The Economics Department at Wesleyan

Economics has been a regular part of the curricular scene at Wesleyan University for nearly a century and a quarter--and longer if one counts teaching in moral philosophy (in the tradition of Adam Smith).  In fact, the moral philosophy approach goes back almost to the founding of the University in 1831.  A recognizably “modern” articulation of the discipline dates from 1888 with the appointment of Woodrow Wilson--a future President of the United States--as Professor of History and Political Economy.  Wilson was a recently-minted Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University where he had studied with Richard T. Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association.  With Wilson’s departure for Princeton in 1890, John R. Commons--another Ely graduate student--took over instruction in political economy.  Commons is now remembered as a leading contributor to the institutionalist school of economics from his latter-day base at the University of Wisconsin.  His Wesleyan experience was not altogether happy.  His one-year contract was not renewed, on grounds that his teaching effectiveness left something to be desired.  In his autobiography, Commons did not dispute that assessment.

Soon thereafter, economics instruction was assigned to Willard Fisher (no kin of Yale’s Irving Fisher).  Fisher’s Wesleyan career was eventful and had an impact that extended well beyond Middletown, Connecticut.  He was elected as mayor of Middletown as a Democrat, in days when the respectable party affiliation in New England was Republican.  This extra-curricular activity did not endear him to faculty colleagues.  He also hit the headlines with a speech to a private club in Hartford in which he suggested that religious worship might be more genuinely authentic if all churches were closed on Sundays.  The transactions of this club were supposed to be off-the-record, but an ambitious reporter broke the rules.  When the account of this episode reached Middletown, Wesleyan President, William Shanklin (who was also an ordained Methodist clergyman), called him in for a dressing down.  Fisher took umbrage at this treatment and resigned.  One of his former Wesleyan students--Edwin W. Kemmerer--took up his cause and persuaded the American Economic Association to appoint a committee to investigate whether or not academic freedom had been violated.  (Kemmerer, it should be noted, achieved prominence as Princeton's monetary expert and as the “money doctor” who traveled the world in the 1920s advising countries to adopt the gold standard.)  The AEA Committee’s findings were inconclusive:  technically, Fisher had not been fired from a tenured position, but had instead resigned.  This incident brought Wesleyan some unwelcome publicity, but the unprecedented involvement of a national scholarly organization with the circumstances of one of its members was the catalyst to the formation of the American Association of University Professors.

The bulk of the Department’s work between 1920 and 1959 was conducted by two men:  Clyde Olin Fisher (no kin of Willard Fisher) and Kossuth Williamson (father of Jeffrey Williamson, now a chairholder in economics on the Harvard faculty).  It should be recalled that Wesleyan in this period had an all-male enrollment of about 800 students.  Both men prided themselves on the quality of their teaching--which was appreciatively received.  In their scale of priorities, dedication to teaching dominated scholarly production.

With Fisher and Williamson approaching retirement, two members of the Department in the mid-1950s--Burton C. Hallowell and Gerald M. Meier--charted a fresh course for its work.  Teaching effectiveness was not to be compromised, but greater emphasis would henceforth be placed on productive scholarship. The Hallowell-Meier objective was to build the best small department of economics in the country.  Over the next decade and a half, the Department was strengthened by the recruitment of three senior members from outside the University (Stanley Lebergott, Thomson Whitin, and Michael Lovell).  Meanwhile four members who had begun as assistant professors were rising through the ranks (William J. Barber, Basil J. Moore, Richard A. Miller, and Peter Kilby).  In 1970, a Visiting Committee appraised Wesleyan as having the best small department of economics in the country.  Sadly, neither Hallowell (who was then President of Tufts University) nor Meier (who had joined the faculty at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business) were on the premises to celebrate this achievement.  Over the preceding decade and a half, Departmental size had risen from five to thirteen regular members.

In the past three decades, many of the names and faces have changed.  Nonetheless, the objectives articulated in the mid-1950s have remained securely in place.

William J. Barber
Andrews Professor of Economics Emeritus
November 2001