UVM economics professor is fighting for his job and ideals

John Summa, an economics professor at the University of Vermont, is fighting to keep his job. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

BURLINGTON — University of Vermont economics professor John Summa is looking forward to his day in court, but until that arrives, he’s sounding the alarm on his own.

The 60-year-old lecturer was informed in January that, after nearly a decade at UVM, his contract would not be renewed. He responded by filing a grievance, but his efforts to be reinstated have thus far failed.

Summa says he’s being railroaded by the university for teaching a radical brand of economics that focuses on the ecological impacts of globalization and challenges assumptions that underpin the neoclassical standard model. The case puts a spotlight on what Summa said is a chilling of academic freedom.

His current contract is up in June, and if he’s not reinstated through the grievance process, Summa says he will appeal to the Vermont Labor Relations Board and eventually take his case to court.

“It’s going to court without a doubt,” Summa said.

The UVM faculty union, United Academics, supported Summa through the first round of the grievance process, but has declined to sponsor his appeal to Provost David Rosowsky. Julie Roberts, the union vice president, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I don’t want to say anything negative about the union. We had different tactics,” Summa said.

Enrique Corredera, UVM’s executive director of public affairs, said that academic freedom is a “highly cherished principle” at the university. Beyond that, officials would not comment on Summa’s contentions Corredera said because the situation involves a “personnel matter that is currently being grieved.”

While university officials won’t address his case, documents Summa is providing the media show their reasoning. College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Williams Falls, writes in a letter denying Summa’s initial appeal that his decision was based on “deficiencies in your teaching noted in your peer evaluations.”

Those peer evaluations noted that “concerns were raised about text-heavy slides, the use of chalk/white boards in a way that made material hard for students to follow, and an over reliance on non-academic reading materials,” according to Falls letter.

Summa said his colleagues in the Department of Economics cherry picked lectures to attend for peer evaluations, and relied on “highly subjective” critiques of his teaching. Neither Dean Falls nor Prof. Sarah Solnick, the chair of the Department of Economics, responded to interview requests.

He points to a 5-0 vote in favor of his reinstatement by the College Faculty Standards Committee, an advisory panel that makes recommendations to the dean. In contrast, his colleagues in the Department of Economics voted 10-1 not to renew his contract, Summa said.

Summa said the antipathy, or in some cases outright hostility, toward his teaching in the Department of Economics stems from what he claims is a shift toward “the uber free market perspective that has taken over in the last 10 years.”

The brash lecturer, who can be prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, said he’s also a victim of his own success and laments that perhaps he taught his alternative model “too well.”

Students support his bid for reinstatement, and a petition has garnered more than 600 signatures and scores of laudatory comments.

However, Falls wrote in his letter that Summa’s challenges to the standard model were not the reason he’s not being reinstated. “In fact, your colleagues praise your willingness to critique the standard model,” he writes.

The problem, according to Solnick, the department chair, is how Summa is presenting his critique. Solnick wrote in a review that Summa made “provocative assertions that were not questioned or discussed.”

Summa said those assertions are based on the small number of lectures Solnick attended and aren’t reflective of his courses as a whole.

Solnick and others are looking to push him out of the department, according to Summa, because they’ve grown weary of their students challenging them in class with material he presented. There’s also his lack of tenure, which makes him an easy target.

“They’re the club of tenured faculty, and I’m the interloper lecturer they can dispose of,” he said.

Summa said that he never sought tenure, because that would have required a more narrow focus and specialization that would not have allowed him to pursue outside projects, though he acknowledges it would be nice to have that security now.

The shrinking number of tenured faculty and an increasing reliance on lecturers, who have contracts that are renewed every few years, will have a chilling effect on academic freedom going forward, Summa said.

Corredera declined to comment on the number of tenure-track versus non-tenure track faculty at UVM, saying that to do so would “get into bargaining issues.” The university and union are currently working on a new contract, and mutually agreed upon rules for those negotiations don’t allow public comment on the issues at play, he said.

There are still larger forces at work, according to Summa, who has filed voluminous public records requests looking for evidence that UVM and the Department of Economics have received donations from Exxon Mobil or other powerful interests that might feel threatened by his ecological modeling of the economy.

He’s received some of the records he requested earlier this, and is currently sifting through the material. Summa suggested he would have more to say about their contents in the coming weeks.

At this point, Summa is mounting a full strength public crusade without any real hope of being reinstated. The goal has shifted to bringing his critique of neoclassical economics to a grander stage.

“In many ways this is going to offer me a larger venue to teach economics,” Summa said.

He is in the process of filming a documentary with the working title, “Class Action: The Fight Against Dumb and Dumber Classroom Economics,” which he said he hopes to have ready by next fall in time for the Vermont International Film Festival.

Next week, on April 10, Summa and his supporters will host an event at Radio Bean dubbed “A Night of Rage Against UVM’s Thought Control Machine.”

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  • robert bristow-johnson

    The brash lecturer, who can be prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, said he’s also a victim of his own success and laments that perhaps he taught his alternative model “too well.”

    Well, this might not be the most value-neutral reporting, but if accurate, the above statement says a lot.

    Hey John Summa, I’ve been there (but in Electrical Engineering there is much less taught in the classroom that is as subjective). It’s not the end of the world.

    Good luck with your life.

  • Steve Baker

    Funny when Liberals turn on other Liberals because they have different views. There are probably 30-40 high paid Professors that they could dump for teaching dwibble.

  • Felicia Scott

    I have yet to see that anything useful is being taught at UVM. I hope any federal money they are currently receiving can be diverted to some thing useful like vocational schools and work-study programs.