Economics Rivalry R. Heats Up
"We have been attacked for some time by Harvard," says one MIT economist. "It's kind of an explosive situation."
"It's upset a lot of people--it changes a cooperative atmosphere into a competitive one," says another.
"When you've got two teams in the same town, there's always a big rivalry," says a third. "But you have a sense these days the competition has become more heated."
Competition between two top departments in any discipline is one of the oldest features of academic. But the longstanding rivalry between Harvard's Economics Department and its counter part two subway stops away has recently escalated into a Jively and bard-fought cold war.
Like all Harvard departments. Economics has a regular list of competitors in faculty recruitment--Stanford. Yale, and the University of Chicago foremost among them. But the proximity of the two Cambridge institution with and the regularity with which their economists see each other at work and social occasions heightens the visibility and intensity of their rivalry. "They pond is smaller--news travels faster around here," says Zvi Griliches, chairman of Harvard's Economics Department.
The chief area of contention between the departments is faculty recruitment Over the years, both universities have regularly jostled for professors from other institutions, and on several occasions, each department has tried to hire away junior faculty members from the other
But in recent years, MIT professors charge, Harvard has launched an attack on it much higher scale. In its latest foray into MIT, Harvard snapped up the department's brightest young star, Lawrence J. Summers, who will join the Faculty after a one-year stint on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisors. "He was hired away at the last minute," complains MIT Department Chairman E. Cary Brown. "We were counting on him to fill a very serious need here."
I think we tried everything short of involving the Vatican to keep Larry," says ex-colleague Ruddier Dombusch.
MIT economists bristle even more, however, at Harvard's unusual efforts over the past two years to hire two established and prominent macroeconomists tenured at MIT; Dombusch and Stanley Fischer. Both eventually resisted Harvard's offers, but MIT economists are still shaken from the tussle.
"You have to understand that a department is a family," says Brown. "If one or two key people leave, the quality and charm and all the nice things about a department are substantially reduced, and things can just wither away."
To explain the wound he thinks Harvard's offers have inflicted on his department, Brown says. "If a person of major importance to other people in a department is seriously worrying about moving, it tends to preoccupy other people who are concerned about it. Our GNP doesn't fall by half, but things do become complicated."
Griliches counters that Harvard's efforts to lure away Dornbusch and Fischer have only been fair play. Explaining in the cant of his trade, he says. "It depends on your views of the virtues of competition." He adds that "the alternative would be to enter into a collusion agreement with MIT: If there is an opening at one place, no one at the other place will be eligible. Harvard and MIT would be monopolists deciding to divide the market. Maybe that would be to their benefit but would it benefit the profession?"
Griliches speaks from the target end of the recruiter's telescope as well: one of Harvard's most promising junior faculty members, macroeconomist Olivier Blanchard, is currently weighing an offer to jump ship for a tenured post at MIT. That offer is the first time MIT has wooed a Harvard economist in at least five years, professors say.
"I'll feel bad if Olivier goes to MIT," says Griliches, "but people really ought to be free to choose what they think is best for them. Ultimately, both institutions will be stronger that way."
Brown answers this argument in the same jargon. "Think about it," he says: "You're dealing with an inelastically supplied commodity with a sharply rising demand. There's not much excuse for that sort of thing in the intellectual community."
He strikes the theme of his pet metaphor again. "I just don't think of people in departments as bushels of wheat--I think of them as a family. Would we reach a social optimum if we reconstructed our wives every year--as some people seem to do?"
When Brown speaks about Harvard's Economics Department, his face furrows in frustration, and he peppers his conversation with sighs and shakes of the head. Griliches, on the other hand speaks of MIT's economics department with a twinkle in his eye and an incipient grin that turns from time to time into a light chuckle.
"Perhaps," admits Brown, "if I were doing the attacking, I would be much more relaxed than I am as the recipient of the attacks."
Griliches is less gentle when asked why he thinks various MIT professors are so up in arms about Harvard's recruiting efforts. "If they had received the offers themselves, perhaps they would not feel the same way," he suggests.
Bearing out his words, both Dornbusch and Fischer describe relations between Harvard and MIT economists as cheerful and cooperative.
"There's no doubt that relations are very friendly," says Dornbush. "There's no warfare of any kind, really. In fact, we almost got them to reschedule a class to meet out graduate students timetable."
Dornbusch stresses ways in which the two departments work together: open cross registration for graduate courses, joint seminars and workshops, and regular socializing among members of both faculties.
"It's difficult now to get the impression that there is a great rivalry with unpleasant overtures," he says. "As long as both excel in economics, we'll compete, do it nicely, and enjoy it."
Fischer also downplays suggestions of friction between the departments. "It's a complicated relationship, but there's no particular point in creating controversy where there isn't any."
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Some professors date Harvard and MIT's rivalry in economics back to an unmistakable controversy in the early '40s when Paul Samuelson, then a graduate student at Harvard, was passed over for a faculty appointment at the University. At the time, widespread reports attributed Harvard's failure to hire Samuelson to anti-Semitism.
Samuelson accepted an offer from MIT's young, unspectacular department, and proceeded to dominate the field of economics as few other scholars have in the century. Almost single-dedly, he attracted a long string of outstanding graduate students and faculty members to MIT, most notably Robert Solow.
"It will take half a century for Harvard to recover from that anti-Semitism," Otto Eckstein. Warburg Professor of Economics, told Business Week recently. Part of that effort to recover has included regular tenure offers to Solow and Samuelson, reportedly including an offer of a University Professorship to Samuelson.
MIT economists do not count these efforts among objectionable Harvard raids on their department. "You'd expect every university in the country to be after Samuelson and Solow," explains Brown.
In general, Harvard and MIT do not engage in financial bidding wars over professors. The salary packages and benefits the two universities promise a scholar they hope to hire are not apparently the factors that govern an economist's choice.
"Anyone who contemplates offers from outside finds one's contemplation centering on questions of environment and colleagues," says Dorbusch. "It's not like these offers physics professors get from Texas."
Rather, the current tug-of-war has its origins in two historical differences between the departments: in their notions of an economics professor's proper role, and in their styles of filling tenure vacancies.
There are as many descriptions of the first of these divergences as members of the two departments, but they boil down to a pair of truisms: Harvard economists tend to devote more time to research than teaching, while the reverse is true at MIT: and Harvard professors tend to work on their own, while MIT's department has a stronger central administration and sense of community.
The opportunity to devote more energy towards research is one of Harvard's strongest trump cards in negotiating with MIT economists. Dornbusch and Flacher both-say the subject was stressed in their discussions with the University. In addition, several professors else the abundance of research time an the factor the clinched Summers decision to accept Harvard's offer. (Summers himself has been unreachable for comment.)
Conversely MIT's emphasis on teaching responsibilities gives it strength in attracting the top graduate students in each year's applicant pool, another great arena of competition between the departments. MIT economists have claimed victory in this battle for the past several years, and even Griliches admits. "In recent years, MIT may have done slightly better there."
Economists at both institutions become more passionate when they try to articulate the second piece of wisdom.
MIT professors like to depict their own department as a harmonious group of colleagues that works closely together from day to day--just the sort of department, in short, that would resent outsiders' efforts to break up the team.
By contrast no fewer than three MIT professors use the same image to describe their perception of Harvard's department: a collection of barons busy with their own individual fieldoms.
"In this department, there is much more collegiality," says MIT economist Franklin Fisher. "There's a certain amount of social pressure to be in the building three or four days a week and be generally available to colleagues. And there is a good deal of interchange about the teaching program."
Fisher notes that this cooperation, and the centralized departmental management that brings it about, has its drawbacks. "Frankly there are times when I wish the central management would leave me alone--I'm sure everybody else does too," he says.
Griliches draws a slightly different distinction between the two faculties. At MIT there's more agreement across the board on what economics is and how it should be taught they have a slightly better-articulated and organized graduate teaching program," he concedes.
"But we have a wider menu--we impose less structure. People who have had good training and want to try things are better off her: People who want more of a boot camp a Marine Corps training, are better off at MIT," he says.
"Of course," he adds, "we're talking about second-decimal differences."
Complicating Harvard's personnel skirmishes with MIT are the two institution's clashing methods of recruiting tenured professors. MIT, says Brown, lends to hire young economists and "grow them up in the department." Harvard on the other hand, typically considers only professors with tenure else here to fill its own tenure vacancies.
This caution stems from the extraordinarily high standards Harvard demands of a candidate for tenure, and the elaborate mechanism the University has for meeting these standards. To gain tenure, a scholar must be rated highly in a survey of specialists outside Harvard recommended by a majority of the department with the vacancy, and approved by President Bok, who consults an ad hoe committee of scholars from Harvard and other universities.
The only professors who can pass all these check points are almost invariably comfortably established with tenure at another university, thrusting Harvard in the awkward role of faculty raider, whether at MIT or else where.
As a result, the University often comes up empty-handed, since many professors are unwilling to uproot their research and family and make an expensive move to a new city. The fact that MIT professors do not have this obstacle makes them especially enticing targets for Harvard offers.
But since MIT prides itself on nurturing its economists and keeping them in the department, what is a marriage of convenience for Harvard becomes the break-up of a family for MIT.
"If one or two key people leave, the quality and charm and all the nice things about a department are substantially reduced." --E. Cary Brown Chairman MIT Economics Dept.
"People really out to be free to choose what they think is best for them. Ultimately both institutions will be stronger that way." --Zvi Griliches Chairman Harvard Economics Dept.