One of the benefits of earning a degree from the University of Michigan, aside from being able to root for a good team on football Saturdays, is a usually interesting alumni quarterly newspaper called Michigan Today. The Summer 2003 issue, however, included a somewhat bizarre article by one Ian Robinson, co-director of the Labor and Global Change Program in the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations. I call it bizarre because Dr. Robinson (Ph.D. in political science from Yale, with a BA and MA, also in political science from other institutions) took on the task of explaining why Mexico’s economy couldn’t produce enough jobs for its population.
As a political scientist and sociology lecturer, one would think that Mexico’s troubled political system would be the main thrust of Dr. Robinson’s commentary. But he didn’t mention that at all. He even didn’t focus much on the political and sociological issues associated with dislocations in formerly protected industries exposed to free-market reforms. (I am not naïve enough to expect many political science professors to write about the positive aspects of free-market reforms.) Instead, he played the role of economist, making judgments on what has caused Mexico’s economic problems, blasting things from U.S. Federal Reserve policy in the 1970s to IMF mandated market-based economic reforms in the 1980s to NAFTA. I felt duty-bound to write in to point out that, not only were many of Dr. Robinson’s pronouncements wrong, they also excluded the biggest problem of all — Mexico’s corrupt political system and its still state-dominated economy. For good measure, I mentioned that countries with state-dominated economies, let alone those as corrupt as Mexico’s, have pretty bad economic track records.
The editors of Michigan Today printed my letter in the Fall edition, along with a response from Dr. Robinson that demonstrates it is not just the admissions policy for undergraduates that Michigan needs to reexamine. Dr. Robinson’s response to my letter was to rant against “neoliberal” (free-market capitalist) economic “ideology.” The esteemed Dr. Robinson says that “unfortunately for Mexico’s workers” for the past 20 years Mexico’s economy has been operated under “neoliberal auspices.” That is, indeed, the considered opinion of the Leftist political parties in Mexico. But the fact is, the “economic reforms” instituted in Mexico over the past twenty years, with the exception of NAFTA and re-privatizing the banking system, have been modest, at best. And the new reforms promised by Vicente Fox after his election in 2000 (which, for the first time, would touch Mexico’s enormous, and notoriously corrupt, state-run energy industry) have been bottled up in the Mexican Congress. No progress has been made on dealing with political corruption and its influence on economic progress. The basic system in Mexico of corruption, cronyism, and government control has remained virtually unchanged.
But Dr. Robinson goes on to argue that, not only does Mexico’s experience disprove the ideology of free-market economics, but that we can look to communist China as the “coup de grace” discrediting “neoliberal dogma”! Robinson notes that China has had great economic growth over the past 20 years doing lots of things “anathema for neoliberals.” As Dr. Robinson keenly notes, the communist government of China retains many “interventionist” policies. But I guess it takes a Ph.D. in political science to believe that China’s economic growth has less to do with the rather dramatic free-market reforms started under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and entering the world economy than it has to do with the Chinese government maintaining capital controls.
Rebutting the particulars of Dr. Robinson’s ideas (which I am hoping is not needed for the readers of this article) is not my goal in this piece. Rather, I am interested in the growing trend (or so it seems to me) of political scientists, sociologists, and other practitioners of the “social sciences” to masquerade as economists or otherwise to enhance their “expertise” using as cover some university-sponsored “institute.”
IT IS INTERESTING TO ME, FOR example, that instead of having the Labor and Global Change Program in the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations populated by at least by some people schooled in economics, Michigan seems to think that being part of the Labor and Global Change Program gives a political scientist and sociologist the credentials to speak as an economist. Indeed, the Labor and Global Change Program is the recent creation of Dr. Robinson, and he seems to have created it in his own image. Aside from Dr. Robinson (who, oddly, is listed as the Program’s sole “co-director”) the Program’s website lists only two other members — both visiting professors, one of whom, a sociologist from South Korea, lists “participating actively in the Solidarity for Alternatives to Neoliberalism and working closely with the democratic labor unions in South Korea” among his extracurricular activities.
In fairness to Michigan, the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations (of which the Labor and Global Change Program is a part) is not a completely ideological left-wing think tank. It does contain some “diversity” — even including some not necessarily anti-capitalist or anti-business perspectives regarding industrial labor relations, courtesy of inclusion of one faculty member from the Michigan Business School. This is in contrast to the University of California, Berkeley.
Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations is nothing more than a capitalist-phobic (if I may coin a term) front organization for organized labor and socialist and Marxist activists. And the vanguard in its efforts is the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which lists among its goals “raising voices in economic development and social policy,” “workers’ rights,” and “living wages.” Its “Community Scholars Program” run, not surprisingly, as a joint effort with the Department of Sociology and financially supported by Big Labor, strives to “foster collaboration between academia and labor” in order to “carry out research projects that advance social justice campaigns.” Remember, this is an “academic” institute run by a public university (with taxpayer funding).
Two years ago I published an article detailing some of the outrageous anti-American responses to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks coming out of American universities. One of the examples I found was an extraordinary article in the alumni magazine of Ithaca College in New York. This embarrassingly idiotic piece by professor Asma Barlas argued that we should not be asking the question “why do the terrorists hate us?” but, rather, “why do we hate and oppress them?” The United States, according to the good professor, has had as its goal since the end of World War II, “control over the entire world by any means necessary,” and now, as evidenced by September 11, “people everywhere are sick and tired” of our “political economy based on their systematic abuse, exploitation, and degradation.” At the time Professor Barlas wrote this masterpiece she was interim director of something called “the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” at Ithaca College. Published as it was in an alumni publication with a relatively mainstream readership, her piece came in for a lot of criticism (in addition to mine). The president of Ithaca College predictably defended Barlas on the basis of “academic freedom.” Unfortunately, many university administrations now see the protection of “academic freedom” (at least for left-wing or anti-American professors) as more important than the protection of academic integrity.
Like many similar institutions, the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College was established recently (1999). Its stated aim is to help students succeed in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic world by promoting understanding of different cultures and investigated sources of ethnic and racial conflict. To quote professor Barlas, this is greatly needed at Ithaca College and elsewhere because “[e]ven where the academy has opened up parts of its curriculum to diversity initiatives, it has done so piecemeal and without abandoning the secular fundamentalist myth of US invincibility abroad and white racial supremacy at home.”
Certainly, we should not expect the various institutes that have cropped up at university campuses in recent years to be immune from the biases that we see in campus faculties at large. But what purpose do they serve? Do they promote true meaningful scholarship, or do they promote politically based “research” and “teaching”? Is their aim to advance our understanding of complex issues or to enhance the ability of faculty to get published and of universities to get research grants?
I don’t know how many “institutes” and “centers” have been created in the halls of academe over the past 20 or 30 years, or what percentage of them serve a truly academic purpose, rather than exist to promote political agendas or to enhance the “credibility” of their members (and the universities that sponsor them). But I think finding that out would be a good research project for somebody in academe.