skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  J. Morgan Kousser

J. Morgan Kousser

J. Morgan Kousser

Professor of History and Social Science, Emeritus

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

June 8, 2022

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Wednesday, June 8th, 2022. I'm delighted to be here with Professor J. Morgan Kousser. Morgan, thank you very much for being with me today. It's great to see you.


ZIERLER: Morgan, to start, would you tell me your title and affiliation here at Caltech?

KOUSSER: I'm Professor of History and Social Science, Emeritus.

ZIERLER: Morgan, when did you go Emeritus?

KOUSSER: July 1, 2020.

ZIERLER: And what have you been working on since then?

KOUSSER: I have been completely absorbed in voting rights cases as an expert witness. I did a case, I'm not sure whether it was—it was over, actually, at least my part in it was over, by July. I had testified in March or April, perhaps. It was in Florida. It concerned Amendment 4. As the result of a long series of attempts, Florida voters by nearly 65% had passed Amendment 4 which attempted to make it possible for people who had been convicted of felonies to vote after they got out of prison. About 20% of the people who are in the United States who are disfranchised because of felony convictions are disfranchised in Florida. The state legislature passed a bill allegedly to put the Amendment 4 into force. The bill actually continued the deprivation of the right to vote for large numbers of people. Those people are predominantly Black and Latino in Florida, as in the United States as a whole. And I testified about the intent of the people of Florida in passing the Amendment 4, and the intent of the legislature in constraining it to stop people from voting unless they had paid all of their legal financial obligations.

You can imagine that if you get out of prison and you have gone through probation and everything else you may have difficulty getting a job and, in particular, you may have difficulty paying off a large financial debt. Florida basically supports its whole trial court system by putting fines on people who are convicted of things for which they can be penalized, and it can be a considerable amount of money in some cases, even tens of thousands of dollars. At one point, for example, there was included in the bill (SB 7066) something by which you were required by your probation officer to take a drug test, so you had to pay for that and that was part of your legal financial obligations that you had to pay off. So you can imagine if you had to take a drug test every month, the drug tests are often quite expensive. So you're trying to get a job and you have to pay off these legal financial obligations. Almost everybody who gets out of prison in Florida has legal financial obligations and they're the least able to pay of anybody. And the legislature knew that, and they continued to put that into effect.

There's something even more extraordinary about it in that you can't find out what your legal financial obligations are. There is no single place. You have to go to eleven different databases in order to find that out and there's nobody to help you. So you can't just click in and find, oh, I owe $376 to the County Court of Miami-Dade County. You can't find that out just by going to one centralized database, and it is almost impossible for somebody. And you can imagine the people who are disfranchised by this are not people who are likely to have ability to and access to websites, et cetera. Sorry to go on about this. I still think it's quite awful.

ZIERLER: Morgan, is there a book project that you envision as a result of this research?

KOUSSER: There have been book projects that I've been partially thinking about for a long time. Let me go on about other cases. We won a partial victory in the District Court. It was immediately overturned by the 11th Circuit which had, I think, three recent Trump appointees at that point and so we lost. There was another case in Florida concerning the regulations for voting in the 2020 election and the extent to which it could be made easier to vote, making more drop boxes available, longer periods of early voting, et cetera. That one was sort of settled out of court. The plaintiff's lawyers said they won. I don't really think they did but, anyway, that was settled out of court.

Then I did a case this year on SB 90 in Florida, as well. It was the first of the major vote suppression law cases to go to court. It concerned a law that Florida had passed in 2021 to make it more difficult to vote in a lot of ways. There were four provisions that were at issue in the case and, again, I testified for plaintiffs about the intent of the framers of that particular law. We won in the District Court. I was very happy the—I've never had a judge ask me so many questions in a federal trial. They were deep questions and difficult questions to answer. He responded quite favorably. He used my answers to two of the major questions, just incorporated them in his opinion. One he quoted me for a paragraph, a long set-aside paragraph in his opinion. That was immediately—he enjoined the State from putting that law into effect. The injunction was immediately stopped by the 11th Circuit. The appeal on substantive matters in that case has not been heard yet so it's conceivable that the 11th Circuit or the US Supreme Court will sustain the District Court opinion, which is 288 pages long. It is very detailed. I was very happy with what I had done in the case and the way that the judge responded to it. It's difficult to win these cases right now.

There was a third case that has not gone to trial yet. It's the vote suppression law in Texas called SB 1. I testified there—or I wrote a 128-page single-spaced paper on that case for NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The trial has been put off. It was going to take place in July. The three-judge panel has put it off until maybe next spring sometime. No trial date has been yet set. It means that the law will go into force in the 2022 election. It is very stringent. It's the most stringent—well, Texas was, before the passage of SB 1, was the most difficult state to vote in of any of the 50 states. It's now been made more difficult to vote in and, in particular, the megalopolises in Texas, the big metropolitan areas, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, all had measures to make it easier to vote in the 2020 election, more drop boxes, more early voting hours. Harris County, that's Houston, had drive-through voting that made it possible to deposit an absentee ballot after showing your driver's license or other IDs. That's been stopped. A whole series of other things have been stopped. That law has been challenged. A whole bunch of people have challenged it. That lawsuit has not been heard yet.

And the last, which I finished last week, having thrown two all-nighters to finish it, is the Texas redistricting case. If you've been following redistricting at all, you will know that Texas has a redistricting that has basically eliminated all marginal districts. The vast majority of the marginal districts were growingly Latino and Black and Asian American. There's a significant Asian American population in Texas now, heavily urbanized. And there were a whole series of places particularly in what's called the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex where in 2011—I also testified in the Texas redistricting case in 2011—they would project a tentacle into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, grab out some Blacks or Latinos or both, and then attach them to a large number of suburban and exurban and small town and rural people so that their vote was diluted so that they couldn't carry that district. They did that in congressional districts, in three big congressional districts in 2011. The trouble was that the suburban areas immediately adjacent to DFW have become more liberal, more Blacks and Hispanics particularly moving into them, and the districts became much closer.

So this time they did the same thing except they had to extend the districts further and further into the rural and small-town areas. A state senate district, Senate District 10, which had been wholly within Tarrant County, which is Fort Worth, in the 2011 redistricting and had gone Democratic in 2018. They extended that 200 miles into West Texas with conservative areas making it so impossible for a Democrat to win that the incumbent, a white liberal who had appealed to what's called a coalition district, which had been nearly 50% Black, Hispanic, Asian American, she dropped out of the race, did not run for reelection and there's no Democratic candidate in that race.

So that's what I've been doing. That was 117 pages long, 37 figures. It was a huge deal to get that done in time. As I said, I threw two all-nighters. When you're 78 years old an all-nighter is not something you're expecting to do, so I've been busy.

ZIERLER: [laugh] Morgan, as I mentioned, I'm curious ultimately if you think this will be a book project. Do you intend to incorporate it in some of the other ideas that you have?

KOUSSER: These things probably will be in a larger book project. One of the things that I was hoping to do in my retirement before it became just absolutely crucial so that I had to put aside everything else was a book project to do a relatively popular book on the history of voting and restrictions on voting in US history. So to start with the beginning and go up to the present and make it relatively short and relatively popular but still contain more information about things than people generally get.

The popular understanding of the history of voting rights in the United States is woefully bad. People just don't understand what has gone on. For example, on Black voting rights they think of a short period of Reconstruction and then violence, overturning Reconstruction, and suddenly no Blacks being able to vote until 1965. Almost none of that is true and the much more nuanced story that I've told in books and articles before needs to be more widely understood in the popular imagination.

That's really only a small part of it. There's a lot more. People, for example, they think of women's suffrage as so indisputable, as so much a part of the American democratic system that they hardly understand how long the struggle was and how late any of the changes took place. Before 1910 there was women's suffrage in only three or four states, and there was this sudden rush to women's suffrage from 1910 to 1919. That story has been told a lot by people but the contingency of it and the extent to which people had to go to pass this—the importance of one woman who is now being basically thrown out of the pantheon because she made compromises, et cetera, and she wasn't feminist enough and all that sort of stuff, Carrie Chapman Catt, who is the greatest female political boss in the history of the United States—and if she hadn't been there and done what she did we certainly wouldn't have had women's suffrage. We certainly wouldn't have had the Anthony Amendment in 1919, and I don't know when we would've had women's suffrage. Even that story, which has been told well by a lot of people now, particularly in the run-up to the centenary anniversary of women's suffrage, it's been told well but not understood popularly as well as it should be. In particular, the contrast between what happened in Black suffrage and what happened in women's suffrage hasn't been sufficiently delineated, and I think that's a very important story. There's a lot more but . . . Anyway, if I ever get, or when I ever get [laugh] an ability to stop doing these long reports and testifying in court then I will get to that.

ZIERLER: Morgan, the book, if it ever comes to fruition, your focus on voting rights and all of these highly problematic issues you're bringing to the fore, not to be overly dramatic but do you think this is the kind of book that will portend the unraveling of American democracy? Are we almost there at this point?

KOUSSER: We are a lot closer than I feared. The Supreme Court is going to hear an appeal in a redistricting case from Alabama which has already been decided on at the district court level but the appeal came to the US Supreme Court and the Supreme Court stayed the injunction so it will be heard in the fall. One of the things that the State of Alabama is contending in that case is that there is no private right of action under the Voting Rights Act, so if that were to be accepted by the Supreme Court it would mean that the ACLU, the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, MALDEF, et cetera, could not bring cases under the Voting Rights Act. Only the government could bring cases under the Voting Rights Act. That would be a complete disaster as even a very favorable government like the Biden Administration does not have the ability to bring voting rights cases in all the cases that potentially come up.

There are a lot more things that are at issue. The Supreme Court has been pushing towards a view that you can draw the lines of a district for any reason that you want to, to protect incumbents, to protect the Republican Party, to protect farmers, to follow a river, not to break county lines, to keep precincts intact and all that stuff, but not to protect minorities. It's been pushing farther and farther towards that, making it virtually impossible to draw lines that would make it possible for minorities or minority-favored candidates to win. There is also the possibility that—and there is one Federal Appeals Court case in the 7th Circuit, that's Illinois, others, which has said that a partisan reason for passing an election law is unchallengeable, that if you go ahead and pass something for a partisan reason that's sufficient to pass rational basis or even strict scrutiny, I guess, if strict scrutiny would be imposed. Sorry. These are terms of art.

More and more people are trying to justify the passage of even any of the pure restrictions on voting on partisan grounds. I expect the State of Texas to argue both in the redistricting case and in the SB 1 case that they're passing these laws for partisan reasons. It just so happens that they happen to make it more difficult for Blacks and Latinos and Asian Americans to vote or for them, even if they vote, to win elections. It just happens to be. It isn't that there's something connected directly between—there's not a direct connection between partisanship and race. And so I've argued very strongly that the connection between partisanship and race is so strong that a partisan reason for passing these laws is tantamount to a racial reason, that you can't divide these.

The judge in the Florida SB 90 case accepted what I said about that. That was an important part of his decision and presumably that will have to be ruled on by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals when they rule on that appeal, but it's going to come up in lots of places. If the Supreme Court makes a definitive ruling that you can have a partisan get out of jail free card so that you can pass any law which has a radically racially discriminatory effect, if you say, the reason that I did that is for partisan reasons, then I think we are very close to an end of democracy in the United States.

ZIERLER: Well, Morgan, let's engage on a much happier topic, the one that brings us together today, and that is the origins of HSS at Caltech. I just want to state for researchers that there is an epic, phenomenally good oral history that you did with Heidi Aspaturian that was published last year in eleven sessions and researchers should consult that for a full biographic understanding of your life and career. So today, Morgan, what I want to do is explore your perspective of how the division of HSS got started at Caltech and maybe just the easiest way to start is tell me the circumstances of you coming to Caltech, even before completing your dissertation at Yale way back in 1969?

KOUSSER: I may have discussed this in the oral history. Not to repeat things, Yale was not happy with me. I started a graduate student senate at Yale. It caused a lot of problems for Yale. This was at a time period when students were revolting against school administrations. They were sitting in at administrator's offices. They were demanding that Columbia, for example, end housing segregation and discrimination in Harlem around the Columbia campus. They were demanding that universities end the Vietnam War and all that sort of stuff.

I had very much smaller goals. We started out with arguing for a bathroom for women in the Hall of Graduate Studies. I was engaged in something which was much more threatening to the universities, I wanted small things that universities had to grant and as quickly as we could raise them Yale had to collapse, give in on all of these sorts of things. But anyway, it resulted in the— [laugh] going back to scholarship, resignation of the dean of graduate studies and the provost, and so Yale decided they wanted me as far as way as they possibly could. There apparently was no job on offer in Hawaii or Alaska and so California was a long enough way.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: There were a couple of guys who were teaching American history at Caltech who had been Yale PhDs and they had job offers elsewhere, and so they were leaving, and they told Yale that there was a job in American history at Caltech.

ZIERLER: Morgan, to the extent that you thought about Caltech at all, did you associate it with a place that was doing good scholarship in history and political science?

KOUSSER: No. I knew nothing about what it was doing in history and political science. I knew nothing until I got a job interview, which was basically a bunch of professors sitting around in somebody's bedroom in the Hilton Hotel in New York, I think. And so I met Dan Kevles and Bob Rosenstone and Rod Paul and John Benton. I'm not sure who else was there, maybe nobody. And it was very late in the job search and Caltech turned out to be the only job offer I had so I ended up taking that. I'd been to California once. I'd been to Northern California for a month to see a friend. I didn't know anything about LA. My wife and I—she had never been west of the Mississippi River and as we were driving out, we read books about LA. Read a Thomas Pynchon novel called The Crying of Lot 49 and also The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. And so one of the things that we did when we got here was we went and visited Forest Lawn cemetery and that was our idea of what LA was like.

ZIERLER: [laugh] Morgan, how much of your thesis was completed circa 1969? In other words, did you know you'd have to go back to Yale and defend? How did that work?

KOUSSER: Well, there was no defense at that point. You didn't have to go back to defend. I had completed what turned into three chapters, but it was all in one chapter at the time. I had not finished that. I had completed substantially all of the computing and done all the reading and taking notes that I needed to do, but that was it. I still had a huge amount of writing to do, and I had no idea how I was going to get that done.

ZIERLER: Who was on the committee that ultimately offered you the instructor position?

KOUSSER: Well, Rod Paul was the head of the sort of de facto humanities part of the division at that point. There's no separation. But he had been here for a long time, was a distinguished American historian, and I don't know who else was on the committee; Rod, Bob Rosenstone, Dan Kevles. There were probably some other people. I didn't know what was going on behind the scenes. I just got a letter in the mail.

ZIERLER: Did you have any inkling of early conversations about creating a division called HSS?

KOUSSER: No. When I came here there was a division of HSS, but it was not very fleshed out. Hallett Smith was chair and had been chair for a long time, I learned. David Elliot—I'm sorry. I forgot David Elliot. David Elliot and Peter Fay were also history professors at the time. I don't think I met them until I came out here, so I don't know what if anything they had to do with choosing me. Probably just saying, okay, yeah, looks like he's got the right credentials.

ZIERLER: Did they know about your political agitation at Yale? Was that a source of concern for them or for the administrators at Caltech?

KOUSSER: I was told afterwards that they got a letter from somebody at Yale saying that I had been an agitator at Yale but that I was basically house bred and so I probably . . . I don't want to continue the metaphor. [laugh] I probably would not cause too terribly much trouble.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: I wasn't a wild-eyed radical in the sense that lots of people seemed to be at the time.

ZIERLER: Now, what was the nature of the appointment? Was the idea that once you defended you would be offered a tenure-track position?

KOUSSER: It was an instructorship. There was a tenure-track job that I knew would be there. I did not think of it at the time but to the extent that I did understand things from the beginning I did not think there would be another search that I would have to go through and there was not.

ZIERLER: What were your impressions of the state of history and political science scholarship at that point at Caltech once you got to campus?

KOUSSER: Well, I learned that Rod was an important historian of the West. I had not really known that. I mean, I looked him up. There was no Google then, but I could find out things about him. I was, of course, very impressed with Dan Kevles who was very nice to me from the beginning and who was clearly a major scholar. I had taken a course at Princeton where I was an undergraduate. I didn't take, I'd sat in on lectures by Eric Goldman who was Dan's thesis advisor and so that was sort of a contact. Dan had had something to do with the White House under LBJ for a while. I learned about Rosenstone and his book on the republican effort in the Spanish Civil War quite quickly.

But the first dominant impression that I got when we came here, and I may have described about this in the oral history—we went to cocktail parties and I had not done that at Yale. If you're a graduate student you may be able to afford a beer every once in a while, but a real cocktail party is beyond your means or your ken, at least it was at that time for me. And I remember going to the second cocktail party where Saturday morning or something like that they were drinking gin and tonics or whiskeys, et cetera, and I remember commenting to my wife that I wasn't sure that we had the livers to be in the HSS division out here.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: But people were very nice and sort of formal. I remember—this is later, in 1972, when my daughter was born—we had to go to some sort of cocktail party and she was, like, three months old so she was still nursing. So we took her to the cocktail party and my wife goes into another room and nurses her and people were surprised, astonished that this would happen because everybody was older and maybe that generation, they didn't nurse their children. Certainly not in quasi-public.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: So in that sense I felt out of place. Yale History Department was a hotbed of scholarship and very intense, and Yale in general was an incredibly exciting place to be in the late ‘60s. I was there from the fall of '65 through the summer of '69. Maybe there were more interesting places, maybe Berkeley or Harvard were more interesting, but it seemed like Yale was the center of everything, of theater, of protests against the war. Bill Coffin, William Sloane Coffin, was the chaplain then. Art and architecture were exploding and what Yale did was what people did for 20 years afterwards. The intellectual ferment of it was just absolutely amazing. And when I came to Caltech it seemed like nothing was going on at all, and so it was quite a shock.

ZIERLER: Now, was the nature of your appointment, now that there's the duality, history and social science, was that there from the beginning?

KOUSSER: No. Just in history.

ZIERLER: When did that come about, the dual appointment?

KOUSSER: The dual appointment came about when I got tenure. Do we want to go back for a while?

ZIERLER: Yeah, that's fine.

KOUSSER: Okay. The Hallett Smith regime which had been basically not serious about scholarship—it was okay if you were a scholar so long as you checked the other correct boxes. In particular, an ivy league PhD, particularly Harvard—Rod Paul, for example, was Harvard undergraduate, Harvard Graduate School. I think Peter Fay was Harvard Graduate School. Peter had been a Rhodes Scholar. If you had the right social intellectual credentials, you could be accepted but tenure did not involve publishing a book in the humanities, for example. You didn't have to worry about getting your name out in conferences, just giving talks around everywhere, making major contributions to everything. So shortly after I came here—I don't know; what, in '70 or '71—Bob Huttenback became chair and Bob changed things quite considerably.

ZIERLER: Do you get the sense that Huttenback wanted to go to the earlier vision of Hale and Millikan who wanted humanities scholars to be first rate?

KOUSSER: Yes, he certainly did. He had not been really an absolute first-rate scholar himself. He was a good scholar, but he was not pushing boundaries. He didn't push boundaries until he and Lance did a book on imperialism and that did push boundaries, but that was more Lance and Lance's effect on him. Yes, he did want that, and he got rid of some people. He got rid of an economist; he got rid of an English professor because they did not produce, and he forced them out although they had tenure. The little guy on his shoulder whispering into his ear about what to do was Lance Davis.

ZIERLER: Uh-huh.

KOUSSER: And Lance had very strong ideas about scholarship and pushed everything through as fast and as hard as he could. If that meant getting rid of some people, he tried to do that and he did through Huttenback.

ZIERLER: Now, this idea, as you stated earlier, that HSS was already in existence circa 1969 but was not very well formed, were you privy to the conversations and the planning that ultimately did make it well formed?

KOUSSER: Only very tangentially. That was held closely by people who were above my paygrade. I had opinions and to the extent—when Huttenback left and went to Santa Barbara, and we had to have a new chair. I was on the committee that chose the new chair, and so there were discussions about what this person should do and what it should be like. But I didn't have discussions about who was brought in. Bob Bates came in at the same time I did, political scientist, and then a couple of years later Mo Fiorina and John Ferejohn, political scientists, but I didn't have anything to do with the decision to bring them in. There were a bunch of economists, Charlie Plott, David Grether, Roger Noll—I guess Roger was here already—but I didn't have anything to do with either bringing them in or making decisions about that. I was on committees for people in literature as well as history afterwards and had some say at least in some of those appointments. But the real directing authorities were other people who were above me.

ZIERLER: Now, the dual appointment that you achieved with tenure, did that have anything to do with whether or not you could have graduate students? In other words, as a humanities professor you could not but in social science you could; was that part of the equation?

KOUSSER: I think it was part of the equation, but I also taught courses in political science, and it would've been a little irregular for me to teach courses in political science if I hadn't been part of the social science division. My impression—and let me stand back from my position of having an effect on the actual decisions—as I understood what was going on in the development of the division after Huttenback became chair, what was developing in social science in particular was a core group of economists and political scientists, all of whom were interested in institutions and all of whom were interested in some political science and economics theory and some econometric methods. They could talk to each other, and they had similar sorts of concerns. The position of people who were interested in doing quantitative history, economic history and quantitative political history—I was in the quantitative political history part of it—was to be interior to that core and to reach out to the humanities side of the division and to bridge that core in social science with humanists.

The early development and the thing that differentiated Caltech, particularly in social science, was that the political scientists were much more theoretical, much more interested in game theory, for example, much more tooled up in econometrics than political scientists in other places. There were certain other places like WashU, Rochester, et cetera, which were similar but at that point Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford didn't have that tooled-up ability that people at Caltech did in political science. That was what put Caltech Social Science on the map. I wanted Caltech Social Scientific History to be on the map in the same way and pushed for that very strongly and that failed.

In much of the political science the concentration of political science on that sort of core basically failed. Partially it failed by succeeding, partially other places wanted to get a part of that, and so Duke grabbed Bob Bates who partially left because he thought he was under-appreciated at Caltech. Stanford grabbed John Ferejohn, and Harvard grabbed Morris Fiorina. There were a couple or three other people who were younger who had come during the time that Ferejohn, Fiorina, Bates were sort of the top of the game at Caltech. They left and went to other places, UCLA, Berkeley, WashU, University of Michigan, I think, so Caltech was no longer singular or almost singular and the core dissolved eventually. That was my understanding about what made Caltech special and different, and I wanted social science to be part of that and I wanted a social scientific history group at Caltech to sort of duplicate what the political science and economics group had done in changing the way that history was done. I tried very hard to get that to happen. It didn't.

ZIERLER: Do you have any insight as to why humanities scholars did not have graduate students, but social scientists did?

KOUSSER: Well, I think social science training during that period of time was narrower or at least potentially narrower. There were some places where if you were in political science, for example, you had to take courses in international politics. You didn't really have to take very much in the way of quantitative methods or econometrics, but you had to take courses in political philosophy, et cetera. But that was not absolutely required, so you could get by as a political scientist without knowing anything about constitutional law or United Nations organizations or whatever. And in economics similarly you could get by without taking any macroeconomics or very serious macroeconomics. But to get a PhD. In history or literature that had not been true. You had had to have a considerable amount of breadth. For example, I had to take a minor in graduate school in English history and that stuff was simply not available. The same thing would be true in literature, you couldn't get the breadth that you would've had to have for a traditional degree in literature, English, languages, whatever.

So the fact that Caltech was small, and that humanities graduate education had been broader typically in graduate schools than Caltech could conceivably offer made it really unlikely that if we had had somebody graduate, got a PhD in history or literature from Caltech, they would've gone out on the job market and they would've been considered so narrow that they probably wouldn't have been able to get any sort of jobs. That was my understanding of things.

ZIERLER: From the initial idea that HSS was not well formed, what was your sense of the timing? Even if you were not privy part of those conversations, when did HSS feel like it was well formed for you?

KOUSSER: I think by '74, '75, which is the time that I was being considered for tenure and then got tenure. I think things had become pretty well formed. I've told the story about Huttenback before. I'm sure I told it in my oral history, but it's worth telling again. When I got here there was a very distinguished economist named Alan Sweezy, not a terribly distinguished scholar but who had done extremely good work and important work for what is now a sort of broader economics, but he retired, and he taught macroeconomics.

Huttenback went to the provost and said, "Alan Sweezy is retiring. I have to get a line to hire a macroeconomist." And we would advertise the job and the economists would think so poorly of any of the macroeconomists that they would hire a microeconomist, so we managed to get the microeconomist hired. At the beginning of next year, Bob would go to Alan, and he would say, "I tried to hire a macroeconomist, I couldn't. Will you please come back and teach for one more year?" And Alan would say yes, and Bob would go to the provost again and he would say, "Alan Sweezy is retiring. We have to have a macroeconomist. Please give me another line." They would advertise the job. A person would come in. The microeconomists would say that none of the macroeconomists were good enough to be at Caltech and they would hire another microeconomist. The next year . . . [laugh] I could go on. I think he sold him four times.

ZIERLER: [laugh] Morgan, what about the administration at Caltech, did they play a role, positive or not, in helping to form HSS into a well-organized entity?

KOUSSER: I think that they understood that it was a bizarre thing for Caltech to have this hothouse environment for science where people were moving heaven and earth to revolutionize physics and biology and chemistry, and everybody was going around flying to conferences, doing large numbers of papers, getting in line for Nobel Prizes and all that sort of stuff, and humanities and the little social science that we had before I got here—and it was starting before I got here but there wasn't very much—to be completely ornamental. It was basically something—there were good conversationalists who would talk about novels that you ought to read and who would have lunch at the Ath and were good dinner table conversationalists, but they weren't really serious scholars. Or if they were serious scholars, they were serious scholars but not sort of frenetically serious scholars, if you understand what that potentially means.

ZIERLER: Mm-hmm.

KOUSSER: I think it was just anomalous and I think they must have stepped in, the administration must have stepped in and decided that the person, Hallett Smith, would surely retire from being chair—he'd been chair since '46 or something. He was chair for 23 years, approximately—that Hallett Smith would retire as chair. So the question was who would come in and what they would want to do, and they chose Huttenback. And Huttenback clearly had a quite different division in mind so they must have—just purely by implication—they must have agreed with a vision that the HSS division would do more, and they went along with what he wanted to do about expanding the division. So I have no direct evidence at all about what the administration did to help build the division, but I saw the consequences of that, and they went along with it quite well, and I think were happy and proud of it.

ZIERLER: Were the social scientists at that time comfortable with the idea that they were doing real science, that it wasn't any different from the so-called quote-unquote "hard sciences" at Caltech?

KOUSSER: They certainly became that way, sort of militantly—

ZIERLER: I've heard Charlie Plott talk about this, so I know firsthand. [laugh]

KOUSSER: Indeed. Exactly so. And that is exactly the person that I would think of. Charlie really said, "We're just as much scientists as the hard scientists and don't dare say that we're not." I knew that we didn't have the sort of mathematical theory that you would have to have in physics but to the extent that you say, okay, I have a hypothesis. Here's why the evidence that I'm going to examine is relevant. Here is the logical connection between the evidence and the propositions, and here is why I think this proposition is more likely than its converse or certain other propositions that could attempt to explain the same phenomenon. To the extent that that was what doing science was then I made the same claims as other people. I couldn't do experiments. I was stuck with the data that I was given or that I could turn into something that was quantifiable and could be used to test hypotheses, but to the extent that I was doing that, I was doing empirical science.

ZIERLER: Do you think that that trend was unique at Caltech, that just by virtue of what Caltech represented that the social scientists needed to be more assertive in that realm than they would've at peer institutions?

KOUSSER: No, I don't. I think that it was very much the case that economics since the Second World War had been increasingly quantitative, increasingly actually patterning itself on physics with a mathematical background underpinning propositions, theorems, tests drawn from those propositions and theorems. I think that had been the case in economics starting in the ‘30s but really blossoming in the late ‘40s. So Paul Samuelson comes along, people who are doing game theory in social science come along even if they started out in mathematics or used the tools of John von Neumann. You got von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. Von Neumann's a mathematician; Morgenstern's an economist. So they come out with a synthesis in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s and economists adopted that. Political scientists wanted to do the same thing and so pushed very hard in the same direction and Caltech did pick that up quite quickly. That was not so true in history, but it was true in economic history, and to the extent that economic history bled over into history, and it did by the time that I was getting my graduate degree, it was something that was coming to be in history, as well. And those were at other institutions as well as at Caltech.

ZIERLER: Would you say that the uniqueness of HSS in the early years led to what we might call a Caltech School of Social Science, a unique way of approaching these issues?

KOUSSER: I think it did. It was institutionalist. It was concerned with institutional rules. It was social scientific which meant that it was concerned with the way that people and institutions interact. And it was clearly mathematically based and much more theoretical than the political science, at least, in other places in general. So there was a distinct school, and it was distinctly different from what was going on in virtually every place else.

ZIERLER: Morgan, to historicize the trend, so nowadays, as you well know, on campus, it's perfectly normal and celebrated for a behavioral economist to work with the neuroscientists.


ZIERLER: Was that cross pollination there from the beginning or that's a later development?

KOUSSER: That's a later development.

ZIERLER: When does that start?

KOUSSER: It probably starts in the late ‘90s. That's a very different sort of focus. Neuroscience is a very, very different sort of focus than institutionalized social science.


KOUSSER: It is essentially not social science, it is individual level science, and to the extent that they're concerned with institutions, it's much more tangential and much less central to what they are interested in than what the social scientists are interested in. The kind of core social science that we've just been talking about doesn't have the connections with other divisions and other parts of science that neuroscience has because the other parts of science are not interested in social and political and economic institutions.

ZIERLER: Behavior, essentially.

KOUSSER: They are interested in individual behavior, but they're not interested in the framework in which that behavior takes place.

ZIERLER: That's an important point. Morgan, it's a counterfactual question but it's interesting to ask anyway: Did your scholarship change simply by being at Caltech in those early years? In other words, would you have pursued similar questions had you been at Stanford or Harvard?

KOUSSER: No. It did change and it changed in two ways. One, I was fairly well trained for the time in political science statistics. There was a little of it at Yale and I took a summer program at Michigan which people all over the country took because it was a quantitative social science program, but there weren't enough places that did quantitative social science and political science that graduate students typically learned this in their home institutions. They had to go to one, so they went to the University of Michigan. But I dropped calculus after one awful semester as an undergraduate in sort of grubby, engineering calculus, which I hated.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: And I knew that I needed, if I was to understand anything deep about econometrics, to do a calculus course. So I read calculus on my own with the help of David Grether. I would come in and say, "I'm having trouble with the problem. David, will you help me?" And David always patiently explained to me what I didn't understand. I also went through linear algebra again with David and then through sort of a couple of statistics books and then I took his econometrics graduate course for a year. So it took me a long time, several years, but by that point I was as tooled up as the average economic historian who was getting out of a major economic history program at Harvard or Chicago or Rochester or someplace.

I taught in political science along with Ferejohn, Fiorina, Bates, Noll. There was one year in which we did the introductory political science course in the graduate program, and we all taught it. So there were four people who taught it. And Roger was there part of the time, and Charlie would drop in from time to time, and there were only four graduate students. So we were there week after week teaching ourselves, teaching each other. I probably said something about this in my oral history, but Ferejohn would often—it was at, like, 1 o'clock maybe even 2 o'clock—and Ferejohn from time to time would drop in and he would come in late. He played tennis and then he'd come in late, and he would say things like, "Has anybody said anything important yet?"

ZIERLER: [laugh] That's great.

KOUSSER: That's the quintessential John Ferejohn. And then we'd have to explain to him what we'd said. But just interacting with all of them did change my way of thinking about things. It was incredibly exhilarating. It was more exhilarating than anything I ever did in graduate school.

ZIERLER: Now, this idea that there was unique scholarship happening among this cohort at Caltech, the Caltech School, if you will, when did that start to catch on? In other words, it's so obvious that more established programs like your Harvards, like your Stanfords, they embraced this, but they were behind the curve. What's your sense of the timing on that? When did that Caltech School start to really get out there?

KOUSSER: It certainly had by '80, '81. My memory is that Mo Fiorina left and went to Harvard in '81. I may be wrong about that but it's about that time. And it was clear that Stanford thought they could grab some of this by getting Ferejohn, and Harvard thought they could grab some of this by getting Mo, and Duke by getting Bates, and WashU could build up by other people. By the late ‘70s it was clear that this was really a going and important concern. Peter Ordeshook came here late ‘70s so he's a reverse migration in some sense. He came from Rochester where he'd worked with Bill Riker. He brought more of what Caltech had been doing to Caltech and centralized us more and did not leave. Randy Calvert's another person who left and went to WashU, and Gary Miller left, and I think he went to WashU, as well, but maybe someplace else. Bruce Cain was here for a bit longer, and he eventually went to Berkeley and now Stanford. Doug Rivers went to UCLA and now Stanford. They had been brought in and then other people grabbed them, and they left. And then we didn't have the core in political science anymore.

ZIERLER: What was the rebuilding effort like?

KOUSSER: It stumbled from time to time. We hired people or tried to hire people who didn't come—we tried to hire Gary King, for example, from Harvard in basically econometrics and political science and polymetrics by that point. We did hire Doug Rivers from Harvard earlier than that and there was a blow-up about Doug in the late ‘80s, I think maybe '87. He did not get tenure. He left and went to UCLA and then to Stanford where he still is. I think there was a sense that—well, economics became more theoretical and less empirical. The quintessential empirical economist who was here was Roger Noll, who has interests and knowledge about theory, but he's fundamentally interested in institutional and empirical and policy matters.

There was an attempt to make the HSS program very, very policy oriented and if you go back and look at probably some of the plans or talk to people who knew more about this in the way of directing it than I did, there was a real attempt to make this a policy shop.

ZIERLER: Who was driving that?

KOUSSER: I think Roger was driving it to a degree. When Roger left a lot of that dissolved but by that point Mo and John and Bob had left, and so what filled the vacuum was more theoretical economics. And theoretical economics has the same sort of romantic appeal as theoretical physics.

ZIERLER: Mm-hmm.

KOUSSER: They don't have to get their hands messy. They don't have to worry about the world. They can say, well, we think that the world probably works like this, or we think that there is probably data which goes along with, supports this hypothesis. You don't test it against anything, you just say it goes along with it; it's not incongruous.

ZIERLER: These are grand unified theories that don't confirm well to single experiment verification?

KOUSSER: Yes, but you could weaken that sort of statement. The romance of string theory and the ability of string theory to go along for such a long time and not to have to worry terribly much about whether there is any confirmation even possible in principle because it's such a beautiful theory, this has parallels in economics. And to the extent that that's the case, then the prestige of a policy core is much less and even the ability to attract and to evaluate people whose interest is fundamentally empirical and fundamentally in policy becomes much less.

ZIERLER: Why did you stay? I assume you must've been offered various recruitment opportunities yourself?

KOUSSER: I was offered a couple. Northwestern turned out not to be as interesting as I thought perhaps it was going to be, plus my kids were just looking at high school and my wife refused even to go to look at—she had grown up partially on the North Shore of Chicago. She refused to go and look at houses. [laugh] I took that as something of a sign.

ZIERLER: [laugh] Southern California grows on you in that way.

KOUSSER: Yes. But to be frank, the kind of history that I was doing did not have the effect that I thought it was going to have when I was in graduate school. I thought that social scientific history was going to essentially become so terribly important as a way of doing history that it was going to sweep other less scientific ways of doing history off the board. It didn't. And in particular, in the mid ‘80s when in some other ways I was being very, very well received—I was chosen to be Harmsworth Professor in '84, so I was Harmsworth Professor '84, '85. That's the most prestigious visiting professorship in the English-speaking world so I thought that that would probably lead to other stuff. It didn't.

One of the reasons it didn't is that humanities caught the French flu. Deconstruction, the idea that there is no reality, that it's all imposed, that there are no facts; that if you say facts, you put it always in quotation marks. That the focus of doing history should not be power and deprivation but should be celebration and sort of feeling of good faith or to the extent that it was deconstruction or post structural, it should study discrimination and deprivation in the ways that people in the establishment wield power, that should be studied by thinking about their ideas or their culture and not by looking at their institutions, that became absolutely suddenly completely dominant in history. And so, just at the time that I was at the height of doing, I thought, of celebrity, that sort of history came in and nobody wanted to hear about having to learn econometrics in order to do history. Nobody wanted to learn about congress or voting rights or voting. That was completely dead.

ZIERLER: I wonder if being at Caltech, where facts obviously do matter, made you especially allergic to that trendline in the historical discipline?

KOUSSER: That would've happened anywhere. I just would've been more oppressed.

ZIERLER: Meaning that's just who you are as a scholar?

KOUSSER: Yes. I could get by at Caltech without having to defend my position in that regard and I couldn't have at other places. People would've said, well, you can't say that without reading Derrida, and I've never been able to finish more than five or six pages of Derrida. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

KOUSSER: I think that the people who are most important in deconstruction were sort of fleeing their Nazi pasts. It's true of Paul de Man, for example. If there are no facts, then there are no facts that I have to fess up to.

ZIERLER: Morgan, when did HSS recover from the brain drain in the 1980s, or is that still in process, if you would say so frankly?

KOUSSER: Well, it rebuilt in a different way, and it rebuilt in a way that didn't include me despite all my efforts. Particularly in social science it had had a core and where it grew under Ledyard was at the periphery. Everything on the periphery. So philosophy grew and philosophy of science, and it was a particular kind of philosophy of science. It wasn't the kind of philosophy of science that Dan Kevles did, which was more a social history and philosophy of science. It was a philosophy of science and a history of science which was sort of very much concerned simply with the development of doctrine and theory and experiment within science entirely. So it was completely divorced from the kind of history of science and philosophy of science that Dan was interested in and certain other people who came through and left were interested in.

Likewise, neuroscience, useful thing to do, important thing intellectually to do, doesn't have any connection with other stuff in social science. It has a lot of connection with biology but not so much with the other social sciences. And so the social science program, the graduate program basically divided into two and the stuff that the cognitive scientists were doing was different. The courses that they were taking were different. The way that they wrote about things was different. The standards of academic production were different. The interests in experiments were of a different kind. They weren't interested in testing institutional rules, they were interested in testing parts of the brain that something happens in. So they grew on the side of things.

In humanities not only did philosophy and history of science grow away from the rest of humanities, then the sort of performative arts grew and that grew towards other parts of science and away from the rest of the humanities. So the division has exploded instead of growing as a core of interests held in common or at least the ability to have some idea across the division of what other people were doing. That is no more. And the division is much more part of Caltech, the rest of Caltech, than it was before.

I should say that to some degree I feel guilty about having made that more possible in some sense.

ZIERLER: How did you do that? How did you make that more possible?

KOUSSER: Well, for seven years I ran a brown bag seminar series. Every week, eight weeks, nine weeks, ten weeks a quarter, it was set up so that this was only people who were at Caltech one way or another—they were either visitors or they were people who were on permanent staff here—would give brown bag talks. They would give talks during lunch. It was in Baxter, a big classroom that no longer exists, but very nice for sitting around a table, et cetera. And I would recruit people for the beginning of the year, including visitors. So visitors would have a chance to talk, and people would have a chance to get to know who the visitors were. And I would tell them, look, this has got to be something that's got to appeal, at least in principle, to people who are outside of one side of the vision so the other, so social scientists can't talk purely in numbers, and they can't assume that everybody who is there is going to know the latest thing in game theory. And the humanists can't assume—you've got to be able to answer the question in your talk, why would some reasonably intelligent person think that this was an interesting subject, that this was an interesting thing to do as a scholar?

So I did that for seven years and it took a lot of my time. I got no time off for it. I got no head pats for it. Nothing else. I did this for seven years. And it kept up a little crosstalk. The fact that it just died when I just said, "You should get somebody else to do this. I've got a lot of stuff to do. It would be great . . . et cetera, for somebody else to do it," and nobody else would take it up. Nobody would do it. Had that gone on I don't think that it would've stopped the division from exploding in the way that I've said, but it might've helped a little. I feel guilty about it. I should've gone ahead and done it more. But the fact that nobody else would take it up is an indication of how little people thought that keeping up the crosstalk was worth it.

ZIERLER: Morgan, you alluded to it but it's worth asking the question in a direct way. What aspects of this historical transformation for HSS were externally driven—in other words, what professors in HSS were looking in terms of what their peers were doing—versus what aspects were internally driven based on changing concepts of how responsive HSS should be to Caltech's core mission, if you will?

KOUSSER: I think that a lot of it was externally driven, and I think that probably it's because of money. There's a lot of money in cognitive science. They can get grants a whole lot easier than people doing other sort of stuff, and there's a lot of money in sort of artsy cultural stuff and connections with the Huntington, finally, and that sort of stuff. I think that a huge amount of it has to do with fundraising and I suspect that that is true in spades in sciences at Caltech, as well. Look at where the new buildings are. Look at what they're studying. You wouldn't have a new cognitive science building if there weren't a whole lot of money in it. It's unclear to me what the chicken and egg problem—how that's best thought of with respect to money versus the intellectual efflorescence of things.

It may turn out that the utopian views about what cognitive science is going to do in changing the world are right. I've never thought so, but there's certainly a lot of very smart people, including at Caltech, working on this, and maybe that'll all come out to be true. Whether the intellectual promise came before the money, or the money came before the intellectual promise is beyond my pay grade.

ZIERLER: Morgan, as a historian you well appreciate pendulum shifts in history. What might it take for HSS to get back to the things that are most important to you?

KOUSSER: I don't think it's possible. I don't think, for example, that it is conceivable that somebody will teach a Supreme Court class that I taught for fifty years. And it's incredibly ironic that right now when the Supreme Court is going through the largest changes since 1939 and having the largest potential effects on society that we don't have anybody who would teach that or who would think that the sorts of things that I taught in that regard are important enough to do to get somebody to do it.

ZIERLER: So if I can frame a neanderthal question in response to that, what does a computer science major need to know about the Supreme Court at Caltech? What would've been your response 40 years ago and what's the response today? Are they different?

KOUSSER: As a computer scientist, you're going to be working in an institutional environment in which the institutional constraints are partially going to be legal constraints. As a computer scientist in particular, you're going to be coming up against privacy concerns. What's the legal framework? Because we got a legal framework through the First Amendment and all sorts of other laws, even the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures. What's the legal framework that you're going to be working in? Plus, whatever you do, whether you're in physics, you're in biology, you're in chemistry, you're in engineering, you're in computer science, whatever you're going to do you're going to be working through an institutional framework of some sort or another. The study of one institution has overlaps into the studies of other institutions. And just knowing how important institutions are in setting the intellectual constraints on what you're doing and the social and economic constraints on what you're doing is important.

One of the things that I tried to do in the Supreme Court class throughout was to try to say this is a particular kind of an institution. It has fairly well-constructed and clearly stated rules. It has ways of going about doing things, but it is an institution. And the way that an institution constrains what the actors do and is constrained by actors outside of it is something that has greater generality, and that great generality is going to be something that's important for you to understand whatever you're doing. And if you're out getting grants, if you're worried about what the connection is between the kinds of intellectual interests you have and the way that you present things to other people, the study of institutions is important.

Further, I always worked very hard on everybody's writing. My freshman students had to do writing exercises every week and I would grade them, I would mark them, I would give them back in a day or two. We would talk about them. I would mark up their papers quite considerably. Anybody who's engaging in an intellectual pursuit these days has to have enough ability to write and to persuade. They also had to give talks. In all of my classes they had to give talks. So they had to give two talks every quarter, both in the freshman humanities course and in the Supreme Court class. They had to get up and talk about things. And they had to talk about things that they weren't perhaps as comfortable with as they would've been in science. No excuses. You've still got to do it. These are transferable skills.

ZIERLER: Morgan, last question. It may or may not be a happy one. These trends that you are bemoaning at Caltech, how unique are they to Caltech and how much are they just an observation on what's happening across the board in the discipline?

KOUSSER: Well, I think it's probably not unique to Caltech, but I think Caltech in some sense had a unique role or was a unique environment in which those trends could've been counteracted, and I think it's unfortunate that that's not so.

ZIERLER: What can be done to change it?

KOUSSER: It's very difficult because it's very difficult to create an institution, most importantly because you've got people who are in the institution and who don't want it to change. And so, in humanities, something we haven't talked about, I had the experience time after time where I would try to bring up somebody who was much more social scientific for a position in history and the person would get shot down because a lot of the humanists didn't want somebody who was more social scientific. So it was very hard to build up that in general. I also—I think this is easier now—but I spent 40 years trying to bring what's now diversity, equity, and inclusion to Caltech and particularly to the HSS division, virtually without success. Finally hired a very good, promising young Black historian as I was going out the door almost, but it was not the first time that I tried that. So that will continue, although Lord knows what's going to happen after the Harvard, UNC case is decided by the US Supreme Court.


KOUSSER: I think they're going to end affirmative action and it may well be that Congress will pass some sort of law that says anything that talks about diversity, equity, and inclusion is unconstitutional. And any institution that gets money from the federal government can't talk about that, much less take any efforts to do it, so even that might go out the door.

ZIERLER: What's your over-under on that?

KOUSSER: I think it's absolutely—I think they will overturn Bakke. I think they will overturn the Michigan decisions. I think they will ban affirmative action and say that trying to increase diversity is unconstitutional.

ZIERLER: I'm kind of speechless.

KOUSSER: And nobody at Caltech will be able to talk about that. They'll have to bring people in from the outside to talk about that, and nobody will be around to talk about that with students over a long period of time or with the rest of the professoriate. I don't know what university is going to do.

It's much worse than this if you think about what's happening in Florida. I spent a lot of my time thinking about what's happening in Florida right now and the bills that DeSantis and the Republicans did not get through in the last session are much, much worse. They're going to fire anybody who believes that the United States in its history has not always been integrally concerned with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. If you say slavery was central to the development of the American economy and the society in the antebellum period, you're going to be out on your ear in Florida probably after the next session of the legislature. And that's not the only place it's going to happen. What are we going to do when DeSantis wins the presidency in '24?

ZIERLER: Oh, my God. [laugh] Morgan, your so-called retirement, I'm very glad that you're busier than ever because we certainly need you to be busier than ever. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.

KOUSSER: Well, thank you for putting up with me.

ZIERLER: Absolutely!