Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?

Great ideas are earned through hardship. It is a conviction that requires no argument, inscribed into our collective consciousness. As I have been writing/researching about Milton Friedman’s popular writings, I was surprised by the (popular) claim that Friedman was for many years an outcast in the economics profession, the proof was that such a respectable place as Duke University refused to carry his books (the specific source was a celebration of Friedman’s life by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek).

Milton and Rose Friedman write in their autobiography Two Lucky People, page 341 in the 1999 edition, of a letter sent to them by Mark Rollinson in 1989, who 30 years earlier had been a student at Duke University,

My years at Duke … were not happy ones. … To make matters worse, most of my fellow students and all of my professors held my views on several subjects in overt disdain.
One day after particularly severe ridicule in an economics class I went to the professor after the session and told him that I was quite certain that I was not stupid and I asked him if there were not at least some economists who shared my views. “Oh yes,” he said “as a matter of fact we’ve discussed you frequently here at the faculty level. You’re nearly a clone of some chap in Chicago named Milton Friedman. It’s truly amazing.”
Well, I went running over to the library with your name in hand, only to find that you were in the name catalogue. On consulting with my professor later, he explained that Duke had a system of screening new material by the appropriate department and the Economics Department did not consider your work worthy of carrying.
Whereupon I went to the Dean of Men … and made an offer: put Friedman into the library or take Marx out; otherwise I would write a letter to the editor of every newspaper I could find.
They opted to add you and keep Marx.
When you received the Nobel Prize, I was prouder probably even than you, as you might imagine.

In many ways this is a fantastic story. Extraordinary because of Rollinson’s report of ridicule by his teachers, remarkable because the faculty discussed the views of an undergraduate student and ranked him with the maturity and depth of the third winner of the John Bates Clark Medal (in 1951, and an accolade held to be more dear than the Nobel). The set of claims is so unlikely that one questions if Rollinson is not a hoax. Was he indeed a student? Yes, he was. The registrar office of Duke University has a record for a Mark Rollinson attending Duke University from 1954-1958 and earning a BA in Economics on 6/2/58, around the exact time implied in his letter to Friedman.

If Rollinson was at Duke then perhaps the rest of the story might be true. Who were the teachers that so freely disabused the views of their students? I could not track down the exact faculty list for 1954-1958, which at the time had economics and business and management together, but there is a picture of the Faculty in 1948 that gives us a sense of who was who. Of those pictured some had left by the mid 1950s (Allen, Haines, MacMilan, Williams), but the two core figures remained, Calvin Bryce Hoover and Joseph Spengler. On Rollinson’s arrival at Duke, Hoover an international economist, and an intellectual force behind the creation of the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA, was President Elect of the American Economic Association. Spengler was to be President in 1965. On any account both men were Conservatives, and the allusion to Marx trumping Friedman in the Library catalogue suggests a Duke economics that clashes with all oral histories I have heard of the place. There is no record of any Marxist or even a left leaning faculty, and at the height of the McCarthy’s hearings it is unlikely that Duke was a Marxist Commissariat. Duke is Blue, not Red. That said, Hoover and Spengler, as others in the faculty, were raised in the Institutionalist tradition (incidentally so was Friedman) and they might have objected to Friedman’s neoclassical tone. Political conservativeness does not guaranty a liking of Friedman.

What about the claim that the Economics Department was screening Library acquisitions? Asking faculty members and librarians, all were surprised that a academic department would have such influence. The standard procedure was already for the Library to request yearly reading lists from departments, and in addition purchase the bulk of what was produced by the most prominent academic presses. This still left the possibility that Friedman might have been left out.

Libraries apparently are not very good at keeping records, at least not of themselves. Once Duke Libraries moved from the print catalogue to the electronic one any reference to date of acquisition was lost. To discover if Duke held any of Friedman’s books I would have to inspect the acquisitions lists for each year. Or I could just cross my fingers and look at the surviving copies hoping to find a suitably old one.

Three copies of Friedman's Essays in Positive Economics

I found three copies of Friedman’s Essays in Positive Economics in the shelves. Copy numbered 5 was a fifth printing of 1966. copy numbered 6 was the third printing. Copy number 2 was the original 1953 edition.

1953 Essays in Positive Economics

I feel certain that there was plenty of Friedman in the Duke Libraries in 1953-1958. As I noted above, he was a Clark Medalist, and had published widely in the academic journals. He however had not published many books. Besides the collection of items in Essays in Positive Economics, I found only one remaining item from 1945. Friedman would rise to popular stardom only in 1962 with his Capitalism and Freedom, his role as adviser to the Goldwater campaign, and his time as columnist at Newsweek.

Friedman's NBER 1945 study with Kuznets

I am inclined to read Rollinson’s story as a constructed memory. There is contrast between the hold Friedman had on the public imagination, as a representative of the economics profession in the 1970s and 1980s, and the influence he would have had in the economics curriculum of the 1950s. Rollinson might well have read little Friedman as an undergraduate, but read plenty of him later as a consumer of media. His grievances with the Duke faculty were objectified in his sense of loss of Friedman.

Returning to my initial question: Why are stories of intellectual hardship and exclusion so eagerly accepted, even when they are so implausible? What comes out of this record is that these stories are not just stories of the hardship of the intellectual (Friedman) but also stories about the hardship of the public (Rollinson). The public had to battle with Friedman to earn (deserve) his economic insights. Rollinson had to oppose his teachers, the Library, the Dean of Men. Through this narrative of obstacles public knowledge is a labour deserving personal worth.

Note: To anyone reading from the Hoover Institution. I would much value a copy of the 1989 letter of Rollinson to Friedman currently at the Friedman papers, on the chance that an address or other reference in the letter might help me locate the principal. I would much like to contact him.

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11 thoughts on “Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?

  1. Tiago: Great detective work! One small edit of the posting: The sentence “Political conservativeness does guaranty a liking of Friedman” should probably have a “not” between “does” and “guaranty.”

    I suspect that the seed for the story lies not in the library catalogue but in the response of the Duke faculty member: something like “we’d have none of that Friedman nonsense here.” One thing you might check: former Duke faculty member Earl H. Hamilton was at Chicago in the 1950s, and may have some correspondence with his former colleagues about developments at Chicago. Hamilton’s correspondence is in his papers at Duke (his books are at Chicago). I have a letter from Hoover to Hamilton about the latter’s appointment in 1947 and can share that with you, but I’m sure you can find it as well.

  2. There is a lot in this story that simply makes no sense at all. First, though, one point is true, although a student would not know it. In those days, through the 1970s, a department member was called the library representative (I took over from Spengler). That person was given information every couple of months on new books the library wanted advice to buy or not buy. BUT, there were standing orders with major presses to order almost all their books.

    There is no way the Dean of Men would have had a clue about any academic matter. That position corresponds to todays VP for Student Affairs; the Dean of the Faculty or the Provost was the academically responsible person.

    That department, then, would have been more likely to disapprove of Friedman because he was a Jew than a conservative. They were uniformly conservative, and many were segregationists as well. When Yohe came in the early 1960s he was the first macro person (only monetary theory and business cycles had been taught before), and he was a Friedmanite monetarist from the start. The department was actively hostile to Keynesians in the 1960s.

    Rollinson’s story really smells bad.

    1. The library has seemingly forgotten that there were Library representatives, but the function does not change much what they told me. The Essays and much (all) of what Friedman published those days was in Academic Presses, so it would be available.

      It is remarkable how simple doctrinal accounts of the history: keynesians giving way to monetarists and what not, breaks down when you look in detail into a single institution. The fabric is much more complex. I also think it is more humane and compelling, even if not the fuzzy and warm variety. Duke might not have been a very nice place then…

  3. I am unsure how the editions of books falsifies the story.

    Perhaps no books in Duke’s library were donated? If this is not true, then I don’t really follow this line of evidence.

    1. (The way I think about it, is that I am arguing through “inference to the best explanation”?)

      I saw no physical evidence on the 1953 book that it had been donated. I thumbed through the pages to see if I could find some leftover sheet of paper, or annotation in the margin, or anything that might be fun to report. I looked for the physical copy at the instruction of the Librarian that was fielding my queries, he suggested that was the only way I had left beyond going through the acquisition lists. It was copy 2, and it is plausible that copy 1 was of the same edition (three copies of at least 6 before the catalogue went into LC codes survived).

      I don’t think the date on the book is a smoking gun, and if it reads like that it is for (intended) effect alone. I want to argue that the Rollinson story is not very credible in many respects, given what we know and what I could find about Duke in those days. The fact that there was Friedman in the library is beyond doubt to me. There were journals with his name in articles. There was the 1945 volume with Kuznets. And I think it is plausible that the 1953 essays were available too, given the Library’s standing orders with academic presses.

      I wrote the post to question what memory tells us, and I think it tells us more than just facts, what is rich here are the feelings and the plays of identity expressed between a reader and a public intellectual.

    2. I totally agree that the story of “blacklisting” is fishy. I also know that individual memory is the least reliable source for history of thought. Perhaps if anyone else confirmed this version of the story, we would at least consider it plausible and not dogmatic.

      I just think of other libraries I have worked with and there is no reason to think that since a book was published in 1953 that it found its way into the library in the same year.

      The interesting point might be to take the spirit of the story seriously and at least keep an eye out for anything in the same category. Surely, there is some explanation for Rollison’s memory that does not rely on bad intentions on his part. If all we learn from his memory is that he is a bad person, then we have missed something historical.

      Maybe a more productive angle is to fashion questions about his mis-remembering. Given library budgets where did they identify hierarchies in book ordering? Your story uncovers a process that is very interesting in terms of approving books in an era with much more discretion than might be the case with some book ordering rule.

      Anyway, it was a very interesting post and I was happy to read it. Hope this finds you well.

  4. Tiago, I liked very much your post exactly because the points you mentioned about memory telling a richer interplay of identities (reader x public intellectual) and about “stories of intellectual hardship and exclusion so eagerly accepted”! This story indeed smells bad, as Roy wrote, but it is nonetheless fascinating because I’m less interested in knowing if it is true or not, but more on how people appropriated it for particular reasons. I came accross it for the first time when I read (for a review to EH.Net) Mark Skousen’s 2005 book “Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes?” (http://eh.net/book_reviews/vienna-and-chicago-friends-or-foes-tale-two-schools-free-market-economics). There he tells this story to show how many departments in the US resisted to the ideas put forward by Friedman (but he fails to reference Friedman and Friedman “Two Lucky People,” which is where he took the story from as he told me by email). At that time I did a little bit of research about and asked a few people (including Craufurd Goodwin and a retired librarian, all of them made the same points people you have asked about made—if I find the emails I exchanged with that librarian I’ll forward it to you) just to confirm my sense of implausibility of this story. And we see the use of this story by Skousen: he presented the story with no references to Friedmand and Friedman in a book that many students wanting to learn the differences between Vienna and Chicago may eventually consult. And we can guess how friends of Vienna and Chicago would reproduce it in convenient ways…

  5. The obvious more general story is oral histories always need to be looked at carefully. First, because they may be factually untrue – as is the case here. Second, because it tells you so much about the person providing the oral history. Should you want to write a (hi)story about Mark Rollinson, this quote and its bended historical construction already paints a nice picture of the man.
    But then there’s the grey area in between that I’m always strugling with, which is again an obvious one: So okay, we have factual proof that the guy is wrong, but THE objective histroy does not exist. When do you go from subjective perception to simply wrong? Do you need institutional records and other undisputed facts (as does Tiago in this post), or is one allowed to judge something highly unlikely just because, well, it seems unlikely?

    1. How did we get from “fishy” to factually untrue? How did raising room for doubt remove all doubt?

      Certainly oral history is an improvement from having no information at all (which is in turn not the same as ignoring facts in favor of oral history).

      Saying something is unlikely because we don’t like the story and would have to change our vision of the world were it to be true is the same (for me at least) as saying I cast doubt on this factual record and therefore rule out the oral history.

    2. Fabricating doubt is always possible in science: wrong methodology, not enough evidence, not enough theory, tainted observation, suspicious interests. (http://amzn.to/fIhwi8)

      What I tried to do in the post, perhaps unsuccessfully, perhaps not clearly enough, is to suggest that oral history is still an interesting evidential source when we stop using it as testimony of the past (as it was used in the Newsweek account where i first saw the story) and use it instead as statements on the identity of speakers.

      In the case in point, I am not interested in Mark Rollinson as Mark Rollinson, but as MR as a reader of Friedman, as one member of the public and a consumer of the narrative of isolation and hardship. I try to undermine his story as a fact about Duke, so that I can speak of it as a cultural artifact, as Rollinson’s creation, and to make suggestions about how publics find community (identity) with intellectuals.

      [Because this is a blog post, I do it a bit off the cuff, the writing is clunky, and the evidence and references incomplete. My purpose was to ask for help with the evidence, and engage in conversation about the perspective I take.]

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