The Romer-Harvard Affair

If you haven’t been following the peculiar story of Harvard’s failure to poach Christina and David Romer from Berkeley, Shan Wang of the Harvard Crimson has a good round-up. Basically, it was all going to happen, until the very last moment, when Harvard president Drew Faust vetoed the offer made to Christina Romer by the Harvard economics department. No one seems to even understand why she might have done such a thing, and there’s certainly no one willing to defend her actions.

David Warsh kicked things off on Tuesday with a column explaining why attracting Romer would have been a great coup for Harvard:

By any measure, Mrs. Romer is one of the most distinguished women in economics, co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research program in monetary economics, a member of its business cycle dating committee, former vice president of the American Economic Association (and, probably, a future president), Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and winner of the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award.

The Harvard offer to her, and a Kennedy School offer to her husband, a prominent macroeconomist, had been widely reported in the profession and, at Berkeley, greatly feared. The pair had been instrumental in putting the graduate program there back on its feet, after their arrival from Princeton in the early 1990s. Because each has an aging parent in Massachusetts, and because two of their three children will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, the Harvard offer was viewed as being, as one colleague put it, “less of a bullet than a small nuclear device” aimed at Berkeley macro.

Given the difficulty Harvard has had hiring female professors – its treatment of women was a proximate cause for the resignation of president Lawrence Summers in 2006 – the decision to reject the offer came as a shock.

Brad DeLong followed up:

"Early onset Alzheimer’s" is the kindest explanation I have heard from anyone currently in Cambridge. Other candidate explanations are crueller and less flattering.

DeLong also told the Crimson he was "outraged" at the way Harvard had treated Romer, although it must be a bittersweet outrage, given that as recently as Monday he was bemoaning the difficulty that Berkeley faces in retaining its top economists.

It’s interesting that the blogging economists seem to be the only ones willing to go on the record about this, or maybe they’re the ones that reporters first approach. In any event, Harvard’s Greg Mankiw is not a happy bunny:

“I have great admiration for Christy Romer as a teacher and scholar, and I was looking forward to having her as a colleague,” economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw wrote in an e-mailed statement. “I am personally disappointed that she will not be joining the Harvard faculty.”

With everything in the public realm on one (Romer’s) side of the story, Harvard would seem to have a great deal of egg on its face right now. The decision to veto Romer’s appointment won’t in and of itself damage Faust’s position as president, but it might yet come back to haunt her if and when she runs into more trouble in future. Certainly she doesn’t seem to have made a lot of fans in the economics department.

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