels, naturally, “an extraordinary mass of medical, scientific and high technology that dwarfs the Silicon Valley and Greater Boston combined.”)


Why the timing? Well, it was just after the May 1 deadline for undergraduate acceptances. And it was just before the May 15 deadline for the acceptance of offers of faculty appointments. With tax revenues falling, the state of California is under severe budgetary pressure; its publicly-supported universities are facing raids from better-funded private institutions. So naturally California universities are eager to thump their chests, and ginger the legislators in Sacramento who vote their appropriations. In a similar vein, the flagship Berkeley campus announced last spring that it had raised a $1.1 billion war-chest of private contributions with which to defend its turf.


Senior faculty offers are one way the most famous and best-heeled departments build strength – a little like the trading system in major league sports. UCLA, which last year was threatened by mass defections, did better this year. Chairman Gary Hansen reported six new hires, one of them senior (Adriana Lleras-Muney, a health economist, from Princeton), and including three junior faculty in applied micro. Along with two senior hires last year (historian Dora Costa, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and econometrician Rosa Matzkin, from Northwestern University), four junior faculty and a couple of key promotions, that goes a long way toward re-establishing the UCLA department’s traditional balance and approach. Moreover, UCLA’s Anderson School of Business hired political economist Romain Wacziarg from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, while the Public Policy School obtained  Robert Jensen from Brown University’s Watson Institute (author of, among several more formal recent articles, a three-piece saga on the Freakonomics blog earlier this month about his world-wide search for the elusive Giffen good!).


Meanwhile, Berkeley, which had feared a possible tipping point, beat out the University of Chicago for the services of Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a young and exciting macroeconomist from the Ukraine (a University of Michigan PhD), and hung onto David Card, the husband-and-wife team of Christina and David Romer, Charles Jones, Raj Chetty, and several other prominent faculty members, at least for now.


The the really big news of this recruiting season came from Harvard University, where president Drew Faust earlier this month overrode the recommendation of the economics department and vetoed an offer to Mrs. Romer, an economic historian and macroeconomist.


By any measure, Mrs. Romer is one of the most distinguished women in economics, co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research program in monetary economics, a member of its business cycle dating committee, former vice president of the American Economic Association (and, probably, a future president), Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and winner of the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award.


The Harvard offer to her, and a Kennedy School offer to her husband, a prominent macroeconomist, had been widely reported in the profession and, at Berkeley, greatly feared.  The pair had been instrumental in putting the graduate program there back on its feet, after their arrival from Princeton in the early 1990s.  Because each has an aging parent in Massachusetts, and because two of their three children will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, the Harvard offer was viewed as being, as one colleague put it, “less of a bullet than a small nuclear device” aimed at Berkeley macro.


Given the difficulty Harvard has had hiring female professors – its treatment of women was a proximate cause for the resignation of president Lawrence Summers in 2006 – the   decision to reject the offer came as a shock. Mrs. Romer was to have replaced retiring economic historian Jeffrey Williamson. Is the Harvard department, generally considered to be the best in the world, stupid for having voted its offer? Is the profession foolish for having elevated Mrs. Romer to its upper ranks?   Faust’s decision is completely unexplained. Nor is it likely to be, at least by her.


Even more so than at other leading universities, Harvard’s appointment process is cloaked in secrecy. Once the department votes, as many as twenty letters are written, asking outside authorities to evaluate half a dozen possible candidates, among them, presumably inconspicuously, the target of the offer. The package is forwarded to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who then asks department members to write privately to evaluate the offer and consults with the various academic deans in University Hall. An ad hoc committee is appointed to advise the president, consisting of two or three outside experts, plus the divisional dean and the dean of the faculty.


The day of the ad hoc meeting arrives: various witnesses are called serially before the committee, including those in the department who may have opposed the appointment. In the privacy of the Perkins Room, as the president’s conference room in Massachusetts Hall is known, a minority can advance arguments which in the department’s meeting had failed to carry the day. Often the university president presides; sometimes the provost. The emphasis is on privacy and discretion, but the aim is establish the true merits of each claim. In the end, the decision is the president’s alone.


A decision to overrule an appointment after an ad hoc proceeding isn’t unheard of, Harvard veterans say; it’s part of the president’s job (or at least it used to be:  one rumor has it that Faust has sought to end the traditional presidential involvement in all ad hocs; it is possible she delegated the decision). But neither does it happen often, for such decisions inevitably are embarrassing to all concerned. Their after-effects linger for many years. Initial efforts uncovered no one in Cambridge willing to talk frankly about the affair. “They screwed up very badly,” said one well-regarded and presumably well-informed senior figure.


They? “You will not extract any more details from me.”


A Harvard professor shed at little more light: “the debacle — and it truly was a disaster — reflects the dysfunctionality of Harvard University, not on Christy Romer.”


Inevitably, details will begin to leak out. For instance, Mrs. Romer is known to have been a member of a 2002 visiting committee that criticized the Harvard economics department for its treatment of women faculty and graduate students. There will be many calls on Faust, Harvard’s first female president, to explain. The episode is likely to be seen as being profoundly embarrassing to Harvard – a red flag to those who consider it a haven for misogynists, and a warning to precisely those outsiders whom it says it is eager to attract. “It just makes every other recruitment that much harder,” said a veteran of the appointment process.


Meanwhile, the Berkeley department, among the top seven or eight in the nation, has a new lease on life near the top of the heap. And UCLA, among the top dozen faculties of economics, suddenly has perhaps the highest proportion of females of any major department in the world.