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Donald W. Katzner, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times

Frederic S. Lee
p. 396-398
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Donald W. Katzner, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, xiv + 199 pages, ISBN 978-019976535-5

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Crédits : Oxford University Press

1Donald Katzner has written a very interesting and informative book about the emergence of the best known U.S. economics department in radical-heterodox economics: University of Massachusetts at Amherst (or UMass). UMass was not the first heterodox economics department that was nationally recognized as heterodox in some manner and turned out heterodox doctoral students—that distinction belongs to the University of Texas; but in the 1970s Texas was transformed into a mainstream department. Preceding the emergence of UMass in the 1970s, the economics departments at New School for Social Research and American University had, circa 1970, a cohort of radical-heterodox professors and doctoral programs with a major heterodox component. Moreover, at the same time radical-heterodox economics was emerging at UMass, it was also becoming part of the economics departments and doctoral programs at the University of Notre Dame, University of California-Riverside, Rutgers University, Colorado State University-Fort Collins, and the University of Utah. Why UMass achieved national and international fame or notoriety much more so than its fellow-traveling departments cannot be answered here—maybe it was due to the brilliant scholarship of the faculty and/or to the even more brilliant scholarship of their hordes of doctoral students that were let loose on the economics profession. Katzner’s book is not about this, but about how UMass came to be.

2To write a good and really gripping birthing story of UMass, three things are needed: internal documentation, oral histories, and a participant’s viewpoint (who recognizes the problem of observer’s bias and deals with it as best possible). This book has all three, with Katzner at the center spinning out a thrilling and captivating story of good triumphing over evil or at least radical and mainstream economics achieving a modus vivendi. Although the book focuses on the period 1965 to 1981, it starts with a brief history of the University.

3Starting life as Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1867, courses on agricultural economics were offered. However, beginning in the 1920s, there were forces pushing to transform it to a liberal arts college, which occurred in 1931 when it became Massachusetts State College. The Department of Economics was established in 1935 and consisted of three economists. It increased its numbers in subsequent years while at the same time remaining undistinguished.

4This changed in dramatic and unforeseen ways starting in the 1960s with the simultaneous eruption of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the University wanting to upgrade the Economics Department. Katzner does an excellent job on the impact of the 1960s movements on the University and its students and professors; and on the American economics profession, especially those young economists who received their doctorates in these turbulent times (some of which—Samuel Bowles, James Crotty, and Steven Resnick—ended up at UMass in the 1970s). Also during the decade, efforts were made to strengthen the academic reputation of the Department through hiring outstanding economists and appointing new heads of the Department without at the same time purging the Department of its older non-research oriented faculty. However, this did not work—something more drastic needed to be done. This turned out to be the hiring of James Kindhal and giving him nearly free reign to mold the Department as he saw fit; and was given an abundance of positions to hire the right kind of economists to make the transformation. Because Kindhal placed increasing emphasis on research (and especially research that involved mathematics, econometrics, and mainstream theory) and did so in a less than democratic manner, unrest started to brew. The outcome was a period of turmoil in which the actually quite good mainstream Department that Kindhal put together came apart. The Department was put back together, but this time with a radical twist.

5In 1969, Kindhal hired Michael Best on a two-year tenure track appointment. Best, unknown to Kindhal, was a radical political economist. This meant that his research output would not mesh with the criteria that had been established for achieving tenure. Consequently, Kindhal did not recommend Best for tenure. This set off an explosive response that dovetailed with the uprising noted above which ended with Kindhal’s resignation as head of the Department. The solution to this badly split, nearly dysfunctional Department was not the hiring of mediocre mainstream economists (which apparently would have satisfied some faculty, although Katzner does not discuss this possibility); rather it was to go out and bring in some of the best and brightest radical political economists and pitch UMass as a Department at which students could be introduced to both mainstream and radical political economics. This part of the story Katzner tells with vim and vigor and has more excitement than a Hollywood action blockbuster (well at least for me). Names such as Richard Edwards, Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Resnick, Richard Wolff, Crotty, and even Katzner become the center of the narrative of how this remarkable mainstream-radical modus vivendi was reached—you will have to read the book to find this out (I am not going to give it away).

6Katzner has written a wonderful book about a very important economics department. This is how department histories should be written. I would have liked more discussion about the non-research oriented economists in the UMass department, before 1965 and afterwards. These economists seem to play an important role in all the events; but it is not clear why they should have had any say at all. This is a tricky subject to write about to say the least and it would have added more than a few pages to the book. So it is understandable why Katzner did not do this. I would have also liked the book to end not with an epilogue of the next thirty years, but with another hundred pages on how this modus vivendi worked out in practice. But this is for another UMass insider to write.

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Référence papier

Frederic S. Lee, « Donald W. Katzner, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times », Œconomia, 2-3 | 2012, 396-398.

Référence électronique

Frederic S. Lee, « Donald W. Katzner, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times », Œconomia [En ligne], 2-3 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2015, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Frederic S. Lee

University of Missouri-Kansas City

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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