John Stifler, senior lecturer in the UMass Amherst Economics Department and contributing writer for the Amherst Bulletin, reviews Professor Donald Katzner’s book, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times for the Amherst Bulletin. Stifler describes the book as “an unpretentious hybrid of historical narrative with semiformal academic language” noting that “The book’s greatest strength is its idealism. It shows how people of intelligence, compassion and basic goodwill can rise above the political squabbling that sometimes mars the careers – and the teaching abilities – of academics almost everywhere.”
‘At the Edge of Camelot’ recounts 1960s upheaval of UMass department of economics
By John Stifler
Bulletin Contributing Writer
Friday, July 20, 2012
In the 1970s, Katzner was one of UMass’ newest professors. Hired with tenure, he was immediately pressed to accept the additional job of department chair. His assignment: to mediate between the radicals and the traditionalists as the department found its way – successfully, as it turned out – to peaceful coexistence between what had been sharply opposed factions.
“Yes, but who would want to publish this story?” Katzner wondered many years later. Turns out Oxford University Press would. Motivated perhaps by the scarcity of books that explore the nature of intra-departmental politics – that strange, sometimes claustrophobia-inducing environment where, it has been wryly said, the fights are so intense because the stakes are so low – Oxford last year published “At the Edge of Camelot” (Disclaimer: I teach in the UMass economics department. Further disclaimer: I am not an economist; I teach the department’s writing course.)
It is indicative of Katzner’s role as department chair in turbulent times that the story is only minimally about him. When he arrived at UMass, the department had already begun a 180-degree reorientation. In 1968 James Kindahl, a young Amherst College economics professor and former student under Milton Friedman at Chicago, had been invited to UMass and named department head with the task of recruiting outstanding traditional economists to build the department into a first-rate neoclassical program. Within a year, however, a political battle arose over a newly hired UMass instructor, Michael Best, whose doctoral work suggested traditional excellence but whose philosophy turned out to be as radical as the decade.
Kindahl twice recommended against tenure for Best. Students protested loudly, a new dean intervened in Best’s favor and Kindahl resigned as department head. His replacement, another admired traditional economist, seemed no more likely to close the ideological gap between sides.
Meanwhile Sam Bowles, about to be denied tenure at Harvard, had caught the eyes and ears of several people at UMass, including the new dean, whose first name, fittingly, was Dean and whose surname was Alfange. When Kindahl’s successor declined to offer Bowles a visiting professorship, the UMass labor studies department did so, and the door to upheaval swung open.
Alfange wanted to put Bowles into the economics department on a permanent basis. Bowles, however, was not interested in being a token Marxian radical in an otherwise conventional department. A better idea, he and Alfange thought, was to add several like-minded radical economists into the department together, so as to build a critical mass of radical political-economic scholarship. The department consequently hired five new radical members – Bowles, Resnick, Wolff, Herbert Gintis and Richard Edwards, who all agreed to move here together.
Given the composition of the rest of the department, the potential for disagreement about nearly everything was enormous: what courses to require, what value to assign to the quantitative side of economics, what philosophical background(s) were appropriate, which applicants to accept to the master’s and doctoral programs and how departmental decisions were to be made about virtually anything, including whether or not to promote a particular secretary.
Ultimately the faculty devised a remarkable solution to the array of differences. The department was divided into two sections, the radicals to constitute 40 percent of its members and the traditionalists the other 60 percent. Each faction would control its own hiring process and other interests.