Over two months after the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) released a controversial report on tensions within the University of Manitoba department of economics, the national union is calling on the university to act immediately on its recommendations.
“The administration can bluster all it wants, but at the end of the day there’s still a problem that needs to be solved and we stand ready to work with the administration and the [faculty] association to find a way forward,” said David Robinson, CAUT executive director.
The report on the department of economics was compiled on the basis of an investigation conducted in the spring and summer of 2013. The report ultimately concluded that non-mainstream or “heterodox” economics professors had been systematically marginalized in the department since 2006, violating both the traditions of the department up until that point and the academic freedom of the professors in question.
The CAUT economics report was the first of two released about the University of Manitoba since the beginning of this year. The second, which detailed disputes within the faculty of architecture, recommended that dean Ralph Stern be dismissed from any administrative or supervisory role in the faculty.
The Manitoban reported last week that Stern would not be seeking re-appointment as dean when his term ends on Aug. 31.
“I think with the architecture program there was a lesson learned [ . . . ] I hope now that we see some action on the economics program,” Robinson said.
The report on the department of economics makes several claims about the working conditions and ideological direction of economics at the U of M since 2006.
The report makes a fundamental distinction between heterodox and mainstream, or “orthodox,” economists. Generally speaking, heterodox economists are seen to occupy the left side of the political spectrum, focusing on the influence of power dynamics on the distribution of resources.
Mainstream or orthodox economists, on the other hand, are largely seen by the heterodox economists as occupying the right or the centre of the political spectrum. They study the market economy, using mathematical and statistical models in hopes of predicting the aggregate behaviour of individual buyers and sellers.
The CAUT report outlines myriad disputes within the department between these two groups, arguing that heterodox economists have been marginalized over time and no longer hold positions of authority or influence in the department.
Revelations include the fact that labour studies broke from the economics department in 2010 after what the CAUT report describes as harassment on the part of mainstream economists toward their labour studies counterparts.
Furthermore, reviews of both the undergraduate and graduate programming within the department excluded heterodox professors, according to the CAUT report, and thus established curriculum changes that favoured mainstream economic approaches.
These disputes between the two opposing camps extend into personnel matters such as the hiring of a professor in Canadian economic policy, whereby the dean of the faculty of arts allegedly ensured that the hiring committee would be dominated by mainstream economists. The report also goes into considerable detail about internal disputes over the selection of a department head.
Robert Chernomas, a heterodox economics professor at the U of M, was interviewed by CAUT during its investigation and his concerns are cited at length in the report.
Among those concerns was a grievance filed by Chernomas and the University of Manitoba Faculty Association in 2009 claiming that the process for selecting a department head was “contrary to the collective agreement, unfair, unreasonable, and biased in relation to Dr. Chernomas.”
Chernomas had applied for the job but was not shortlisted by the committee, which CAUT describes as being dominated by “members who favoured mainstream economics.” The committee eventually selected Pinaki Bose, an economics professor from the University of Memphis, in 2010.
“The department head that came in here with the promise of reconciling differences has made things much worse,” Chernomas said.
“We’ve been suppressed and isolated and the department is being changed without any regard to our rights and interests.”
Chernomas provided the Manitoban with a letter signed by six members of the U of M economics department outlining what they view as an inadequate response from U of M senior administration to the recommendations in the CAUT report.
The recommendations revolve around a perceived restoration of balance within the department, ensuring that both heterodox and mainstream professors are well represented on committees responsible for curriculum development and faculty hires.
However, CAUT also recommends that an acting head from outside the department be appointed to replace Bose, that the curriculum be immediately reviewed with heterodox input, and that the next three department hires should be heterodox economists.
Despite the CAUT recommendations, Bose is seeking a renewal of his term as department head.
The other side
The CAUT report has been met with consternation by both senior administration and several faculty members in the department of economics.
University of Manitoba president David Barnard would not comment when contacted by the Manitoban through marketing and communications last week. However, he has provided several detailed statements on the matter to the University of Manitoba senate and to the wider campus community.
“We do find ways in our society and in our academic communities to protect against the ongoing disadvantaging of minorities by the majority, often taking longer than many of us would like to bring changes about. But we do this when there is clear evidence of inequity,” Barnard said in a statement.
“It is reckless to suggest that a majority of members of an academic unit acting through established collegial processes is being tyrannical, without a great deal of evidence in hand—and carefully weighed—to support that conclusion. There is no indication in the report that the committee had such evidence.”
All faculty and administrative staff were informed of the investigation and encouraged by CAUT to participate. However, most chose to remain silent.
According to Janice Compton, an economics professor at the U of M, their refusal to participate stems from a perception of bias on the part of the investigators.
Compton was particularly outspoken about the CAUT report, writing a scathing critique of the national union’s investigation on a blog she maintains with her husband, Ryan, also a U of M economics professor. When contacted by the Manitoban, she vigorously defended the silence of her colleagues.
“Spending time responding to this and going through the recommendations they made when it’s being made on biased information to begin with doesn’t seem to be a valid use of time, in my opinion,” Compton said.
“I think this whole report should have just been ignored.”
In particular, Compton maintains that changes to the undergraduate and graduate curricula were made through a collaborative process that ultimately benefits the department and responds directly to student needs.
At the undergraduate level, the department has increased quantitative requirements by bolstering economic theory and econometrics. These changes will take effect this fall.
At the graduate level, the department has removed some heterodox and mainstream elective requirements, reducing the overall number of courses needed to graduate. According to Compton, those changes will likely be implemented in the 2016-17 academic year.
“This is out of a desire of the majority of the department to have standards that are consistent with the other economics departments across the country so that our graduates are trained in the same quantitative skills that the other graduates have,” she said of the curriculum changes.
“It has moved toward a more standard curriculum that is similar to other universities.”