MIT Economics and Academic Prejudice

The MIT economics department’s dominance was fading just as I entered grad school there. David Warsh, himself a long-time chronicler of the department, reviews a book edited by E. Roy Weintraub on the golden age of economics at the Institute.

A sixth factor, advanced by Weintraub in the Transformation volume, argues that the rise of MIT stemmed from its willingness to appoint Jewish economists to senior positions, starting with Samuelson himself. Anti-Semitism was common in American universities on the eve of World War II, and while most of the best universities had one Jew or even two on their faculties of arts and sciences, to demonstrate that they were free of prejudice, none showed any willingness to appoint significant numbers until the flood of European émigrés after World War I began to open their doors. MIT was able to recruit its charter faculty – Maurice Adelmam, Max Millikan, Walt Rostow, Paul Rosenstein-Rodin, Solow, Evsey Domar and Franco Modigliani were Jews – “not only because of Samuelson’s growing renown,” writes Weintraub, “…but because the department and university were remarkably open to the hiring of Jewish faculty at a time when such hiring was just beginning to be possible at Ivy League Universities,”

Pointer from Mark Thoma. My Swarthmore College professor Bernie Saffran emphasized the anti-Semitism factor also. Bernie’s version was that Harvard’s anti-semitism made Samuelson feel that he would be better off at MIT, and once he went to MIT he went about using Jews to build a superior department to pointedly punish Harvard. It took almost three decades (roughly from the end of World War II to the late 1970s) for Harvard to come back.

Economists generally view prejudice by a firm as unsustainable, because that firm will lose out to competitors. The lesson I take from the Harvard-MIT story is that in academia prejudice can persist for a while, with long-term detrimental effects. Consider that as you read stories about prejudice against conservatives.

Read Warsh’s entire article, which covers much more ground.

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