John A. Ferejohn
Samuel Tilden Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
May 10, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, May 10, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. John Ferejohn. John, great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
JOHN FEREJOHN: My pleasure.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
FEREJOHN: Right now, I'm the Samuel Tilden Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.
ZIERLER: Has teaching in a law school changed your research perspective at all?
FEREJOHN: Yeah, probably. Although, the reason I began teaching in law school was that I was already doing work in law and was publishing in areas that made me attractive to law schools. I got recruited, little by little, actually, over a long period of time. There's kind of a give and take. Once I got more deeply involved in law teaching, I developed new projects and new ways of looking at things, even new ways of looking at my older projects. That was the evolution.
ZIERLER: How did you first become involved with NYU School of Law? Was it before your formal appointment there?
FEREJOHN: Yeah. I was at Stanford in probably 1990, and Columbia Law School asked me if I wanted to take an Olin Professorship there, a visiting professorship for one term. I did that in '90, '91. I guess I was asked the year before. And then, I wasn't on leave from Stanford just in the fall, so then they asked me if I would do it the next year, '91, '92. At the same time, it wouldn't be a pure research leave, but rather, I would give a seminar to the faculty on social science and law, game theory and law. It was, like, six sessions with the faculty, but that was my only responsibility. I did that in the fall of '91, then they asked me if I wanted to come back, and do it again, and teach an upper-year research seminar for students. I did that in '92, but one of my students in the faculty workshop in '91 was a professor at NYU, and he said, "Why don't you come down to NYU instead? We'll take you in the fall term next year and maybe forever."
That was Ricky Revesz. And he later became dean of the law school. But at the time, he was just a professor. I said, "Well, Columbia was first to ask me." The thing that was unsatisfactory about visiting Columbia in the fall term was that I had to do the housing situation de novo every fall. And it's an enormous pain in the neck. If I could get something where there was a settled housing situation whenever I was there in the fall without me having to think about it, that would be great. He said, "We can do that." I said, "I have to give Columbia the first refusal." I went back to the dean of Columbia and said, "Here's what I need." He thought about it for a few minutes and said, "We can't do that." That's how I got involved at NYU in the fall. NYU, at least in my view, at that time, was one of the two or three most interdisciplinary law schools in the country. Chicago was certainly one. Maybe that would be the leading one at the moment. But NYU had very good law economics people.
One was a friend of mine who'd been a fellow with me at the Center in 1981, Lewis Kornhauser. There were several others. Then, there were really good law and philosophy people. And my interests have always been law, economics, philosophy. That's what I do. I've published in all these areas. That's what I've done my entire career. The Law School at NYU, unlike Columbia and unlike any other law school but maybe Chicago, gave me a chance to do all those things in the same place. I didn't resign from Stanford, I just decided to take a leave every fall. I'd soon reduce my tenure position at Stanford to two-thirds tenure. And we teach quarters, so I taught two quarters, and I taught what Stanford calls the fall quarter at Columbia.
ZIERLER: Just by way of context, what have been the major areas of research you've looked at over your career?
FEREJOHN: My PhD thesis was on what is called distributional politics, and it specifically was about Congress and funding of rivers and harbors legislation. It became a book called Pork Barrel Politics, published in '74. Actually, my first year at Caltech, I transformed the thesis into the book, and I also took up an interest in Congressional elections. I began doing pretty empirical studies of the Congressional elections. I tried it a little bit, and then I wrote a bunch of papers on that. And then, as a graduate student at Stanford, I'd already been very interested in theoretic theories of legislation, of legislative behavior, which basically almost didn't exist when I was in graduate school, but I developed the tools to do this kind of work. And there were other people in other places doing related things. I began developing that interest into a more formal mathematical approach to essentially game theory, what is called social choice theory, which was a strength, it turned out, at Caltech. I didn't know it coming in, but there it was.
There were people like Charles Plott, David Grether, and later on, other people who were very first-rate in the area. It was a very fertile place to develop that interest. That was social choice theory, game theory, models of behavior, which has been something I've done all the time since then, really, as part of my work. And that actually led to the law things because ultimately, I began to develop analysis of legal institutions using the same techniques I've used for legislation, partly initially looking at the interactions between courts and Congress, but then later on, studying courts directly. A lot of the tools I developed and worked in legislation were applicable with minor tweaks here and there. That's how I began getting into law, later on, probably when I was at Stanford in the 80s, pretty much.
ZIERLER: After you defended, did you come to Caltech right away? Did you do a post-doc first?
FEREJOHN: I was at Stanford for four years, and then I did a pre-doc, in which I mostly developed my thesis, at Brookings. Then, after I finished, I did a post-doc at the University of Illinois at what I s called the Institute for Advanced Study of Illinois. And then, I came to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Let's go to Brookings. Tell me about your time there.
FEREJOHN: I'll back it up a little bit. When I was still at Stanford, an acquaintance of mine told me about somebody coming out from MIT on his way to Caltech to interview for his job. That was Robert Bates. I'd never met him, but we met, we had dinner. I think he stayed overnight, then he went down to Caltech, interviewed, and got the job. That probably was '69. Then, the same year, I got a call from somebody I didn't know at Caltech who said, "Why don't you come interview for a job?" I said, "I haven't even started my thesis. I'm not interviewing for a job." Then, they said, "We don't care. Just come down and take a look. We're not doing anything right now. We're just planning to see you." It was probably Bob Huttenback. I went down to Caltech, I met Roger Noll, and I got to be pretty tight with him. Bob Bates was there by then. I met other people in the division, like Rod Paul, David Elliott, Ted Scudder, and others. I didn't know any of them. I just spent the day, and I gave an informal talk.
I didn't have anything prepared. I wasn't on my thesis yet. I was still doing coursework. That was that. Then, I went to Brookings and was working on my thesis. Then, sometime in the winter or spring of 1970, I get a call from Bob Huttenback saying he's in town and wants to talk to me. Now, I've been writing my thesis. I'd anticipated finishing. I was lucky enough to get a lot of interviews. That's probably why Bob called me, because he heard–because I had, like, 12 interviews, 12 fly-outs. Anyway, Bob calls me, he's in town. I had the feeling later on that he actually came to Washington just to see me. And he took me out to lunch and said, "What would it take to get you?" I said, "Well, I have an interview." He said, "Well, you can interview." I liked Bob Bates, and he'd stayed at my house, and I'd read something of his since then, but that's pretty thin in political science. He said, "Well, we'd do a lot in social science." And he mentioned a bunch of names I didn't know, like Jim Quirk, Dave Grether, who I didn't know at the time, Charlie Plott, who I knew some of his work, but I didn't know him.
He mentioned these people that would come, but they're all kind of sketchy kind of stuff. "Are they really coming?" I said, "Well, frankly, Bob, I'd feel a little lonely if I went there. Why don't you get started and come back to me in a couple years?" I know it's probably hard to believe, but the job market was good then, so you could say stuff like that. He said, "No, no, let's deal with the political science part. Who do you want to hire?" I said, "Well, I have no idea. I'm just a junior person." I was a grad student. How would I know? And he said, "Think about it for a while." As it happened, a couple years before that, I had taught in a summer program at the University of Michigan, which invites graduate students from research universities to spend eight or nine weeks, a long time in the summer, to take courses on various things. And I taught the mathematical social science course with a senior person at MIT, Hayward Alker. And I did the game theory, basically, he did a lot of stuff on simulation.
And one of my students, although he was a little older because I was a second-year graduate student, was a guy named John Kessel, who was at the time transitioning from Allegheny to Ohio State as a senior professor. He was a really good student. And I had a lot of respect for him. And I knew his work. He did work on presidents, legislature, stuff I'd been reading about and knew a lot about. As it turned out, right after that offer, within a week, Kessel calls me, he's in town, "Let's get a drink up at the Hilton." I said, "Sure, let's get a drink." I went up there, and in the middle of the conversation, I told him what Huttenback had been talking to me about and how I felt like I wasn't sure I was brave enough to go out for a first appointment somewhere there are no colleagues at all. And Bob Bates, nothing like what I do. He's a very smart guy, and it turned out, a terrific colleague. I just mentioned this, and he said, "I've got the perfect guy. He's the best undergraduate I've ever had at Allegheny. His name is Morris Fiorina," and he referred to a paper that Mo had, which he sent me in the next days.
I said, "I'm interested." I read Mo's paper, and he was younger than me. [Laugh] I just mentioned it. I said, "I'm not advocating yet because I don't know the guy very well," and I'd never met him obviously. I said, "Here's a guy." Mo was an undergraduate at Allegheny, but then he went to Rochester as a graduate student. And Rochester was the center of the universe for game theory in politics at the time. Bowie Reicher was there, Ken Shepsle, Dick McKelvey, who was later at Caltech, Peter Ordeshook, later at Caltech. It was everything for that kind of training. And that's where Mo was. Huttenback called him up and flew him out, and he wowed the faculty in his interview. And he hired him. I don't think it was completed, but it was pretty much on the road by the time he came back to me and said, "What do you think now?"
I didn't really feel I could say no, so I said, "Okay." They also offered me $3,000 more than anybody else was offering. That really wasn't the reason. It was really that Bob had sort of bent over into contortions to make it as comfortable as he could for me. Then, by that time, I kind of knew a little bit more about the people they were hiring in other social sciences. Incidentally, at that time, when I was at Brookings, Roger had either taken leave from or resigned from Caltech to go to Brookings as a senior scholar, so we were Brookings colleagues that year anyway. And Roger was very supportive of me going to Caltech, although he had not committed to go back, as far as I knew. Anyway, I took that, and I'd already agreed to a post-doc at Illinois, so I said, "I'll show up after the post-doc." I showed up in September of '72, which is when Mo also showed up. I think Roger came back a year later.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of how HSS developed, how there was this drive to enhance social science at Caltech before your arrival?
FEREJOHN: Somehow, Huttenback and his brain trust, which certainly included Roger and certainly Dan Kevles, and I'm sure many others, Ted Scudder for sure–they were a bunch of people Bob thought were really good social science scholars, of which there were a few at Caltech. Maybe Morgan Kousser, who was historian, but a very social-scientific historian. Bob was talking to those people, and then I don't know the details, some of which I'm not sure I'd want to know, but he made some strong decisions about slimming down the humanities, especially foreign languages or foreign literature, in order to be able to afford to develop a core social science expertise. And they had decided before I got there that it was going to be a division of social science in a unified group that included whatever social scientists there were.
It was certainly going to have economics, political science, because it had Bob in it, and soon had me and Mo. And I think Ted Scudder, who was an anthropologist. I'm not sure we hired another anthropologist. But that was the core. They decided that we should have a unified group, which meant we had to, from day one, develop a unified program that integrated the social sciences into a teachable graduate program, and that's what we did from the beginning. We developed a core sequence of courses that were shared among the different disciplines. And one of the principles was more or less that anybody could teach any part of the sequence, which meant the political scientists had to be pretty good economists, and I was trained in economics, so it was fine. Mo was pretty well-trained in economics, too. At the level of introductory sequence, we did that. We also offered undergraduate courses that had the purpose of exposing undergraduates to some social science, but also recruiting those few social scientists, Caltech undergraduates, who might see their way clear into graduate study in social sciences.
We knew pretty well immediately that everybody who went to Caltech as an undergraduate in those days wanted to be a theoretical physicist. We also knew that only eight or nine of them came out the other end. They all needed to go someplace. We wanted to get a few. We did get a few. And some of our best students, as you might imagine from the amazing intelligence of Caltech undergraduates. This part of the purpose of the undergraduate program was to expose them to ideas that were pretty sophisticated, in which they could take, after a little bit of exposure, they could take the graduate courses, too. That was kind of the idea, that we'd have a unified social science undergraduate program, a unified social science graduate program, and that the students who came as graduate students wouldn't really have to decided what they wanted to do for a living until they were at the point of a thesis, like, three years in, so that when people came, they might think, "Oh, I want to be an economist," and they'd end up a political scientist, or the other way around. And we wanted it to be as boundary-less as possible internally. That had been already been started before I set foot on the grounds. A lot of these ideas had already been kicked around. But there hadn't been much flesh put on the bones. I was very involved in that part.
ZIERLER: You gave a great explanation for all the things that pulled you to Caltech. Did you see any professional risk in joining a program that was really still very nascent at that point in your career?
FEREJOHN: The anxiety about that was mostly gone by the time I showed up. During the year I was a post-doc, I came out to a conference they had on mathematical social sciences, and I met everybody who was already there. The people who were just sketches, like Plott, Grether, many others, people who flew in from Rochester, Carnegie Mellon, and other places that were doing this kind of work. And it all seemed really solid to me, and it really fit my research agenda, which was really studying democratic institutions, like legislatures, courts, presidents, stuff like that, and game theory modeling for that purpose, and empirical work in those areas. Grether was a great econometrician, and Caltech was well-endowed, so there were plenty of resources for analyzing data. That was all there.
By the time I got there, I didn't have any anxiety about it at all, and it fit me so well. Not only were the resources there, but there was enormous enthusiasm around the people who were there to push forward. In those days, everybody worked in their offices. It was almost impossible to spend a month there without coauthoring a paper with somebody. I don't know if it's that way anymore, but it was certainly that way then. It was kind of thrilling to be there as a researcher. We were all talking about similar things, we were pretty much in hiring mode throughout the 70s, so we hired a lot of good people, especially in political science. We hired Bruce Cain from Harvard, Gary Miller, Rod Kiewiet, who's still there, from Yale, I think. We got senior people like Richard McKelvey, Gerry Kramer, and Peter Ordeshook, who were great. We hired John Ledyard from Northwestern. I get there, and this is 1972, and I meet this guy who was a philosopher named Will Jones.
He was at Claremont, and he was certainly on the board of trustees there. Or maybe he was on the Caltech board of trustees. Anyway, he was old, and I knew him immediately because when I'd been an undergraduate, one of the books we used was called Masters of Political Thought, Volume Two by William T. Jones. It was published 1937, so you know already how old he was. But he was the most fantastic person. He was enormously erudite as a scholar, extremely thoughtful and curious about everything. I taught a couple courses with him. And Caltech had an interest in hiring in philosophy, but aside from Will, nobody knew anything really. And I'd been trained somewhat as a philosopher when I was at Stanford. I was always the chair of the committee because Will was too modest to be the chair. He said, "I'm not even full-time faculty. How can I be the chair?" He could be the chair, but I said, "Okay, I'll be your front guy."
Then, we hired a couple of junior people who, one way or another, didn't work out to the tenure level. One didn't stay, and the other one became a neurosurgeon, who I know pretty well. But then, we hired Brian Barry from Chicago, who is super eminent, and Alan Donagan, also from Chicago, very eminent. We were on the map. But for that period in the mid-70s, when we were casting about, trying to find people to hire or even interview, I was kind of having to lead reading groups so people could see what people were doing and stuff like that. Then, Brian came, and Alan came, and I think subsequently, some big philosophers came later in my tenure there in philosophy of sciences. It became a pretty good place in philosophy. I think it still is, actually. Everything I'd ever wanted was right there. I had game theory, philosophy, politics and political theory of the kind I was doing.
ZIERLER: This question will obviously precede your tenure at Caltech, but so the story goes, humanities at Caltech, going all the way back for what Millikan and Hale wanted for a well-rounded education of their science and engineering students, it paints the picture that humanities was an addendum. When did social science, before the administrative development of HSS, come into its own at Caltech beyond any desire to expose science and engineering students to other disciplines out there?
FEREJOHN: That idea of the role of humanities, and some of the social sciences as civilizing the engineers and physicists, was still an idea in the institute. And it certainly had people in the division, in the humanities side, who thought that was a proper role. Ken Clark I guess was like that. People basically on the literature side thought that was a reasonable goal. Then, when Huttenback, with his brain trust, began to transform what he thought the division could be, it involved both developing the social sciences, but also deepening the humanities in a research-oriented direction that would depart from that model, in which the only purpose of the humanities is to civilize the engineers. For example, he hired initially young people who were interested in literary theory. You're not going to attract or civilize anybody with literary theory. They actually want to read literature. [Laugh]
We tried several times during my time there to hire prominent literary theorists like Harold Bloom from Yale or Geoffrey Hartman from Yale. Later, we hired Jerome McGann from Virginia. Not quite as as a theorist, but still very good. It wouldn't be civilizing, it would be taking seriously literature as a research domain. I'm attributing this to Bob. I'm sure there are others who deserve credit or blame, however you want it, for this. His idea was to make the division a professional research division that could stand with the other divisions, that did the same kinds of things, but in different domains. And that involved saying, "We have a teaching mission, but it doesn't exhaust our job. Our job is to do research, which moves everything forward." That was the idea, and it predates me, but I was privileged to be a part of it. But the same thing was happening on the literature side. I don't think it succeeded as well, but it succeeded pretty well in philosophy of science, I think, and other areas. But it's hard to do this anyway.
ZIERLER: Institutionally, where did the support come from, both administratively and for the budget, to create HSS?
FEREJOHN: You're a little above my pay grade now. [Laugh] I was a junior person, so they didn't actually share this stuff with me.
ZIERLER: But is your sense that the board of trustees, the president, they were all behind this? Or was the impetus coming from below, and they convinced the powers that be?
FEREJOHN: There was no below. There was nobody there. They started in social sciences pretty close to scratch, so it couldn't have been from below. At the time, Harold Brown was president, and he was one of the whiz kids at Rand in the late 50s. Another friend of mine, Allen Antobin, was another one of the whiz kids. These were people who had a view that social sciences were important to making policy in a nuclear age. I think they were sympathetic at that level, the Harold Brown level, and probably others at the leadership level, of the Institute and would think, "We should be able to play a role in integrating thinking about policy, which includes social sciences, engineering, and other things." I know earlier on, and Roger can tell you this because I wasn't involved in this, among the early advisors to Huttenback outside the division was Carl Kaysen, who was an eminent economist and graybeard, but very much involved in that sort of social science of the 1950s and 60s, the industrial complex ideas in the way that places like Caltech, MIT, or other technical places could be involved in that. I think there was sympathy for that. And frankly, social science is pretty cheap. We don't have big, expensive labs. At least, we didn't until the middle of the 70s, when people began doing experimental economics. When you hire a professor, you pay his salary and the benefits. You hire a chemist. Even a junior chemist, if you want a serious one.
ZIERLER: But of course, for a chemist or an astronomer, there are NASA and NSF. Was there government support, were there grant programs that made social science possible at Caltech?
FEREJOHN: Oh, yeah. So we were all applying for NSF grants and other grants, and we were successful. I had several rounds of NSF funding there. And we developed joint programs at various times with JPL and with the geophysics people. We had an earthquake project with them once. Other people worked with JPL. I think John Ledyard and maybe Charlie Plott. There were several other Institute programs we were involved in in various ways. But I think, as I implied before, Bob Huttenback pruned down the part of this committed to the humanities-teaching program. By the time I got there, there was no longer a French literature department. We had a French literature person, Annette Smith, who was married to David Smith. She was a professor, but she'd been orphaned and had been, I think, a German specialist was in that group. Both of them were a little bit bitter, and others were, too, about the fact that the Institute had withdrawn the idea that they could expand in faculty lines, and those lines were pushed over into social sciences or into literary theory on the humanities side. People who were in the business of finishing school for engineers were cut off from the growth prospects. That all happened before I was there. I just saw bitter stares from people. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: So I understand correctly, social science at Caltech was conceptualized to have a graduate program right from the beginning?
ZIERLER: And why social science and not humanities?
FEREJOHN: I don't know that. Roger might know that. The way we understood it, we could do something in humanities–one of our early great students was Gary Cox, who was a Caltech undergraduate in history and had worked with Morgan Kousser as an undergrad. He came to the graduate program, and his degree is in social science, and he took a job in political science. But he was employable in the history department, he was a very well-trained historian. In principle, we could train people for the history market. But we didn't have anybody who was directly in that category, so it didn't come up. But at least adjacent humanities would've worked. Now, literary theory is a completely different thing, so I'm not sure we could've been successful there in training anybody who would actually get a job.
ZIERLER: Now, in the way that you were attracted to Caltech, and for other junior scholars, Caltech enjoyed great success in its recruitment, what about for prospective graduate students? Was Caltech competitive with peer institutions from the beginning? Or that took some time to build up?
FEREJOHN: I guess it did take some time, but our real competitors, if somebody wanted, as a grad student, to study the kinds of things we did, would've been only Rochester and Carnegie Mellon. And Rochester's in Rochester, and Carnegie Mellon's in Pittsburgh, so we had a little bit of an advantage. Later on, the competition got stiffer because places, partly hiring our students, like Washington University in St. Louis, UCSD, and other places got to be competitors, and then, the market got a little stiffer. But we had, by then, had a track record of producing some very good people. But frankly, in the first couple years, our best students were either not likely to be attractive to–we had one student, Barry Weingast, one of our best people ever, and he had been an undergraduate at Santa Cruz in mathematics. In those days, Santa Cruz had two features. One was, it was very good in a certain kind of mathematics.
The other was, they didn't get grades. It was hard to tell how good he was. [Laugh] And the kind of mathematics they did was stuff like differential topology. It's a lot of pretty pictures, and there's a real serious mathematics effort to it, but it's very abstract. And Barry had no grades, but he had good letters. We interviewed him I think twice. He came, and we said, "Well, he certainly is very sophisticated, but can he add two and two? [Laugh] He can do our fourth year, but can he do our first year?" Ultimately, there was skepticism, but we signed off on it, and Barry had, initially, a rough time. He was our only student that first year. He was the training ground for our graduate sequence. Some of our people, like me, hadn't played a role in a faculty before and deciding what was a reasonable set of questions to ask and a reasonable way to grade how people perform on examinations, and stuff like that.
Barry had a rough time in the first year, but after that, he just took off. He was creative and had all the skills you could possibly want, and it was ambitious. He's transformed the field he's worked in. His field, incidentally, is new economic history. He's another person who could've been a historian. His work is more technical than most historians. But it's been a very important economic history. That was our first one. And then, Linda Cohen and Steve Matthews might've been undergraduates, so they were recruited from our Caltech undergraduates, and therefore, they were brilliant. Very hard-working, as Caltech students often are, when they're not hard-playing. We were lucky. We started out with a bunch of people, and we weren't really competing for them. They were people who were already at Caltech, like Steve, Linda, and Gary. They were just there, so they found it easy to stay on, take the sequence, and begin doing the research.
And they were brilliant. By the time we were actually competing later in the 70s, we were writing in to places like Harvard, which had, by the late 70s, gotten Ken Shepsle from Washington University in St. Louis. Washington University had already hired Barry Weingast. By then, Harvard became a competitor. Yale never really became a competitor, in terms of our fields. Chicago, not so much. Their social science is so dominated by a pecuniary kind of economics that if a student was really interested in that kind of economics, they didn't want to come here to Caltech. And conversely, we didn't want them. Not that we were opposed to it, but it was so loaded with ideological assumptions, and we weren't interested in doing that. That kind of sorted itself out. We didn't have to compete with Chicago, they competed with themselves.
ZIERLER: A question on the undergraduate side. For incoming Caltech students, many of whom wanted to become the next Richard Feynman, what were some of the challenges and opportunities in teaching students that came to Caltech as opposed to those who would've been attracted to a more general education, like what you'd get at a Harvard or a Stanford?
FEREJOHN: I can't answer in general. You give the undergraduate lecture course, most of them are not very interested in going any further. And you have some interaction with them because you have to grade them, or they'll talk a little bit. The ones we'd interact with most were the ones who took an interest and took another course beyond the intro course or who worked with me in some other way. And they were all individuals. I had a guy who was in the top seven or eight finalists for the Putnam Prize in math, which is an international thing. He was really smart. I had him in class, and it was hell having him in an intro course. Every time I'd say something, he'd want me to prove it. Which was okay because I could mostly prove it. But sometimes I'd say things without thinking about having to prove it. The course would just bog right down. His name was Jim. The only way I could get Jim to stop talking was to satisfy him, which wasn't easy to do. That was kind of hell. [Laugh]
He wasn't interested in giving any ground. If I'd done a proof, he might help me with the proof, like, "Oh, that's not going to work. Try this instead." But you can't be smarter than them. There's always one smarter than you. There might be more than one. [Laugh] The first thing I had to learn about Caltech's students, you had to teach from the standpoint of, "This is what we're teaching, and this is what I know. I'm not going to tell you I know more than I do, but here's why I think it could be useful for you." Some of them take it easily, and this guy, Jim, wouldn't take it easily at all. I don't know what's become of him. He was 14 years old. His name was Arthur Rubin. In my second year there, I sat in a course on model theory. Gödel's incompleteness theory says that no minimally complex mathematical system, which includes arithmetic, has the property that every true composition can be proved. There's got to be something that isn't provable. That was a very deep theorem that was proved around 1920 by a magician named Kurt Gödel. Later on, there turned out to be a lot of theorems of this kind in an area called meta-mathematics.
The way it's often taught is in a course called model theory. It's super abstract. I don't know what I was doing there, but I was taking the course. There was a brilliant young mathematician teaching it. Arthur Rubin, who was 14, I think his parents were eminent mathematicians at Purdue, maybe. Arthur gets admitted at 14 to Caltech, and he's sitting next to me. Initially, he was in the front row, and I was in the back. There were, like, 25 kids in the class. I was keeping up with it. Then, the professor, at one point, said to Arthur, "Do you mind sitting in the back row?" The reason was because Arthur would be giving running commentary on the proof the guy was giving and all the deficiencies of the strategy he was taking to prove this theorem, whatever the theorem was. This professor couldn't keep his concentration. Because Arthur's ideas were usually really good. Arthur was right next to me, and he was probably the most brilliant student I'd seen. I didn't have him in class, but he was just wonderfully smart.
But, as you might imagine, at 14, pretty immature. We used to go to ball games together because we'd get tired of doing work, and we'd drive down to Chavez Ravine and go to Dodger games. The first class I ever taught, I had three people in it. It was a course in classical political theory, so it could've been a humanities course. I was teaching about Hobbes, and Locke, and Rousseau, stuff like that. I was in Baxter Hall on the bottom floor. The three students were Mark somebody, Kim Border, who later on joined the faculty at Caltech, very good, very abstract mathematician and mathematical social scientist, and the other was a student named Jack Goldstone, who is a very eminent sociologist now. I think he's at George Mason University.
This was in the fall of 1972. At the end of class, it was an evening class, 7 to 10 or something like that, Jack and I were walking down the hall together. There was a display case on the bottom floor of Baxter that had a seemingly original version of Leviathan. Jack said, "What's that?" I said, "This is what we've been talking about. That's Hobbes's book, Leviathan." We stood there and talked for half an hour, and I began to explain in greater detail what was in it. He said, "Wow, why don't I learn stuff like that?" I said, "Jack, you're learning it right now." He said, "No, but I mean all the time." I said, "I don't know. Maybe this isn't the place for you." He ended up switching to Harvard. And it wasn't the place for him because he didn't want to be an engineer, he didn't want to be a physicist, he wanted to be an intellectual, and that's what he became.
ZIERLER: I've heard many stories from current faculty in social science that just by virtue of being at Caltech, they're engaged in collaboration in the sciences and engineering that might not be possible at other institutions. Was that multidisciplinary culture present at the beginning? Were you doing things in the sciences and with engineering faculty that might not have been possible elsewhere?
FEREJOHN: I didn't do much outside the division, really, but it was interdisciplinary in the division. I did one paper jointly with a guy in mathematics named Richard Dean in an area of basically axiomatic set theory. But it had applications in social choice theory, which I was working on. I got in a conversation with Richard probably at the Athenaeum downstairs, having a beer. We'd just go back and forth, and we wrote a paper about it. There was a little bit of interdisciplinary collaboration. I was involved in an earthquake project, but I didn't end up publishing anything in that project. But I think Roger planned that from our side, and he can tell you more about that. When I decided to leave Caltech in 1981 or '82, the reasons were complicated, nothing bad about Caltech, but I was very attracted to Stanford, and one of the anxieties I had was that by going to Stanford in the Political Science Department, I would no longer have day-to-day interactions with people very frequently who were not in political science.
I could reach out and do something, but it would be going across campus to find them, whereas at Caltech, you worked down the hall. If you wanted to work with somebody in history, philosophy, or literature, you could do that. They were right there. And you were talking to them all the time as people anyway. That turned out to be true. When I went to Stanford, I was much more disciplinary. I became more and more disciplinary. That felt like a loss to me. I had friends and developed contacts in economics, and I taught courses that economics grad students took sometimes, but it was really just one course of the three or four I was teaching, and I wasn't involved in the faculty as much. I soon played a role in getting Roger to come from Caltech up to Stanford, which he did. But I don't know that we worked together at Stanford in terms of publication. We worked together at Caltech to some degree, but not at Stanford. He had his own shop full of students. It was a much more disciplinary place. You begin to look back at Caltech and see how unique the interdisciplinary aspects are. Part of it's just the size.
The division is only, I don't know, 40 or 50 faculty total. You can know 40 to 50 people. In fact, the whole actual professorial faculty at Caltech was probably only 200, and I knew probably half of them. Not well necessarily, but I did know a lot of them. And you can't help being somewhat cognizant at Caltech of gossip about things. And you always knew what Murray Goldman thought because he would tell you. [Laugh] And I had a lot of other friends socially I knew, like David Wales and others who were there on different faculties. And I played basketball every day, and some of the good players were in other divisions. I'd get to know them there. We had a very competitive softball team, which was always first of second in the league. [Laugh] It was kind of unfair. But often, we'd beat them. But the other guys would come, and we'd always play in the basketball leagues also in the evenings. And the different divisions would often have teams. It was good. But there was a lot of contact of that kind, under the basket, for example. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: You might also say that you'll deflect the question because it's above your pay grade, but I'm curious, institutionally, if HSS was equally regarded, or there were some divisions that were more equal than others, given the focus, the central mission of Caltech.
FEREJOHN: Yeah, physics, for sure.
ZIERLER: But even biology, geology, the hard sciences, if you will. Was HSS lower on the totem pole institutionally?
FEREJOHN: Yeah, I would say so. Although, I remember one of my best conversations with an undergraduate, he came to me in the beginning of his senior year, and he was thinking about where to apply for graduate school. I think he was a physics undergraduate, but he realized he probably wasn't going to be at the very top level of physics, so he was thinking of something else. I said, "Biology." He said, "Biology sucks. Too soft." I said, "Really? How about economics?" He said, "No, that's not very formal. I want political science." [Laugh] Nobody could say that outside of Caltech. I thought, "What? He just spit on biology." But biology was good there. It was good, but it's true that it's less axiomatic than mathematics and physics is. But you're right, all the other divisions certainly bring in a lot more money because they need to, they have labs, most of them.
You can't have a successful division in biology unless a lot of money is coming in from NIH, NSF, or private foundations. There was a lot of private funding in there, foundation money. Of course, within that pantheon, the divisions that brought in a lot and produced Nobel Prizes. Biology, at that time, had a lot of ex-physicists like Max Delbrück, who was a physicist by training but his important work was in biology. I'm not really sure of that, maybe chemistry. But there certainly was a sense that physics was up here, engineering was down lower, different parts of engineering were in different places. But nobody would've thought that if you were going to evaluate Caltech, you would evaluate it in terms of humanities and social sciences. That's a division that's important within the context of humanities and social sciences within the world, but not necessarily within the Caltech world.
ZIERLER: As you emphasized it was not anything negative about Caltech, but what was it that pulled you to Stanford?
FEREJOHN: Partly, it was that. My wife had supported me through graduate school, and when I went to Brookings, she had been accepted to go to Stanford and couldn't go. She'd been at junior college and would've transferred, but she didn't go because we went to Brookings. Then, I was at the Center for Advanced Studies up by Stanford for a year. Sally really loves the Bay Area, and she reapplied to Stanford, and she got it. By then, we had three children. It seemed to make a lot of sense that she could go and finish her undergraduate degree there. And I was a professor. My teaching schedule was up to me. That's what we did, we lived on campus. It was good for that. And then, I'm just the kind of person who likes to change what I'm doing every decade or so. I'd been doing the same thing at Caltech for 10 or 11 years. At Stanford, I was doing the same thing for 10 or 11 years, then I started getting involved in law school and law schools after that. I ultimately stayed at Stanford in one capacity or another for 25 years, but half of it was in law school. In law school, it's been about that time, and now I'm looking for another career. [Laugh] Anybody hiring 80-year-olds? [Laugh]
ZIERLER: By virtue of being at Caltech long-term, how did that affect your research agenda? What were you interested in as a result of being at Caltech?
FEREJOHN: I think the thing I did there that I wouldn't have done otherwise, which wasn't necessarily a central part of my career, was experimental work, which I didn't do a lot of, but I did some of it. I got drawn into it because Charlie Plott was such a ball of energy about instrumentation. Then, we managed to get Vernon Smith to come out for a year, the Fairchild Fellow, and he was also deeply into that. You figure out how to do it. I ended up writing a few experimental papers, one with Roger, one with a guy named Bob Forsythe, who was on the faculty here, a couple others. And then, other people, like Charlie and Mo Fiorina were doing experiments that I found were stimulating to the kind of mathematical theory I was doing. Even though I didn't run those experiments, I did a lot of trying to find models that would explain the results they were getting. The kind of social choice theory I did was shaped, to some extent, by being at Caltech, because I hadn't really formally worked in that area before I got there, although I knew the work in the field pretty well, and I was going to work in it. And I started working with Dave Grether.
And we did a couple papers on voting theory. And then, I saw some papers Charlie Plott had been doing, and they're axiomatic papers, and I got involved with David in taking some of those apart and trying to figure out different ways of approaching them than the way Charlie did them. I ended up writing a few papers with him. Then, we hired Dick McKelvey, and Dick was very easy to work with, as was David. We ended up doing some papers together with a couple post-docs we had there. I guess none of that would've happened had I not been at Caltech. I was probably adequate mathematically to do the work, but it's really good, when you're doing formal work, to have other people at the same level of mathematical sophistication to bounce ideas off of and have them raise formal objections, say, "That doesn't make any sense. I'll show you." If you don't have that in the environment, it's really hard to do good work because you can sort of sit on an error or an incompleteness and be satisfied, but if you're poked at by somebody who knows a lot and who you respect, you can't let it sit. I didn't have as much of that experience, but it slowed that part of my work down a bit.
ZIERLER: As you said, you became more disciplinary, less interdisciplinary at Stanford. Did you remain in contact with your former Caltech colleagues as a way to fill that gap over the years?
FEREJOHN: Some of them, yeah. Socially, to some extent. But I didn't work with Dick anymore after I left, and I didn't work with David after I left. In a professional sense, I didn't. A lot of that depends upon being in the hallways and at the coffee machine. For a while, Caltech hired Keith Grable, maybe just as I was leaving. Keith later on came up to Stanford in the Business School, which is where he is now. Keith and I worked together on a paper when I was at Stanford and he was at Caltech. We published something then. But I said I was more disciplinary at Stanford, but I wasn't totally more disciplinary because when I got on the Stanford faculty, it was not a place that would be nurturing to the mathematical side of me. The students were afraid of it, I would say, and were encouraged to be afraid of it by my new colleagues. I was a little bit forced on the faculty by the provost.
At least initially, I would teach kind of core political science. I would often have seminars that standards in politics wouldn't usually take, and I'd get some economists and other people like that, sometimes philosophers. But I wouldn't really get many political scientists at the graduate level. But at that time, there was an effort in the business school, a group forming around later Keith Grable, but before that, it was David Baron in the business school and a couple other people who did organization theory there. And they were trying to form a group that would have serious social scientists. And I had a courtesy appointment there, but I ended up teaching the core of that program with Baron, Grable, and others for a few years, two or three. And in that context, I was interacting with mathematical people there very often.
For a while, that was a very nurturing thing for that part of me. I could go across the street to the business school, where it used to be–now it has a huge industrial complex–and do work with them. And gradually, Stanford got better. We hired Barry Weingast, who had been at Washington University at St. Louis, Doug Rivers, who'd been at Caltech, Grable came up from Caltech, Roger came up from Caltech. Mo Fiorina had gone to Harvard from Caltech, but then he came to Stanford. More recently, we hired Bruce Cain, who had been at Caltech but then was at Berkeley for many years. I didn't reach out to a lot of the Caltech group because they came to me. [Laugh] Not all of them, but some of them.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, some retrospective questions about HSS at Caltech. As you know, Caltech history is replete with examples of ideas of growth and Caltech stubbornly not wanting to get bigger. First, do you see the creation of HSS as an expansion or more as a consecration of what was already there?
FEREJOHN: Roger would know this. I don't know the size of the faculty in, let's say, 1965 and 1975. Maybe it was bigger. I just don't know. There already were people there. It probably was somewhat of an expansion because we were successful in raising money from a lot of places, and they responded to that, like many places do. But we never got very big. I think the social science part of the division probably went from 10 or 11 to 20 maybe. Maybe it's bigger than that, I'm not sure.
ZIERLER: How has Caltech been served by this decision? How has it benefitted by the creation of HSS?
FEREJOHN: The graduate program as such doesn't necessarily reach out to the other divisions. It's not that it intensified the nature of Caltech. It was more like, "You're producing graduate students. Over the long run, they're going to come from someplace, get trained as graduate students, and go onto someplace else. Maybe a few will work with other divisions." I think the program that people did with JPL, which included Plott, Ledyard, and a few others, had some graduate students involved. I'm sure that if you asked somebody besides me, you'd probably find out that there were a bunch of graduate students involved in research with JPL, maybe with this earthquake program, and maybe other programs. In that sense, there might've been complementarities. Also, while I was there, and even after I was there, I became a member of the National Academy of Sciences. They love when that happens, they might've celebrated that. Mo is a member of the National Academy. I'm sure Charlie is. There's been recognition at the national level of the kind that Caltech appreciates. Of course, not a Nobel Prize, but Vernon Smith, who was a visitor there, got a Nobel Prize.
ZIERLER: Finally, last question, is there an approach to the social science and the way you collaborated at Caltech that's stayed with you throughout your career, no matter what research topic you've been focused on at the time?
FEREJOHN: Yeah, my interest has always been in democracy, democratic theory, democratic institutions, voting, public decision-making, things like that. And that was true from the beginning. And when I came to Caltech, it was a place where we talked about and developed ways to get analytical traction on some of the issues. Sometimes it was theoretical, sometimes it was experimental, sometimes it was observational, just empirical field types of things. But that's been a constant my whole career. I went to law school because I got interested in a different set of institutions in a democracy, legal institutions, both public and private law institutions. I think that predates being at Caltech. That was what I was interested in when I went to graduate school as a political scientist at Stanford. Caltech was a place I could go in all the directions I could imagine technically to get the most leverage. It was hard not to get a big toolbox or a set of toolboxes so when you found a problem you were interested in, it was very easy to have that conversation. You could say, "I'm interested in this. I know how to study it."
It was just putting your feet up on the coffee table, which is what we did every afternoon, and somebody would say, "I can imagine an experiment that would do that." Or, "What you're saying is, maybe there's something analytical structure to this that you're not seeing." That kind of conversation would happen all the time. Like with most conversations, a lot of it turned out not to work, but it keeps pushing you to change the angle a little bit, look at it a little differently. Then, once you did that, you had this toolkit, and you could make honest progress really fast when you have well-built toolkits or people around who have all the tools you need just across the hall. That was what was unique about Caltech to me. You had all this stuff, high-level theory, very powerful mathematical minds both inside and outside the division, experimental technology, which I learned there. Plus, very good empiricists and lots of support for empirical work. I didn't mention enough about Dave Grether as an econometrician, but he was somebody who, if you were working on an empirical project, developing a statistical model and drawing inferences, David was a genius about that.
You'd go to his office, and you would see the world differently after a while because for one thing, it would all become very simple because David would take a very complicated, strip it down, and say, "Here's the basic problem right here. Tell me about this." And these people all had this capacity to bring those different views to you. That was unique. I don't think the division is appreciated for what it was at the Institute widely, but of course, probably the other divisions aren't appreciated widely either, except for physics. But we'd all go, incidentally, to the Dick Feynman annual lecture. I think every spring, physicists from all over the world, including obviously people at Caltech who weren't in physics, some of the social scientists, would come, and in a pretty good auditorium, he would stand up there and talk about the state of physics from the standpoint of experiments and theory. And the thing about Feynman was, he was like Grether in a sense. He could take this enormously complex set of experimental findings and very complicated theories and make them just come to life for you. You'd walk out of there going, "I can do that." Then, of course, you'd forget how to do it. But that was an annual event. We'd all go troop over. It was fun. That was something I haven't done at Stanford.
ZIERLER: Well, John, this has been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so happy we were able to do this. I'm very interested HSS history at Caltech, so I'd like to thank you for your perspective.
FEREJOHN: My pleasure.