UVA expat: How Nobel winner Coase got pushed from Charlottesville

Credited with launching the field of Law and Economics, Ronald H. Coase was one of the world's most acclaimed living economists. That is until Monday, September 2, when he died at the age of 102.

"If there's such a thing as the founding fathers of Law and Economics, he is up there," says University of Virginia law professor George Cohen. "He got the whole enterprise started."

For the past five decades, Coase's ideas have brought accolades to the University of Chicago, acclaim that, ironically, could have gone to UVA, where Coase was teaching when he published his most famous treatise— except that UVA let him leave due to what appears to have been a misunderstanding.

His seminal paper, "The Problem of Social Cost," was published in 1960 when the British-born Coase was living in Charlottesville and teaching economics at what UVA then called its Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy.

"He introduced this whole notion," says Cohen, "that people through private negotiation can reach an efficient solution."

What Coase and his colleagues were challenging, Cohen says, was the widespread belief that the only way to protect scarce resources— such as air, water, or habitat— was via taxation. Unfortunately, as Coase and Center co-founder James M. Buchanan would learn, using markets to achieve efficient and beneficent goals would run afoul of the university administration intent on a more "modern" outlook.

In 1994, Coase told this reporter how one of his UVA colleagues accidentally received a copy of a secret dossier compiled by then Dean of the Faculty Robert Harris in which Harris outlined a plan to change the economics faculty. Under then President Edgar Shannon, Harris allegedly used non-promotion and non-offer-matching to force Jefferson Center scholars to disperse. Coase left UVA for Chicago in 1964; Buchanan departed four years later.

"I think [the report] was very damning because it makes quite clear what their attitude was and there was actually a policy to get rid of us," Coase said. "My wife once heard someone at a cocktail party describe me as someone to the right of the John Birch society. It wasn't true. You know, I'm English and have a completely different history from most of the other people and am not really much involved at all in American politics."

Buchanan and Coase got the last laugh, as each would win the Nobel Prize for Economics, Buchanan in 1986 and Coase in 1991.

"The secret report became known in a very peculiar way," Coase told me. "What happened was that Warren Nutter, who was chairman of the department, asked for some file, and when he got it, there it was.

"The University of Virginia was not interested in retaining me," continued Coase. "It was a political thing. They had decided that my views, which they never understood— they never tried to ascertain my views actually."

While that controversy raged long before Cohen began teaching, the novel theories that Coase left behind are still taught at UVA and across the world

"His ideas have had remarkable influence and changed the way people thought about a lot of issues," says Cohen. "He was a tremendous figure."

Read more on: Ronald Coase


UVa ran off conservative professors- even ones so talented that would both be awarded the Nobel prize? Hard to believe, Virginia has always been such a welcoming place to those who don't have a liberal viewpoint. (sarcasm intended)

UVA also ran off Dr. Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005 for his discovery that H. Pylori causes gastric ulcers. He did the majority of his work — and published his seminal papers— while he was at UVA. The good ole' boys running internal medicine at UVA didn't think much of his work.

Why call that a "misunderstanding"? You are letting the university officials off the hook. Academic freedom entails freedom from being purged because of perceived politics. Pushing out two future Nobel laureates was politically based -- and a colossal blunder to boot!

Were the idiots in the administration who committed these incredible blunders ever held to account for it? I mean aside from having scorn poured down on their heads from all across the academic world.

Do not forget the most famous professor run out of UVA: William Barton Rogers, who left Charlottesville, dismayed by the intellectual climate at UVA, to found a little school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Roderic writes:

"Were the idiots in the administration who committed these incredible blunders ever held to account for it?"

I'll answer your question with a question: when was the last time you ever heard of an American university suffering from market forces as a result of toxic levels of political correctness and hatred of independent thought? Did parents and students decide against UVA enrollment because of a little thing like the preponderance of academic straightjackets and groupthink?

I've heard a rumor from someone in the Medical Center that there is an wall featuring medical Nobel-type prizes won by folks with UVa roots, and that about half of these folks have a story that basically boils down to UVa didn't appreciate or otherwise "get" their work, leading them to move on to other institutions where they were appreciated. Can anyone confirm?

What's the story with this guy's recent departure?

Seems kind of fishy but almost no news about it. UVA does seem to own the local media. Was he run out of town like the others or was it just a case of the U not wanting any attention paid to a genuine problem?

When are people going to realize that academics are some of the most closed-minded people on the planet?

I think you could play this game with about any major university, especially if you went back far enough. The tenure process is subjective and the notion that if any particular university does not value an approach or idea then that university must be short-sighted is somewhat flawed. There is a marketplace for ideas--some flourish in certain environments and some in others. The fact that a university employs a scholar for awhile and then that scholar moves on to a place that is a better fit--forced or voluntary--does not necessarily make either 'at fault'. Haters gonna hate--and I appreciate that the gist of the article is a tribute to a man and his work, but the fact that a young Coase moves to another job and wins the Nobel prize some thirty years later ain't really a 'gotcha' moment--just an example of the free market at work.

Anne Beattie and Lincoln Perry left UVA after the Dragas intervention.

"The Dragas Intervention" would make a GREAT Ludlum title.

Shempdaddy has had a reading comprehension fail. When one reads the article, one learns that there was a secret dossier of a cover plan to get rid of scholars based on their perceived politics.

Reading other related articles makes clear that Coase, Buchanan, and Tullock (the first two Nobel laureates, the latter of the same caliber and also one of the most cited people in political science as well) were forced out of UVA. Moreover, there is no evidence that UVA's economics department has ever hired ANY tenured economist with their quality and influence since their departure. It's not as if UVA has had a dozen Nobel laureates and "misplaced" one or two by accident. Their record is still number of econ laureates forced out: 2; number retained 0.

UVA has had a bad habit of pushing out its top scholars; including several future nobel laureates and others. I don't think that the cause is so much to do with political viewpoints per-se, but rather UVA doesn't like people who rock the boat, standout, and do novel things. In this sense, it is a very conservative place (behaviorally, not politically). Al Gilman, Ferid Murad, and Barry Marshall were all former faculty members at the medical school and went on to win nobel prizes. They were under-appreciated and undervalued here. And the list goes on into the last decade or so; even though not nobel laureates (yet), many of our best biomedical scientists have moved on to other places.

Shempdaddy, you are correct - for many other universities. But UVA has done this frequently, and if one knows something about it, it is not limited to nobel prize winners.

I think Prof is absolutely spot on: there's a big mismatch between a conservative administration and great researchers who by definition rock the boat. Inevitably, this leads to small cracks that become a big fissure, and in that case, the University always wins and the star researcher always loses.

The Australians call it "Tall Poppy Syndrome" - those rising highest are cut down because they are elevated above their peers. I'm familiar with one real example of this @ UVa involved a star UVa cancer researcher from the 2000's - a guy who came in well regarded, and led his research into a hot area that he is inarguably one of the top 5 in. He received many unsolicited offers to move his research to HUGE institutions, but he and his wife liked C'ville, so all he did was ask UVa for a bit more lab space.

UVa pushed him out, and he's moved on to a top 10 institution and makes the short list for big time (Nobel/Lasker) awards, all the while the university at the same time was conducting a campaign to recruit "rock star" researchers with mega-packages.

Let me see if I've got this straight: 29 years ago Coase tells Hawes Spencer that, about 50 years ago, an un-named colleague received a "secret dossier" in which the then-dean "allegedly" wanted to get rid of Coase and Buchanan. Why? With no sourcing at all, we are told it was because "using markets to achieve efficient and beneficent goals would run afoul of the university administration intent on a more "modern" outlook." Spencer prints this story with, apparently, no effort to corroborate any part of it.

This is journalism? Maybe this story is true, maybe not, but Hawes Spencer obviously doesn't care.

In a poll published yesterday in the Guardian, UVA was rated 134th best university in the world.

134th best is not so bad after all. ""The Dragas Intervention" would make a GREAT Ludlum title." -- priceless! Thank you. Possibly that woman was (and still is) taking drugs that enhanced her self-esteem beyond reason. Is she still working for the BoV? and collecting how much money for her construction company? Maybe we could open a branch of UVA in Hampton - closer to where she lives? -- and she could attend an honor code school by mail. I am surprised she is till hanging around.

A year ago I was with you in spirit, X, but please, let it go, man.

The new chant should be: 134, 134, 134!

I had no idea the dishonest political corruption went back this far. I thought it pretty much got started in 1989. Hoo Knew?

That thing we saw at Scott Stadium isn't the only battle UVA lost over the weekend. They also lost their latest battle to keep the cause of death of one of their students hushed up. Although, as always, the Hook is keeping quiet - and there appears to be exactly zero interest in finding out who inside the UVA frat and/or corner bar community provided her with the ecstasy that killed her. Same as it ever was..

Sean you are clueless as usual and your obsession with UVA remains as creepy as ever. Despite your bizarre campaign to paint it as something other than what it is, UVA has a pretty tame drug culture. Really, it doesn't even come close to what it's like at many other schools, including several in this state.

In this particular case, the father of the woman who died told the press several days ago that her friends said she had used something sold (or given) as "molly." The DC police were awaiting toxicology reports for official confirmation that the drug was involved but anonymously speculated that she had some of the batch that had killed a few other people on the East Coast. UVA has nothing to do with the investigation into her death, is not the primary source of news related to that death, nor does it determining what anyone writes about that death. Only the most obsessive of conspiracy nuts would claim otherwise.

You also seem to live in some fantasy happy land where: 1- Someone would need to score drugs in Charlottesville rather than in a club in DC like everyone else there. 2- People who do provide illegal drugs to others advertise themselves to the public and eagerly await interviews with the local press.

Sean, You left a comment below the Post's article on the Shelley Goldsmith's death. If you had actually read the article instead of just posting your ridiculous rant, you would have known the facts. Those rarely seem to concern you though.

9/11/2013 11:30 PM EDT
A UVA student dropped dead in a frat house in 2010 also, but the UVA PR machine got that one hushed up locally and the local media in Charlottesville did what they were told. I said at the time it would happen again unless UVA stopped covering up its HUGE drug problem with its private militia and total control of local media. Unfortunately, I was right.

Condolences to the family. They teach these kids YOLO from the first day of orientation, and it is the Playboy empire's favorite campus in the world for a reason!
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So it should be exceptionally easy for you to post a link from this newspaper (or the Daily Progress, or C-Ville weekly) covering the cause of the sudden death of the UVA student in the SERP house in 2010, or this UVA student in DC a few weeks ago. Come to think of it, perhaps you could provide us all with links to ANY coverage whatsoever of either tragedy in ANY of these three local newspapers.

Go ahead..

McGregor McCance Senior Director of Media Relations at the University of Virginia former editor of... the Daily Progress

The Good Ole Boys Club..

But, alas, this has been going on for about 20 years now. No surprise that those that do as Boss Hogg says get a sweet 6 figure easy job at Boss Hogg's estate.. You can bet a few folks from the Hook have sent resumes over to UVA as their ship goes belly up..