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Roosevelt University, Department of Economics — A Brief History

By Stephen T. Ziliak

Economics departments at most institutions are dominated by neoclassical faculty, utilitarian doctrine, and conservative teaching methods.  The Roosevelt Department of Economics deviates significantly from this troubling trend.  Roosevelt began and remains one of the few departments in the world offering students a rigorous and regular opportunity to study alternative schools of economic thought in a nurturing, tolerant, diverse, pluralistic, student-centered, critical thinking, and dialogical teaching environment.   

Our students receive training at the highest levels of conventional neoclassical and Keynesian economics, statistics, game theory, and econometrics.  Several of our students hold jobs at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and others have held internships with neoclassical Chicago School economists.  But at Roosevelt students can study economics from Institutionalist, Post-Keynesian, feminist, rhetorical, libertarian, historical, Marxian and other schools of thought.  At Roosevelt now as ever, theories and practices of justice, fairness, and freedom have an equal seat at the academic table, no less than efficiency. 

Thus it is not by chance or mistake that the Department welcomed in 2008 the chance to be an academic home for the Social Justice program.  Social justice and heterodoxy have been Department hallmarks from the beginning when, in 1945, three political economists joined other principled faculty and administrators to petition and separate from an increasingly discriminatory Central YMCA College to form what is now present-day Roosevelt University.

Signatories on the petition to form the new college included three luminaries from the field of political economy: Tarini Prasad Sinha (Department of Political Science and Economics), Bert Hoselitz (Economics), and Walter Weisskopf (Economics).

Tarini Prasad Sinha preferred the life of practicing social justice, working politically and, if necessary, disobediently, to improve economic, cultural and social conditions for the poor and disadvantaged.  He did not favor the traditional academic route of theorizing and publishing. 

Sinha was the most internationally famous signatory on the petition against Central Y but today he is not known as much as he might be.  He was born and raised in Benares, India, in the upper north-east region, near present-day Nepal.  According to an archivist at the League of Nations, Sinha was probably born in 1896.  Though he was his own man, he was philosophically and spiritually speaking an early and long-time friend and colleague of Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress Party.  He risked life and limb marching with Gandhi in non-violent civil disobedience, true; but he also represented the Congress Party as a high level political functionary for well-over two decades.  His distinction among friends and enemies alike can be measured by, for example, his appointment to the position of “Secretariat” to the League of Nations, whereat his peers included the great Dutch economist and statistician, Jan Tinbergen (Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, 1969).  Sinha’s Committee at the League of Nations was charged with the problems of “Social Questions and Opium Trafficking.”  The latter is not surprising as Sinha was, like his friend Gandhi, a life-long teetotaler who campaigned heavily to put Prohibition into the Constitution of the first independent India (they succeeded in this endeavor).  The author of a 435 page Anti-Saloon League book on Prohibition in India, “Pussyfoot” Johnson and his Campaign in Hindustan (Ganesh: Madras, 1922), Tarini Sinha was said in 1922 by The New York Times to be a “leading prohibitionist from India”—twenty three years before the Gandhian author, teacher, activist and statesman would sign the historic petition against Central Y.  In the middle and late 1930s, Sinha was working on a dissertation at the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, on “The Political Techniques of Gandhi.” 

We do not have evidence that he completed his dissertation.  Although enlightened views about the role of Prohibition and drug trafficking are not what they were in Gandhi’s day, at the very beginning of the now shameful “War on Drugs” which Sinha and Gandhi would abhor, there is no doubt that a Roosevelt University revolutionary was at the forefront promoting equal liberty, dignity, and social responsibility and action for global, social, and local change.

Tarini Sinha was hardly our first or only academic collaboration with the University of Chicago.  The Economics Department at Roosevelt has always enjoyed a productive relationship and exchange with teachers and scholars in Hyde Park—long before the famous Abba Lerner-Ronald Coase debates of the late 1940s and early 1950s –on the 5th and 7th floors of the Auditorium Building, the Nobel Prize winning Coase told us when he visited our Department in 2005.

For example, one Viennese polyglot and progressive economist, Bert Hoselitz, was “Instructor” of Economics at the Central YMCA College, living in Hyde Park, when he signed the petition to form present-day Roosevelt.  Hoselitz went on to enjoy a brilliant, if unusual, academic career as professor of economics at The University of Chicago.  He nearly single-handedly rescued the now “hot” field of economic development from academic obscurity and raised it to a place of academic respectability and then some.  As founding editor of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change, the worldly social scientist descending from the University of Vienna continued to shape the journal as chief editor for more than 35 years. 

Remarkably, Hoselitz, though an economist, was co-founder and contributing editor of Dissent magazine, where for many years his name graced the cover of the progressive ‘zine with fellow editors Erich Fromm, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, Irving Howe, and others.  His academic articles challenged the popular wisdom of socialists and classical liberals alike; for example, his complaints about Hayek’s views on Marx and the history of German socialism appeared in an article he published in the American Economic Review—a piece that the A.E.R. would not, it’s sad to say, entertain publishing today—it’s not neoclassical!  Ironically, Hoselitz took his initial training in Vienna, where he was exposed to Carl Menger and the Austrian School of Economics which he himself largely rejected.

The first-ever Chair of the Department of Economics was Walter Weisskopf (born in Vienna; died in California, 1991) the third Central Y economist to sign the petition.  (Imagine 430 South Michigan Avenue, in the mid-1940s: enjoying a “Viennese” coffee and smoke in the Sullivan Room while hanging out with these amazing people!) Weisskopf came from a family of scientists and intellectuals—for example, he was the uncle of a department friend in heterodox economics, Thomas Weisskopf, who is now Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Michigan.  Walter’s brother Victor Weisskopf was a famous theoretical physicist.  Victor studied with Heisenberg, and Victor himself went on to win the most illustrious medals of science for his achievements in theoretical and applied physics during the nuclear age. 

Walter A. Weisskopf studied at the University of Vienna, Cambridge University, and the University of Geneva.  He is the author of The Psychology of Economics (1955, International Library of Psychology), a classic of psycho-cultural analysis of economics and economic theory, re-printed since 1999 by Routledge.  As Rolf Weil observed, Weisskopf’s pristine international reputation was critical for the quality of recruitment in the formative years.  His Alienation and Economics (1971) did not enjoy the same critical acclaim as the psychology book—a comment more on the year of publication and 1970s milieu, it may be admitted, more than a negative reflection on the erudite author.  Weisskopf’s work bristles today with challenging arguments, insights, and themes.

The Jewish social and human rights activist, feminist professor, public intellectual, economist, and author, Sara Landau (1890-1986), was a founding member of the RU economics department.  By the time she came to Roosevelt as Associate Professor of Economics, in 1946, at age 56, she had traveled the globe.  “I’m determined to amount to more than one row of pins some day,” she wrote in her diary in 1912, and as her biographer notes “by the time she died three-quarters of a century later, she had indeed earned a reputation as a talented economist, a devoted teacher, and a tireless community activist.”  

Landau graduated from the Bowling Green Business University (Kentucky) in 1916 and, after doing a stint as a Red Cross volunteer in France, 1918 to 1919, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville (1920); a year later, she held a master’s degree in economics.  She began teaching at the University of Louisville while still a student.  From 1924 to 1926 she took a leave of absence to pursue doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania.  Though she did not finish her dissertation (we don’t know why) she was promoted from instructor to assistant professor at the University of Louisville in 1926 and to associate professor in 1927.  She was Dean of Women at the university but in 1928 she left the university in protest against university president George Colvin, under conditions of Anti-Semitism, as Landau explained in writing.  Throughout the 1920s “she taught English and citizenship to newcomers, worked with young women at the Louisville YMHA, and met immigrants at the New York docks on behalf of the National Council of Jewish Women.”

Laudau was a teaching fellow at the University of Chicago before she took over as Chair of the department of economics and sociology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.  (Wheaton is still a heterodox friendly department; our friend Professor Brenda Wyss and others holding forth.)

Landau taught at Roosevelt from 1946 to 1954, when she retired for the first of about three different times.  Says her biographer, “Throughout her life, she wrote articles, book reviews, plays, and hundreds of letters, many to political figures. She also produced a primer on economics for women, which she attempted on several occasions to publish. She traveled widely, visiting Japan, Holland, and Iceland as early as 1913, and embarking on a year-long world tour by freighter and steamer in 1960.”

“In 1980, she received the Louisville Jewish Community Center’s prestigious Ottenheimer Award, a prize named for its donor, Blanche B. Ottenheimer (one of Landau’s mentors), and bestowed annually for contributions in the field of human relations. “

Sara Landau died in Louisville on September 17, 1986.

Albert Rees was an early member of the Roosevelt faculty.  Rees is an extremely well-regarded labor economist and researcher, and in life he enjoyed success as a business man and administrator, too.  After teaching stints at Roosevelt, Chicago, and other schools, Rees became senior research economist at Princeton University.  He went on to become Provost of Princeton University before leaving academia as President of the Sloan Foundation.  Rees, who mentored some of the biggest names in the Chicago tradition of labor economics today (such as Orley Aschenfelter at Princeton), believed the biggest benefit of the labor movement was "its ability to improve working conditions," Rolf Weil, a friend and colleague of Rees, said in an illuminating historical pamphlet based on Weil’s lecture, "Roosevelt University's Revolutionary Economics Department, 1945-1955" (December 2007).

Even a brief history of the department proves to be difficult to write.  

For example, from 1947 to 1958, the great economic theorist Abba Lerner (1903-1982) was Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University.  He was a student of the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek and of Lionel Robbins both, at the London School of Economics.  Lerner was a peer and collaborator of John Maynard Keynes and he, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase and many others believe Lerner to be one of the greatest economists (and intellectual opponents) of the 20th century.  He helped to make Roosevelt one of the best departments of economics in the world.  Lerner's articles and books were subject to the scientific criticism of Keynes and others in Europe.  His method of "functional finance" became central to what most people mistakenly think of today as "Keynesian aggregate demand management." His work on subjects ranging from the theory of monopoly to the balance of payments and inflation control was also elaborated and criticized by Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, and many other giants of 20th century economics — a world-class achievement indeed, accomplished at 430 S. Michigan Ave.

On Lerner’s sterling cv is a book, Economics of Employment (1951), which is a body of theory, concepts, and policy alternatives highly relevant to today’s debates about jobs, income, prices and growth—a post-Keynesian solution.  In the Preface, Lerner thanks Roosevelt faculty and staff for their help in producing his still-relevant book.  Lerner’s most famous and controversial book is, however, The Economics of Control (Macmillan, 1944).  The latter was treated in print to sophisticated criticism and hand-wringing by a number of Lerner’s opponents and friends, including Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize, 1976), Ronald Coase (Nobel Prize, 1991), and James Meade (Nobel Prize, 1977).

Like Hoselitz and Weisskopf, Abba Lerner, a socialist Jew from a working class family in the East End of London, was an independent genius, true; but he was also friend and colleague to, as you can see, a diverse and in some cases strongly libertarian and free-market oriented group of economists, Coase above all.  None of this history is really history at all.  Weisskopf was emeritus professor when Professor Samuel Rosenberg, Associate Provost and Professor of Economics, was hired.  Indeed, Professors Rosenberg and Lerner each contributed a lecture at a conference and then a chapter to an edited book on inflation control.  Around that same time, Sam published an article in the A.E.R. with Walter Weisskopf’s nephew, Tom.  (S. Rosenberg and T. E. Weisskopf, "A Conflict Theory Approach to Inflation in the Postwar U.S. Economy," American Economic Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, May 1981, pp. 242-47.) And, of course, emeritus President and Professor of Economics, Dr. Rolf Weil, who worked side by side in the Auditorium Building with Landau, Rees, Lerner, Weisskopf and others, is a long-time friend and colleague.

Local and global outlook are other abiding hallmarks of the Roosevelt Department of Economics.  As Laura Janota wrote in 2007 in an article she published in the Roosevelt Review, Harold Washington studied economics at Roosevelt with Weil and others, and “participated in several well-known seminars given at the University by the late great British political theorist and economist Harold Laski, who was a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, a colleague of Lerner's, and a leader of Britain's Labour Party.”

Roosevelt's economics department continues to be well known for its abiding commitment to diversity and pluralism.   Our faculty is a real and living extension of the noble vision.  From Weisskopf, Hoselitz, and Sinha down to the present, social justice and heterodoxy define our mission, teaching, service, and scholarship.

Today—as one can see here and in other parts of this Review—our faculty continue to be leaders in our fields and communities.

We also have the Windy-City’s share of fascinating (and even amusing and macabre) stories, some of them mentioned here anecdotally: a Roosevelt economist and Trotskyite left his job to fight against Franco for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War (Charlie Orr); a Roosevelt economist drove a rickety old car to Mexico to persuade Trotsky to return home (Lerner); a Roosevelt economist and president of the I.W.W. had (for a short period of time) Joe Hill’s ashes stored in an urn which the Roosevelt professor had in his office at 430 S. Michigan Street (our friend Fred Lee, now at UMKC); a University of Chicago economist and long ago student of Milton Friedman’s earned a St. Clair Drake Award (2005)—he has a B.A. in economics from Roosevelt, where he studied with Lerner before going to work with Friedman and at Chicago (that is our friend Lester Telser, Josh’s father); two other Chicago school economists, not mentioned above, did their teething at Central Y and Roosevelt (Martin Bronfenbrenner and Donald Patinkin—the latter being one of the biggest names in 20th century economics); a Roosevelt economist was a feminist nurse working in France during the First War War (Landau); a Roosevelt political economist wrote a letter asking his friend, the first president of India (Dr. Rajendra Prasad), to please provide the man living in Chicago with data on “30” instances of “successful” non-violent protest in India, for use in his dissertation---“It won’t take you long” (Sinha).