National union demands changes to economics department

University of Manitoba department of economics. Photo by Carolyne Kroeker

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.”

5 Comments on "National union demands changes to economics department"

  1. Laura Brown | March 11, 2015 at 10:00 am |

    As a female, feminist economics professor in the Department of Economics, I am distressed by your reporting on this matter.

    The CAUT report is an attack on all the women in the department of Economics. It is perhaps, but not necessarily the most pernicious attack by a small, powerful group, who use the loaded terms “heterodox” and “mainstream” to characterize themselves as the “heterodox” David fighting the “mainstream” Goliath.

    First, Economics is not divided so clearly into two, If it were, I and most of my colleagues in the department would be considered part of the “heterodox” group. There are equally left-wing faculty members outside the group as inside.

    There are no women inside the group. No female faculty members support the CAUT report.. I have personally asked the President to create a safe working environment for us in response to having experienced my own interactions and other female faculty members’ interactions with the group.

    The group also includes no junior faculty members. It is completely comprised of Full and Associate male professors who have been in the department for around a decade or more.

    The group has repeatedly attacked the hiring of an outstanding junior faculty member in Canadian Economic Policy., They were extremely annoyed when the then Dean of Arts determined that a previous search end without a hire. So, let’s look at the previous search from the perspective of a person outside the group and outside the hiring committee. Four individuals were short-listed for a position in Canadian Economics policy, and all four presented in a public forum. Of the four, three presented papers on Canadian Economic Policy that met the standard of an academic paper. One presented a paper on U.S. policy, and made no reference in the presentation to Canadian Economic Policy. At the time this seemed strange to me, so I took a close look at the paper. The paper had no reference list at the back of the paper. It would not pass a second year course, yet this person was shortlisted for a facutly position at a University. So, trying to determine why this would occur, I looked up the candidate’s affiliation. The candidate was affiliated with an organization with which a search committee member (and part of the group) was very closely affiliated, so much so that one of the national research funds had at one point treated it as his primary affiliation. When I later learned the Dean had circumvented a hire, it did not surprise me.

    The subsequent hiring was entirely on merit. The person was not known to anyone in the department prior to applying for the position. The person hired has proven their worth through teaching and research, while succeeding in national competitions for researching funding to support graduate student research. Please, if you ever want to repeat an accusation that attacks a faculty member in our department, contact the department head to check your facts.

  2. where is a copy of the report??

  3. Chris Borst | March 11, 2015 at 9:26 pm |

    “It has moved toward a more standard curriculum that is similar to other universities.”

    In other words, the charges made by Chernomas and others are exactly true: orthodoxy is being imposed. So much for any reason to attend the U of M.

  4. Julian Wells | March 12, 2015 at 3:33 pm |

    You’d think that economists, of all people, would understand the merits of product differentiation as a competitive strategy, but no: they think they can get ahead by being the same — no wonder it’s called lamestream economics!

  5. Janice Compton | March 12, 2015 at 4:28 pm |

    Chris,
    The new curriculum does not remove any course offerings at the undergraduate level and the required heterodox courses in the honours program are still required in the new curriculum. There is still a lot of diversity in the optional courses, this has not changed. If you want to focus on Marxist economics in your undergraduate electives, there is no barrier to doing this. If you want to study heterodox economics at the graduate level, there is no barrier to doing this. However, the new curriculum does increase the required credits of empirical courses (math and econometrics), and streamlines the BA, the BA Advanced and the Honours programs so that students can more easily move into a higher degree (previously, if you decided in your third year point that you would like to do an honours degree, it would be difficult to do so). The additional emphasis on the empirical courses now puts our curriculum in line with economics degrees from other universities. With these changes, our students can better compete for jobs and grad school admissions with economics graduates from Manitoba and from across the country.
    Janice Compton

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