In the 1980s, an intermediate microeconomics text that I was a big fan of was Donald N. McCloskey’s The Applied Theory of Price. It’s very “Chicagoan” in the best sense of that word. If you mastered that book–I mean really mastered it–you could plausibly call yourself a microeconomist and not just a student.

Here’s a link to a pdf of the text, which McCloskey offers at a zero price.

My friend Rick Geddes of Cornell University came across correspondence in 1988 between McCloskey and the president of Penn State University. I won’t quote the whole thing because McCloskey’s letter was lengthy. He showed more respect for the outrageous president than I would have.

Here’s the relevant section of the text: it’s about racial discrimination in the labor market:

Q: If employers, to a varying degree, have a distaste for hiring black workers rather than white workers at the same wage, then a rise in the proportion of blacks to whites in a labor market will be accompanied by a fall in the relative wages of blacks.

A: As the proportion rises, the blacks must face more and more discriminatory employers. All blacks must be paid the same wages (assuming that blacks and whites are identical except for color), or else the low-wage person will undersell the high-wage one. So the black wage is determined by the wage differential that just compensates the most discriminatory employer hiring any black for hiring “the” marginal one. Therefore, true.

On October 21, 1988, President Bryce Jordan of Penn State University wrote McCloskey, then a tenured professor at the University of Iowa, asking McCloskey to change the text. Jordan wrote:

I am writing on behalf of concerned students at Penn State who are distressed about certain language in your text, The Applied Theory of Price. I understand that Jim Rodgers, head of Penn State’s Department of Economics, has discussed these concerns with you in that phrases exist in the text that are perceived to be offensive to students of African-American descent. We refer specifically to page 451 of the text where it cites: “(assuming that blacks and whites are identical except for color).” It would be my hope that you would work with your editors to see that this particular passage is deleted from forthcoming editions of the text.

In McCloskey’s long answer, he tried to figure out what Jordan meant and responded to each potential meaning. In my view it was a good-faith effort.

Then McCloskey turned to the wider issue, writing:

Let me be perfectly clear that I am not going to accede to your demand. I would literally rather go to jail. I must resist of course any such request for censorship, however politely expressed–and yours is clumsily and insultingly expressed–or however influential the requestor–and you are very influential. I would have thought that the president of Penn State would know this, but these are bad times for free inquiry, when those who are supposed to defend it shirk. I won’t. Your request for revision is politically motivated and wholly unreasoned, and I must resist it with all my tiny strength.

McCloskey ended the letter with the following:

I have wider concerns. My concern is that you represent a new breed of administrators with a feeble understanding of academic freedom
(which is not “bestowed” by anyone; it is a fragile social custom, easily taken away, by such actions as yours). My concern is that you and your students have somehow gotten the idea that democratic life is a matter of making demands and issuing orders. My concern is that your rhetoric of “sensitivity” is a cover for attacking the most vulnerable parts of the society, the conversations of serious people. Most of all my concern is that we college professors are somehow not educating people to what real sensitivity to moral issues is about, something beyond Dr. Feelgood “concerns” unarticulated and backed by threats of boycott and uses of authority. But I can’t threaten you in turn to get you to respond to my concerns. I can only reason with you.

Note that second sentence in the above quote. Man, was McCloskey ever on to something. The rot was there at least 35 years ago.

For more on labor market discrimination, see Linda Gorman, “Discrimination,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Update: Dan Klein pointed out that in my haste, I left out some key words in McCloskey’s answer. That is now corrected.