In memory of Professor David Marsden
30 September 2021
David Marsden joined LSE as a lecturer in the Department of Industrial Relations in 1980. He had a long and distinguished career, first in the Department of Industrial Relations, where he was promoted to professor, and subsequently in the Department of Management. He worked for many years with colleagues at CEP on topics including employment and industrial relations, youth employment and training, performance-related pay, performance management and individual employee voice.
David Metcalf, emeritus professor at LSE and CEP associate, remembers Professor Marsden’s broad-ranging contributions to academia.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a polymath, as ‘a person of varied learning, a great scholar’. Quite a lot of people I know have got one of these characteristics. Very few have got two, but David did. He was truly a polymath.
I want to take three areas: his time as a super distinguished LSE academic, his international links, and his public service. David hadn’t actually retired, he was still going, still active, after four decades. Some academics hang on too long, but in David's case it was because he had got so much to contribute. That's a terrific way of describing his commitment to institutions and to colleagues.
On his research, I first came across David when he wrote a terrific book in the 1980s called The End of Economic Man? Custom and Competition in Labour Markets, which was well ahead of its time. It tried to distil standard economics but also custom and practice, which was quite an ambitious task. I think this is a trait that David demonstrated in his academic life: to take quite difficult things and grapple with them. He was very much in the tradition of two distinguished LSE people from the first half of the century: Henry Phelps Brown, a distinguished labour economist and Ronald Coase, who was a Nobel Prize winner at LSE and then went to Chicago.
On research I would also pick out his work on youth employment and training and his material on how to elicit better performance in the public sector – the mechanisms by which you elicit performance and productivity. In particular, David was always concerned about outcomes. He wasn't just worried about the institution, or what the process was, he wanted to know what the outcome was. And actually there are a lot of people who don't do that: that's by far the most difficult part of doing this sort of research, and David very much grappled with it.
On teaching: he was excellent at mentoring junior staff. He knew employment systems in loads of different countries. He was a world expert on what we call comparative labour relations. In more recent times, he'd rather changed gear and taught a very successful course, somewhat to my surprise, on negotiation. I don’t sort of think of David as a negotiator. Sometimes I think of him as sort of standing firm, but never really thought of him particularly as negotiating. But he taught an excellent course, which the students all loved, on Negotiation Analysis.
And then of course, inevitably in academic life, you have to do some administration. Quite a lot of people try and hide from that, but David didn’t. And let me tell you, dealing with LSE egos is not easy. David definitely had to grapple with that. He was also the general editor of the journal which the department put out, the British Journal of Industrial Relations and he served on the LSE Council, the academic board and as the head of department. He was particularly brave about reorganising the department administration when many of us had let it go for about 10 years. He had a real backbone in dealing with the administration, which many of us didn't have.
The second thing to mention is his international links. David was a wonderful linguist: French, German, Mandarin. He has been a visiting professor at the universities of Aix, Rome and Trier. Most academics will go to places like Australia or America as a visiting professor, David didn't do that – he went somewhere where he had to speak a different language. He was also president of SASE, the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. He was the editor of a French Ministry of Labour journal Travail et Emploi. And he founded the German Journal of Industrial Relations and the Socio-Economic Review, which are both still thriving. If you read the tributes to David on the LSE website, you will see that tributes come from all over: Japan the US, Australia, France, Germany, India, Britain, of course. He had international connections and the love of the students from all over.
And I also would emphasise his public service. David was certainly an adviser to many international bodies – the European Union, the International Labour Organization, the OECD, the World Bank and so on – and two or three British trade unions as well. The topics were very varied. I’ve touched on productivity in the public sector and youth employment. He was particularly keen on making sure that teachers’ performance-related pay worked. He’d been asked specifically by Martine Aubry, who was the French Minister of Labour – Jacques Delors’ daughter – to advise on the French 35-hour week. David was gracious and explained how you could actually manage it, and finesse it and make sure it worked, which was excellent. He was always concerned with trying to improve the lot of all working people both in the workplace but also more generally in society. The tributes to him have emphasised his intellectual distinction, his collegiality and his empathy. We have truly lost a polymath.
This is an edited version of the eulogy given by Professor Sir David Metcalf in memory of Professor David Marsden.