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Michael Cooper, professor of economics from 1976 to 1994, gives a lecture. Cooper, whose field of expertise was health economics, also held various senior management roles and chaired the Otago Area Health Board during his time at Otago. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, 692.00119, S13-217i.

Michael Cooper, professor of economics from 1976 to 1994, gives a lecture. Cooper, whose field of expertise was health economics, also held various senior management roles and chaired the Otago Area Health Board during his time at the university. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, 692.00119, S13-217i.

Economics is sometimes derided as the ‘dismal science’, but where does it fit in the taxonomy of academic subjects? Is it a science, an art, or a commercial subject? At Otago the answer has varied through the years. Political economy, as economics was officially termed here until 1916, was one of the founding disciplines of the university. That is hardly surprising for an institution established in a place where new theories of colonisation had been attempted in practice and where a large gold rush had recently occurred: economic theory was a visible force.

In the early days, with few staff, subjects had to be yoked together. Political economy came under the umbrella of mental science, which also covered mental and moral philosophy (or, as we now call them, psychology and philosophy). The first mental science professor, Duncan MacGregor, initially offered a course combining ethics and economics to senior students, but by the late 1870s political economy was a stand-alone course. From 1881 political economy became the responsibility of the new professor of English, John Mainwaring Brown. The calendar for 1882 reveals a course covering six topics: the nature and history of economic science; the production of wealth; the distribution of wealth; attempts to improve the present system of distribution; the exchange of wealth; and the economic functions of governments. After Mainwaring Brown disappeared during a tramping expedition in Fiordland in 1888, the university council decided his replacement as professor should be responsible for English alone, with political economy taught by a separate lecturer. Various lecturers followed, with gaps between appointments meaning economics wasn’t taught in some years; from 1895 to 1906 Frederick Gibbons, who had been Otago’s mathematics professor since 1886, also served as economics lecturer.

The next lecturer, the popular Harry Bedford, was one of Otago’s own graduates. Though still in his twenties he had an impressive CV: he had served a term in parliament, and practised law while lecturing at Otago. Initially appointed to economics, he later added history and law to his lecturing portfolio, and when the university created a new chair in economics and history in 1915 he became professor. Bedford was an inspiring teacher who also led classes for the Workers’ Educational Association; he was much mourned when he drowned in 1918. While an acting professor – Archdeacon Woodthorpe – was appointed, the university council felt the time had now come to separate the growing disciplines of economics and history. In 1920 – almost fifty years after first offering classes in political economy – Otago for the first time appointed a professor solely responsible for the teaching of economics.

Meanwhile, the growing university in 1913 arranged itself into faculties: arts/science, dentistry, home science, law/commerce, medicine and mines. Economics was part of the arts/science faculty, and when the arts and sciences split into separate faculties in 1944 it remained with the arts. Most students in economics in the first half of the twentieth century completed a BA degree, but there was also a growing group of commerce students. The BCom degree was introduced by the University of New Zealand, which awarded all degrees in this country, in 1905 and in 1912 Otago began teaching commerce subjects. Most students – and lecturers – were part-time and many were interested only in completing a professional qualification in accountancy, but for those who wanted to complete the full commerce degree course, economics was compulsory.

There was clearly considerable cooperation between the arts and commerce faculties in arranging economics courses to suit all students. In 1920, for instance, ‘the principles of economics’ offered ‘a general introduction to the subject’, covering ‘production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of wealth; the economic functions of government; the elementary principles of taxation’. This was a course designed for the commercial accountants’ exam. The ‘pass degree’ course covered similar material but with ‘more detailed study of prices, money, and banking, and elementary trade’. Other courses available for honours and bachelors’ degrees included ‘advanced economics’, ‘currency and banking’, ‘logical and statistical methods’, ‘economic history of England’ and ‘economic geography’.

The wide range of courses offered set a challenge for the economics staff, but this didn’t prevent an enviable level of research, publication and public engagement. One of New Zealand’s earliest PhDs was earned in Otago’s economics department by Walter Boraman in 1929; he researched the history of public finance in New Zealand. In the early 1930s Professor Allan Fisher and lecturer Geoffry Billing (who became professor himself in 1947) both studied abroad thanks to Rockefeller Fellowships, with Fisher also taking a year’s leave to act as economic advisor to the Bank of New South Wales. Student numbers remained small, but started to grow rapidly, like the rest of the university, in the 1960s; the stage one class had to be split in 1970.

In 1952 Professor Billing, previously dean of the arts faculty, became dean of the commerce faculty. Economics was now part of both these faculties, though it continued to be administered through the arts faculty. Billing raised the possibility of a new combined faculty of economics and commerce, but nothing came of the suggestion at that time. Tom Cowan, the accountancy professor who succeeded Billing as commerce dean in 1960, wrote much later that ‘there was some fear of dominance by Economics, as indeed happened in some universities overseas’. Cowan, too, advocated a closer relationship: ‘With my own background in Economic studies, I am convinced that tendencies within New Zealand universities for Economics departments to distance themselves from Commerce departments have been contrary to the national interest’. There was a need, he suggested, ‘to bridge a gap that seems to disregard the common ground and interdependence of economic and business studies’.

In 1989 the University of Otago was restructured into the four academic divisions which survive to this day: health sciences, sciences, humanities and commerce (also known as the school of business). Over the preceding decade the number of commerce students had risen rapidly, from around 10% of Otago student enrolments to over 20%; by 1988 about three-quarters of economics majors were working towards commerce rather than arts degrees. Given a choice between the humanities and commerce divisions, the economics department chose to go with commerce. This was a sad loss to the humanities, but a real boon to commerce, which now gained the full commitment of one of the university’s oldest disciplines. The fine scholarly record of the economics department proved critical to the division as research funding became ever more important; some of the other commerce disciplines did not have strong research traditions and economics gave the business school more credit with other scholars and, more importantly, with funders. Economics remained a subject available for both arts and commerce degrees; from 1999 it was also available as part of the philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) major for a BA. But economics also had a wider reach, appearing on the BSc schedule from 2002 as part of a major in economics and statistics, and from 2012 as a major on its own.

The issue of where economics fits as a discipline is a subject of considerable philosophical debate. At Otago, the answer is that it is an art, a science and a business! For over a century it was under the rule of the arts, but in the 1980s commerce took over. Throughout, it has been a popular subject with a strong research record. Do you have any memories to share of the ‘dismal science’ at Otago?