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Cornell. Laughlin’s Scheme to Expand Economics,1891

J. Laurence Laughlin was hired away from Cornell to build the Department of Political Economy at the University of Chicago that began operation in the academic year 1892-93. This proposal to expand Cornell’s own instructional and research work in political economy and finance is interesting as Laughlin’s vision of what it would take to go from second-rate to the leading department. It is also interesting for its table comparing Laughlin’s dream department with the state of affairs at six rival universities: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 1890-91.




In view of the arrangement of courses for the coming year, (1891—2,) careful consideration should be given to the opportunities afforded by this department. The subjects heated are essential parts of the civic education of every member of society. Apart from their disciplinary value, their practical character would alone make it natural that the curricula of such schools as those of Agriculture, and of Mechanic Arts, should be enriched by including in them economic courses. This policy has already been announced by the statement in the University Register that Political Economy shall be hereafter made a part of the course of Civil Engineering. When regard is had to the prevailing ignorance of economics and its effect on national legislation, the wisdom of this policy is undoubted. The question might even be raised whether it were not advisable to require Political Economy of all students in the various courses, quite as much as History, or Chemistry. I cannot think, however, it is of advantage to the influence of a study to make its pursuit obligatory; but there cannot, I suppose, be any difference of opinion as to the wisdom of providing the proper amount of instruction, when the study of it is voluntary, and when the numbers of students are too great, (as is now the case,) to be properly cared for by the single professor


In extending the reputation and prestige of Cornell University, no possible investment of its funds would, in my judgment, produce larger or earlier fruit than those spent in enlarging the work of this department. Such a policy would, at once, lend aid in educating the country where it most needs education, and bring here greater numbers of bright students who want economic training. The real University is to be found in the men it trains, and in the influence they exert on the community.

The deplorable ignorance and prejudice regarding questions of great practical importance, (such as banking and currency topics.) in the very regions from which we now draw our students, and must hereafter draw them in increasing numbers, makes the duty, as well as the opportunity, of our University, one of transcendent importance. Can it rise to the occasion? It is entirely within the truth to say that no such opportunity is open to us in any other branch of study. Furthermore, no other institution in our country is, at present, so well situated as Cornell University for doing a great and striking work in economics. If we accomplish this work, we can secure a strong hold on the people, and an enviable repute for enthusiastic, enterprising scholarship on subjects touching the immediate welfare of every individual citizen.

The mere fact of having had this exceptional opportunity for twenty years, and not having used it, (excepting one year,)—although there may be good reasons for it—has created a widespread belief elsewhere in our lack of interest and purpose in aiding economic study. To take only a second-rate position, therefore, or to do only moderately well, will not be enough to place us in a proper attitude before the public. Nor will it do to act so slowly that the growth of the department, however real, may be imperceptible to the outside world. In short, to produce the desired effect we should, if possible, draw the attention of the country to us by a striking and important movement; and it will be easy to make it striking and effective, because it is started in a subject which is occupying general attention. To indicate what form this movement should take is, in my opinion, the proper purpose of this communication. It has consequently seemed best to present a scheme of work for the department in as nearly complete a form as possible; a scheme, which shall be more thorough, more comprehensive, more scholarly than that presented by any other university. If adopted, it may then be said that greater advantages for economic study are offered at Cornell University than at any other American university. That a distinct opportunity exists for us, any member of an economic department in other institutions would be the first to admit. Our apathy in this matter has, in the past, excited some comment and surprise.

The discussion regarding the neglect by this University of liberal studies in favor of the professional and technical schools, might suggest the present as a favorable opportunity to disabuse the public of that mistaken idea, by adopting this scheme for enlarging the department of economics; for, while appealing to those who believe in an intensely practical education, economics in truth belongs, because of its disciplinary power, to the culture studies. Should the Fayerweather bequest be received, may it not be the means, by concentrating its use on one field, of making a striking movement which would command public attention?


I present herewith a list of courses which, if provided, would place this department ahead of any other in America. This is then followed by a comparison of the proposed scheme with the courses offered at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The courses run throughout the year, at the given number of hours per week :—

  1. Introductory course. Principles of Modern Economics. Elementary Banking. Descriptive economics: Money, coöperation, bimetallism, railway transportation, etc.
    3 hours a week. [At present, two sections, requiring of the instructor six hours a week.]
  1. Advanced course. History of Economic Theory. Examination of writers and systems. Critical Studies. Open only to those who have passed in course 1.
    3 hours a week.
  1. Investigation of Practical Economic Questions of the day: shipping, money, profit-sharing, social questions. Theses and Criticisms. Training for Seminary. Open only to those who have passed in course 1.
    2 hours a week.
  1. The Industrial and Economic History of Europe and the United States in the last 100 years. Lectures and selected reading. No previous economic study required.
    3 hours a week.
  1. Taxation. Public Finance. Banking. Comparative study of the Financial Methods of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, etc. Open only to those who have passed in course 1.
    3 hours a week.
  1. History of Financial Legislation in the United States since 1789. Lectures and reports. Open to all students.
    1 hour a week.
  1. History of Tariff Legislation in the United States since 1789; Tariff Legislation of France, Germany and Great Britain. Open to all students.
    2 hours a week.
  1. Railway Transportation and Legislation in the United States and Europe. Open to all students.
    2 hours a week.
  1. Statistics. Methods. Practical Training for Statistical Work. Presentation of Results. Open only to those who have passed in course 1.
    3 hours a week.
  1. Land Tenures. Land Systems of England, Ireland, France Belgium. Germany, and the United States. Open to all students. 1 hour a week.
  1. Socialistic Theories. Marx, Lasalle, Proudhon; and modern popular theories. Open only to those who have passed in course 1.
    1 hour a week.
  1. Seminary. Special Investigations. Open only to competent students.
    2 hours a week.



Courses. Proposed for Cornell. Now Given at
Yale. Colum-
Johns Hopkins. Penna. Michi-
1 3 3 3 7 ½ 1 5 4 ½ 2
2 3 }3 3 3 1 ½ 5 (?) 6 1
3 2 1 ½ 1 2 2 ½
4 3 3 2 1 2 1[*]
5 3 3 2 3 1 1 ½
6 1 1 ½ }2 2 2
7 2 1 1 ½ 1 1
8 2 1 ½ 1 1 ½
9 3 2 1 ½
10 1
11 1 1 2
12 2 2 2(?) 2 ½ 2 2 2 2
Total. 26 9 20 22 19 12 18 ½ 11 ½
Number of In-
5 1 4 4 4 1 5 2

[* The actual entry in this cell appear to be:

This Table makes obvious, at a glance, how far Cornell is behind other universities in this department. When it is considered that man’s character is moulded by his material surroundings; that questions of livelihood and economic concern occupy his thoughts more hours in the day, possibly, than any other subject; that the great forming agencies of the world are religious and economic,—this shortcoming in our courses of instruction becomes painfully evident. Not only are we behind other institutions, but this department, with all its importance, is far behind almost every other of our departments, especially in comparison with the Historical group.

The present number of students in the department (about 160) is, moreover, too large to be properly cared for by one instructor. Nor should the present professor be expected to keep in view the larger questions of the scope and influence of the department, or the work of investigation, and yet continue the reading of routine, but necessary, exercises.

To give the courses in the proposed list above, in addition to the present professor, there would be needed at least one associate professor, at a probable salary of $2,000 (to whom it would be necessary, in order to obtain the right man, to offer some definite expectation of further promotion in the future); one assistant-professor, at the usual salary, and two capable instructors, paid probably $1,000 each. These estimates are, of course, provisional.


Of equal, or even greater importance than the increased hours of instruction, for the purpose of touching the work of students at its most vital point, is the grant of a suitable Publication Fund. The professor in charge believes this to be essential to the success of the department; that this part of the scheme is of primary importance. It is proposed to publish investigations of students and instructors in a series of bound volumes, with a distinctive cover, marking them as productions of Cornell University, and entitled “Cornell University Studies in Economics.” For this purpose at least $1,000 per annum should be granted. It would be appropriate to name this the “Fayerweather Publication Fund,” and every volume issued would bear the name of this benefactor. With the material already in sight that sum would not be sufficient; but it would, so far as it goes, send the name of the University into every centre of scholarly work in this country and in Europe. Still better, it would do more than any other one thing to stimulate the work of our students, and to produce finished and accurate scholarship; while the practical bearing of these studies would bring the University to the notice of men in business and financial circles.

The subject has been carefully examined and studied in view of past experience in other institutions. The establishment of the Quarterly Journal of Economics by Harvard University was due to the creation of a Publication Fund, and it has won the respect and attracted the attention of scholars, as well as the public, the world over. Columbia College has wielded a large influence by the Political Science Quarterly, and stimulated its work in these lines: while, in addition, the publication of a series of monographs is now announced. The University of Pennsylvania has lately taken energetic steps to increase its publications, by which the work of the Wharton School has been suddenly brought to the attention of students everywhere. Not only a journal, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, but a series of monographs, and translations of important German works, are published by this school. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science have been published for years, and, although not even in quality, have done more than anything else to attract attention to their facilities for investigation and study. Finally, the scheme of the new University of Chicago, following the trend of these successful movements, makes the “University Publication Work” one of the three general divisions of its work, and emphasizes the desire to publish papers, journals, and books by instructors, thereby hoping to furnish greater stimulus and incentive than now exist toward original investigation.


The fixing of a high standard of work by students; in the department; the encouragement of capable young men to carry on their studies beyond mere superficial work; a relief to poor, but able, men from subsidiary employments to earn a living while engaged in investigations; a means of drawing here from other institutions the brightest men who have distinguished themselves in economics; and, to provide for investigators, who will present their results to the public and enlarge the repute of the University for scholarly work both at home and abroad,—all these things can be effected only by the creation of fellowships and scholarships in this department. Five (5) fellowships, permitting the holders to reside either at the University, or abroad, with an annual income of $500 each; and four (4) scholarships, with an annual income of $250 each, are urgently needed.


The library is deficient in important collections and series, which are absolutely essential to economic research; and which are possessed by other institutions. In other places these deficiencies are supplemented by access to neighboring libraries (e.g., at Columbia College, by the Lenox and Astor Libraries; at Harvard University, by the Boston Public Library and the Atheneum. Our absolute isolation requires that we should own these important collections outright. We have, for example, none of the British Government Publications (the “Blue-Books”), a complete set of which is very expensive; nor those of France, or Germany, whose statistical work is exceedingly valuable. Of the various European economic journals, by which we may keep abreast of current thinking, we have almost none. It is a hindrance: which would be regarded as intolerable in Physics, Chemistry, or Philology. In short, the department needs a special annual grant of $2,000 for at least five (5) years beyond the present and expected allowance of next year for this department) to bring it to a respectable basis, as compared with other departments. Detailed accounts of these wants can be given, if needed.



The Board of Trustees is respectfully asked to grant an annual appropriation to this department of the following sums :—

Additional instruction,
One Associate Professor,

$ 2,000

One Assistant Professor,


Two Instructors at $1000 each,


$ 5,600

Five Fellowships at $500 each,


Four Scholarships at $250 each,


Publication fund,


Books (for five years),




With this grant, it is quite certain we can produce results which are not now possible in any university in this country Our department of economics will then be the first in the United States.—one of which every friend of Cornell can speak with pride. Especially will it mark an epoch in the history of economic training in this country, and bring Cornell to the front in an important subject of universal, and yet practical, concern. The University is not rich enough to permit any other institution to seize the opportunity for which she herself has so evident an advantage, and for which she so evidently occupies a strategic position.

Very respectfully presented by


Professor of Political Economy and Finance.

March 2, 1891


 Source: Laughlin, James Laurence. Papers, [Box 1, Folder 17], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Image Source: Clipped from printed speech given at the 78th meeting of The Sunset Club at the Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, December 6, 1894 found in Laughlin, James Laurence. Papers, [Box 1, Folder 17], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier