Economics celebrates a half century

The Department of Economics is celebrating its 50th anniversary during the 2016-17 academic year. During those 50 years, the department has had a strong international reputation of academic excellence, a path it continues on to this day.

When Grant Reuber became the Head of Economics and Sociology in 1963, he began to build up the faculty capacity in sociology and economics. The focus for economics was in macroeconomics – the study of national and world economies. Along with bringing in faculty members, Reuber worked to bring in distinguished visitors. This helped the department create international connections and raise the profile of the faculty. The department also made connections with universities in other countries, helping to recruit international graduate students.

“We had major international connections with leaders of our field,” said Clark Leith, who served as Department Chair from 1972-76.

Those connections, in part, led to the hiring of three economists from England: David Laidler, Michael Parkin and John Whalley.

Laidler was teaching at the University of Manchester in England. He was approached by Reuber and Leith and joined the developing  department. “Western offered opportunities to do good work,” Laidler said. “It was a rising Canadian department at the time, full of really good young people. It had resources to support research and was well led.”

“Western was building its Economics department. Clark (Leith) and Grant (Reuber) put together an attractive package. It was too good to say ‘no’ to,” said Parkin. “It was a very strong department. It had room to grow and did indeed grow over the next few years.”

Before coming to Western, Whalley was a faculty member at the London School of Economics. “Things were really beginning to move in Western in those days,” he said. “Clark Leith was very concerned with improving the quality of hiring, and that improvement was noticeable within a few years.”

Once at Western, faculty members had to show their value. “There was basically no doubt about it that if you didn’t publish in a major journal during your probationary period, you were destined for elsewhere,” Leith said.

As high-profile faculty members joined the department, other faculty members and high-quality students were attracted to Western. “It was a young department with lots of energy and was really building,” Whalley said. “The growth that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s was quite rapid and remarkable.”

As chair, Jim Melvin “did a superb job hiring young people and creating a strong young faculty with some growth,” Parkin said. “Student numbers were growing, undergraduate numbers were growing and by the mid-80s we had a very strong and quite a large department.”

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the research output of the department was at its peak.

Ron Wonnacott was involved in the free trade debate. Whalley was focused on international trade. Leith was focused on development issues. Laidler and Parkin were leading the focus on inflation and central banking.

Many notable alumni moved through the department, including Munir Sheikh, who would go on to many senior positions in Canadian public service and serve as Chief Statistician of Canada. Bob Hamilton completed his BA and MA and has had a distinguished career in federal civil service. Many went on to work in central banks, including Steven Poloz, Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Glenn Stevens, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

By the mid-1980s the Department of Economics was No. 1 in Canada and among the Top 20 departments in the world, with strengths in macroeconomics, monetary economics and international economics. A group focused on economic theory rose in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, facing cutbacks due to reduced provincial funding, the department began to lose faculty members who were receiving better offers from universities in the United States.

“The budget pressures were quite severe. There was a huge exodus of talented people getting offers from American schools, we were unable to hold them,” Parkin said. “That was disappointing but inevitable, in the political and economic environment we were in the 90s.”

While provincial funding declined, the university was successful in getting more support from the private sector to support Economics, including money to establish the Centre for Human Capital and Productivity and the Economics Policy Research Institute.

“The department had a tough time in the late-90s and 2000s, but it emerged from them, and is on a path to success,” Parkin said. “The department is pretty strong today. I don’t think it’s as uniformly strong as it was at its peak, but there’s been a lot of good work done creating an outstanding department.”

He credits the renewed strength of the department to the leadership of Audra Bowlus. “Audra is inspirational, I think she is a wonderful chair,” he said. “I picked her out to be a wonderful chair the first time I met her.”

Bowlus credits the much of the current success to renewed investments in the department by the senior administration at the university and a policy that has enabled the department to hire at the mid-career level. These investments have returned the department to a spot in the Top 3 in Canada and have supported its goal to be a Top 30 economics department in the world.

“In many ways, the department has always held on to its principles of hiring quality faculty and producing talented students. That is what we intend to do for the next 50 years,” Bowlus said.

*   *   *

JOIN THE CELEBRATION

Through the 2016-2017 academic year, Western Economics will recognize its 50th Anniversary.
Celebrations will kick off on Oct. 28-29 with an Anniversary Celebration, including a conference where nine alumni will present their research and 30 others will participate in a poster session. Visit economics.uwo.ca for details.