Do Economists Make Good Leaders?

25 July 2006 at 8:26 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Hugo Sonnenschein is a rare breed, an accomplished mathematical economist who went on to become a Dean (Penn), Provost (Princeton), and University President (Chicago). I bet he’s the only university president emeritus with a forthcoming Econometrica. And what a cool title: Adam Smith Distinguished Service Professor!

However, like Harvard’s Larry Summers, Sonnenschein ran into problems as Chicago’s president. His attempt to reform the university’s rigid, and increasingly idiosyncratic, undergraduate core curriculum met with strong resistance. The conflict led to Sonnenschein’s resignation in 2000, though without the fireworks accompanying Summers’s departure.

Do economists make good leaders? Many commentators on the Summers brouhaha suggested that Summers’s training as an economist contributed to his poor communication and people-management skills. (One critic complained that “Summers’s thinking is grounded in a discipline that has little sense of fairness and moral obligation, where discriminatory situations are often accepted as the result of Darwinian mechanisms that should be left untouched.” Hmmmmm . . . wanna bet this critic prefers polar bears to Pakistanis?)

NB: I’ve spent much of my own academic career serving under economists, first Charles B. Knapp at the University of Georgia and now Brady J. Deaton at the University of Missouri. What does that say about me . . . ?

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. C. Grammich  |  25 July 2006 at 10:02 pm

    OK, Peter, I’ll bite on this one. What is it about Chicago’s undergraduate core curriculum that you consider to be “increasingly idiosyncratic”? I was one of the apparently few Chicago alums who had at least some sympathy for Sonnenschein’s efforts. But as somebody who both studied and taught the core, I’m not sure I’d describe it as you did.

    Interesting question otherwise. Perhaps the best commentary I saw on the Summers debacle (http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w060227&s=stuntz022706&c=2) didn’t make much of his training as an economist as much as it did of his inquisitive nature and his willingness to call things as he sees them (and to welcome argument over those views as well). But, the more I think about this, the more I think maybe *how* Summers expressed these traits were peculiar to an economist. (For some reason, I’m also reminded of George Stigler’s insistence, at a Reagan White House press conference to honor him, that the nation was then suffering from a “depression” rather than a “recession”. See http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9805E6DD133BF93BA15753C1A964948260.)

    I’ll refrain from speculating exactly what personality traits you economists have that may make you (all?) that way . . .

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  25 July 2006 at 11:52 pm

    Oh, all I meant by “idiosyncratic” was out of step, meaning much stricter, and more traditional, than the core curricula of Chicago’s peer institutions. I was simply reporting the way the Chicago core is described in the secondary literature, not offering an independent assesment.

    And of course you’re right, there are smart people from all walks of life who don’t suffer fools gladly. But perhaps economists are particularly prone to bluntness, or what today might be called mildly autistic behavior. (Joke: Economist 1: “How’s your wife?” Economist 2: “Compared to what?”)

  • 3. C. Grammich  |  26 July 2006 at 6:22 am

    OK. I might well agree with the “idiosyncratic” part. I’m just not sure (and probably don’t know enough about curricula at peer institutions to know) if it’s increasingly so . . .

  • 4. C. Grammich  |  26 July 2006 at 8:04 am

    And, oh, yes, maybe economists are less likely to suffer fools gladly. I’ve actually been told I sometimes have the same quality, but then my wife questions how I glance into the mirror every morning. (Whatever does she mean?)

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