Sowell on Academic Standards
As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been reading and enjoying Jason Riley’s Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.
One particular passage about the weird nature of academia stood out. It fits so much of my experience. I’ll quote from the book and then tell my own similar story from early in my career.
“I doubt seriously if I would have written Basic Economics if I were still part of an economics department,” Sowell told me. “People would have said, ‘What the hell is Sowell doing writing a book about things any decently trained economist already knows? He’s supposed to be advancing the frontiers of knowledge.’” Basic Economics has sold more copies than any other book he has written, but his fellow faculty members likely would have shrugged—or worse. “I remember at UCLA sitting among the senior faculty deciding the fate of a junior faculty member, reviewing contracts and granting tenure,” he said. “And I remember one fellow being considered, and someone said he’d written a couple of very good textbooks. And then one of my colleagues said, ‘I don’t regard that as evidence of scholarship. I regard it as negative evidence of scholarship.’”
I’m pretty sure I know who the junior faculty member was. The main reason is that the person I have in mind is the only assistant professor who wrote two textbooks during that era. Each was path-breaking in its own way, but especially the macro text. I learned a ton by TAing for this assistant professor in his very rigorous introduction to macro class. I’ve written him. He replied that if the event happened in academic year 1972-73, then yes, it was he. The person I have in mind is Chuck Baird, whom, coincidentally, I posted about earlier this year.
Now to my own story that’s similar to Tom Sowell’s. I was an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management from 1975-79. The faculty really cared about hiring and junior faculty were listened to. We had each received a pile of CVs and were discussing how to winnow them down. One promising candidate had listed on his CV an op/ed he’d written for the New York Times. My sense, by the way, was that although many of the faculty on ideological grounds did not favor the NYT, what I’m about to tell you is not about ideology. I think the faculty member’s reaction would have been almost as strong if the job candidate had had an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal. Also, it wasn’t about content because no one at the meeting had actually read the op/ed.
Here’s the line I remember crystal clearly from one of my colleagues:
How strong a negative weight should we put on the New York Times op/ed?