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Goolsbee Finds Tenure an Offer He Can’t Refuse in Departing

U.S. Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee
U.S. Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee. Photographer: Stephen Yang/Bloomberg

Austan Goolsbee, who spent the last 30 months trying to push the U.S. economy to create jobs, is leaving the White House to save his own: The president’s top economic adviser is heading back to the University of Chicago so he won’t lose tenure.

Goolsbee, 41, is the latest in a string of administration officials to leave Washington to avoid surrendering their permanent jobs in academia.

“It’s similar to ‘more time with family’ in that it closes the issue,” said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington and the author of “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.”

Lawrence Summers, who had previously served as president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, left his White House job as head of the National Economic Council in December, saying he had to do so to keep his tenure. Summers, 56, now a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is listed on the university’s website as teaching two economics classes in the spring semester.

Alan Krueger resigned in November as the Treasury Department’s chief economist when his two-year leave from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, ended.

“Any other reason you can think of would invite follow-up questions,” Tannen said. “But no one is going to say, ‘What is it about your family that makes you want to spend time with them?’ or ‘Why do you want tenure?’”

Three-Year Leave

Goolsbee, who began advising President Barack Obama when Obama first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, has been on leave for almost three years. He worked on the 2008 presidential campaign and was confirmed as a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in March 2009, becoming chairman last September.

He’s often been the face of the administration on television, defending Obama’s policies and putting the best spin on two years of often bad economic news. On June 3, he portrayed the report showing the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent in May, the highest of the year, as a “little bump.”

“Most of those who leave government are ready to do so,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “These jobs are tough, especially to those used to an academic schedule.”

Real Threat

Whether the school would revoke Goolsbee’s tenure if he remained at the White House is unclear, as University of Chicago officials wouldn’t talk specifically about him. Its policy is to grant leaves for only a year, said Allan Friedman, a spokesman for the university’s Booth School of Business.

“Exceptions are sometimes made, in particular for government service,” Friedman said. “Final decisions about approving leaves of absence are made by the provost’s office.”

Still, the threat is real, even for those who are trying to save the economy -- or the world.

“Most public universities are tough on the two-year-leave rule,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “He would have lost his tenure.”

Thurber added: “Was it worth it? I don’t know. Kissinger lost tenure at Harvard after two years’ leave.”

No ‘Limitless’ Leaves

Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said institutions are generous in allowing their professors to take leave to perform public service. But that leave “can’t be limitless.”

“It would be pretty difficult to operate if they couldn’t depend on their faculty being available to teach and conduct research,” Toiv said in an e-mail. “And if they make one exception ...”

Harvard University forced Henry Kissinger to resign his post as a professor of government in January 1971, two years after he left the university to serve as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, according to an article at the time in The Crimson, the university newspaper.

The resignation was accompanied, however, by a series of measures to induce Kissinger to return, including a recommendation that he be reappointed if he reapplied before November 1972, the paper said.

Moynihan and Harvard

Daniel Patrick Moynihan resigned as Nixon’s counselor for urban affairs in 1970 to retain his Harvard tenure, according to The Crimson. He left again when Nixon named him ambassador to India, and he went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate from New York as a Democrat.

Goolsbee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Yale University and received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the University of Chicago’s website. He describes himself on his university web page as a “data hound” who studies the Internet economy, taxes and government policy.

The return to academia is likely to be lucrative for Goolsbee, who has three children. In his last year at Chicago, he earned $465,000, according to federal financial disclosure reports. Goolsbee’s salary as CEA chairman is $191,300 a year.

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