Spotlight: Department Builder

J. Clayburn La Force


Academics rarely possess the qualities necessary to manage the affairs of a major institution. Such tasks as fund raising seldom become them. The trauma of graduate school and the monk-like toiling on academic work usually leave their mark. Or perhaps the reverse is true, that often only a certain type of individual can survive the rigor of academia. Whatever the reason, only a few individuals have the qualities needed to do both—let alone succeed. One such rare individual is James Clayburn La Force.

La Force served as chairman of UCLA's Graduate Department of Economics from 1969 to 1978 and now, at 49 years of age, heads the university's Graduate School of Management, one of the country's highest-ranked graduate business schools. A native Californian, La Force is an economist, having received his doctorate from UCLA and then serving on its faculty for 23 years.

During the nine years he chaired the department, it jumped from the top 20 schools nationally to the top 10, an impressive enough accomplishment for any departmental chairman. Yet this particular achievement, occurring while most of the University of California system was in decline because of stagnant state funding, is all the more amazing.

By emphasizing immediate real-world problems and insisting on a scientific approach, La Force helped to build a unique department. Unlike other major departments (with the exception of the University of Chicago), which have purposely hired only "one or two free-market types"—a "house conservative"—he says that UCLA did not give preference on "ideological grounds." Instead, there was an insistence on objectivity, and that might be what distinguishes UCLA. The result is a well-balanced department—"You don't see the spectrum at other major departments that you see here."

When he discusses the importance of objectivity in studying the market, La Force cites the analogy of doctors. "They study the human body in all of its vast complexities, and the more they study it, the more they understand the mysteries of it and the more they are in awe of it. I think this is true of economists if they are able to look at the thing objectively. If they do not go into it with hate in their heart, with notions that it is a cruel and inhuman system, if they are not blocked and can look at it openly, then they can see the real intellectual beauty in the market."

While most other economics departments specialize in devising abstract models, La Force built on the department's traditional strength and stressed the analysis of concrete problems. UCLA "wanted people," he explains, "who were empirically orientated, would test hypotheses, and the hypotheses would be directed toward issues that are hurting us right now." A happy dividend of this reemphasis on immediate, real-world problems is that it "has helped revive interest in the free market" by reminding economists how well it solves problems.

Although its objectivity and style of analysis have contributed to the school's being labeled "a free-market department of economics," La Force calls this a "misconception." People believe that the department has this policy orientation "because it is balanced, because it has more than the average number of free-market scholars." And, he admits, "over the years some of the dominant individuals, the dominant intellectuals, such as Alchian, Demsetz, and Hirshleifer, had these social values." Not every professor shares their views, however. His aim was to improve the department, so he had to consider the fact that "you limit who you can hire if you say you will only hire people with the same view as yours." It was quite an accomplishment, then, to bring Robert Clower, a "very high-quality intellect" and a "liberal," to the department.

La Force's forte has proved to be fund raising. Without money to expand its program, the department could not have been successful, for "attracting good faculty and students is not cheap." And so he devoted a good deal of time to fundraising appeals. While he worked by personal contact, the key to his success proved to be the department's own emphasis on current issues. For in asking corporations or foundations for funds, you "need to show that what is happening in your department is…relevant to important problems facing their companies and our nation right now."

Since mid-1978 La Force's attention has turned toward enhancing the UCLA Graduate School of Management. His prime objective is to improve the teaching of technical aspects of management, but he has also established such new programs as a privately funded chair in "Business and Society." This program will focus on "the relationship between government and business" and the causes of government's "increasing control and regulation" of business. This area "needs a lot more research," he says, and promises exciting results.

La Force tries to avoid labels. "I like to think I'm a free intellectual agent. I don't even like to be called a conservative—it has an anti-intellectual ring. If you're a social scientist, open to inquiry, it's offensive to be portrayed as an ideologue." Yet, labels aside, "over the years" he has "developed a great appreciation for a private, market-price-directed system, a great appreciation for its complexity and the fact that it works."

La Force's efforts to build up the economics and business programs at UCLA are not the sort that produce immediate changes in society. They can only affect things very gradually, and he realizes this. In talking about the economics department, he sums up the purpose of his work: "The most important thing that the department has done is education, training people—the number of Ph.D.'s that have gone on and are out there working right now and have these insights and directions of thought. It is very important in that sense."