UVM’s Econ Chair’s “biggest” concern about my teaching is proven false, having no factual support. Can anything the Chair wrote be taken seriously?

In the Dean’s denial of the Grievant’s Step2 grievance, he made clear the gravity of this biggest concern communicated to him by the Chair in her summary statement. “Professor Solnick summarized the faculty concern over the manner in which you presented the model this way: ‘the model must be presented fully and fairly before its limitations are examined’” (UVM Exhibit 50). Based on Solnick’s statement, the Dean thus concluded that “your critique was not presented in the most pedagogically sound way”. As the proposed findings of facts show, however, the Dean here is relying on a stated peer concern (a premise) that cannot be supported in the proposed findings of facts. Thus, it cannot be a basis for denying his Step2 grievance after initially denying his reappointment.

Below I post the first of four conclusions of law submitted to the Vermont Labor Relations Board in a legal brief after two days of hearings related to my grievance for wrongful denial of reappointment. The following conclusion stands as an indictment of UVM’s faculty review process and behavior of the Department of Economics Chair. The following is just one of four conclusions of law (based on 100 proposed findings of facts) that I filed with the Vermont Labor Relations Board following the February 14-15 evidentiary hearing. Each conclusion outlines violations of my employment rights.





ARTICLE 14.13.a of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which regulates the review process for faculty up for reappointment, states that any “procedural violations of the review process leading to a materially adverse outcome” can be grieved and can be a basis for petition for remedy.

The proposed findings of facts demonstrate a pattern of not only exaggeration and mischaracterization of the Grievant’s lecture content by peers to the other faculty, but also exaggeration and mischaracterization by the Chair in her summary statement to the Dean outlining those concerns about the Grievant’s teaching. The Dean’s decision to deny reappointment rested solely on peer concerns, as he has acknowledged, once he received evidence of efforts to improve teaching. These reported peer concerns, inaccurately summarized by the Chair in her statement to the Dean, thus represent the only evidence to support denial of reappointment.

As Chair Solnick stated in her email to a faculty member that identifies the key issue: “The issue of time management is mentioned several times…I don’t think this should be put on the same level with problems related to presenting models…”. Leaving the issue of time management aside for the moment, the Chair here is acknowledging that how models were presented — namely the standard model allegedly not being presented fully and fairly — was a key concern.

During testimony, the Chair admitted this concern was the biggest concern, and in her Grievant evaluation and summary statement to the Dean writes that this is a “serious” concern the faculty had about the Grievant’s teaching. When asked under oath to identify the source of this concern, the Chair indicated that there were two classes visited by peers where it was found that he was not teaching the standard model fully and fairly. The two peers the Chair identified during her testimony were Dr. Donna Ramirez-Harrington and Dr. Marc Law. The Chair was asked if there were any other classes visited from where this concern arose, and the Chair indicated that there were no other classes reviewed related to this concern.

Under examination, Dr. Ramirez-Harrington was asked to explain how she teaches the same standard trade model (the model that was presented by the Grievant in EC143, the class she visited). She explained the key components of full and fair presentation of the “supply and demand” model of trade (two-country, one good). She was asked to compare her textbook diagrams of that model with the Grievant’s lecture slides used in his class that she reviewed and to point to where the Grievant had failed to present the model content fully and fairly, particularly the details she identified as essential for making a full and fair presentation.

Under examination, Dr. Harrington was unable to point to any evidence supporting the concern that the Grievant did not teach the standard trade model fully and fairly. Explanation of winners and losers from trade in the form of changes to producer and consumer surpluses resulting from opening to trade were found on the Grievant’s slides, and Dr. Harrington acknowledged these key concepts would be required to present the model’s merits and key conclusions fully and fairly. She also acknowledged that the Grievant had assigned a homework exercise aimed at having students apply the concepts of winners and losers from trade that demonstrates the model’s main conclusion — that while winners and losers exist, the net result is that both countries overall benefit from free trade. Dr. Harrington acknowledged that all these key principles and concepts needed for full and fair presentation were presented in the classroom and homework assignment.


On further examination, Dr. Harrington was questioned about her criticism of the Grievant’s teaching related to alleged use of text-heavy PowerPoint slides. She was asked to indicate to the Board where the text heavy slides were. After noting to Dr. Harrington that there were only 2 slides with any text on them at all (the 8 other slides being part of a step-by-step, sequenced model construction with diagrams only), she pointed to the last slide containing conclusions of the lecture. Asked if she believed the slide was text heavy, she said that she believed it was text heavy. As the proposed findings of fact show, the slide had five bulleted lines of text, with the first four bulleted items containing just four words (e.g. Heartland producers gain surplus (+)). The final bulleted item contained the conclusion of the model and lecture: “Worldwide, net welfare gains from trade in corn are the sum of the net gains in Heartland and in Orient”. Heartland and Orient refer to the two-regions modeled in the two-country standard trade model.

Of the ten slides presented, only two had any text in the slide bodies (they all had titles; the last slide title was “The Welfare Gains from Trade,” which is the point the free trade model is making — all nations gain from free trade given the model setup). Only the first and last slides contained any slide body text. The first of the ten slides was an overview of the lecture with 3 overview statements of the objectives of the lecture.

Finally, under examination, Dr. Harrington noted that provocative statements about and criticism of the standard model were made by the Grievant. Dr. Harrington testified that the Grievant criticism and his provocative statements came at the end of the standard model presentation sequence, not before or during it. Leaving aside the claim the model was not presented fully and fairly for the moment, Dr. Harrington thus acknowledged that the Grievant made the provocative statements after presenting the model, not before.

When asked about the syllabus sequence showing the class she visited was the last of 3 classes teaching the standard model, she acknowledged that she only viewed one-third of the entire coverage of content in the course related to the standard model section of the course (there were two previous classes devoted to presenting the standard model). And she acknowledged that the next syllabus section to be covered following her class was aimed at “Going beyond the neoclassical [standard] perspective” and therefore any criticism and provocative statements in anticipation of next class would not have been inappropriate. She also acknowledged that the slides were animated, not static, which allowed for piece-by-piece construction of the model in front of the class.

Dr. Marc Law was the only other peer identified by the Chair as a source for the concern about not teaching the standard model fully and fairly. Dr. Law acknowledged during his examination that the objective of the class he visited (EC220 Global Financial Crisis Seminar), as explained to him in an email from the Grievant prior to the class, that he acknowledged receiving. He acknowledged that the lecture plan was to hold a mock courtroom to explore the issue of subprime lending by looking at the case of Wells Fargo (one of the top subprime lenders leading up the collapse of financial markets in 2008).

Dr. Law acknowledged, furthermore, that the Grievant had no intention of covering any theory or models in the class he visited, and that theory and models were to be covered later in the semester pursuant to the Grievant’s syllabus, which Dr. Law acknowledged reviewing. Dr. Law was asked to explain how the Chair’s statement to the Dean about the Grievant not teaching the model fully and fairly could come from the class he visited if there were no models presented and there was never any intention of covering models at this early stage of the seminar course (mid- September)? He could not explain this discrepancy and instead resorted to saying the Grievant did not run the mock courtroom in a balanced manner, which has nothing to do with teaching a standard model.

Dr. Law acknowledged that the reason there were no models presented at all during the class he visited was because the class time was being devoted to holding a pre-announced and planned mock trial (aimed at debating points and counterpoints in an affidavit prepared by the Grievant about evidence surrounding subprime lending). Students were asked to defend one side of the debate and called to the “stand” to be examined by the Grievant. It was, therefore, by design of the course that no models were presented that day. Dr. Law has acknowledged this under oath. Dr. Law has acknowledged that there were no models presented that day pursuant to the design of the course (and models would be covered later in the seminar) and was unable to explain to the Board how the concern about not teaching a standard model fully and fairly could be sourced to the class he visited if there were no models presented, nor any plan to present theory or models at this early stage of the seminar course.

Dr. Law’s concern about not using enough academic literature was examined by the Grievant during testimony at the hearing. Dr. Law acknowledged, when impeached with the Grievant’s term paper grading rubric, that students were actually required to read peer-reviewed literature and that a minimum of six peer-reviewed articles were to be read, evaluated and included in their term papers (pursuant to the rubric entered into evidence). Peer-reviewed literature, as Dr. Law acknowledged, constitutes academic literature.

He also acknowledged that he had no problem using non-academic literature in a seminar. He disagreed about the ratio of academic literature to non-academic literature (newspaper articles, video, autobiographies, government reports, etc.). While he felt that less non-academic literature is his preference, he was unable to point to any guidelines in the Department of Economics related to what constitutes a sufficient amount of peer review literature.

Finally, Dr. Law acknowledged reading the Grievant’s syllabus for the seminar and agreed that the latter part of the seminar had an academic literature section with referenced articles to be read by students for discussion. He disagreed only in that he would put theory up front instead of later in the seminar, but could point to no guidelines indicating a requirement to structure a seminar in any particular order related to when academic literature should be presented.

In the Grievant’s rebuttal to the Chair’s summary statement of his EC 143 (trade model) teaching, he wrote: “If you look at the slides, they are actually animated and present a dynamic drawing, yet noted as not present by Solnick [in her summary statement]…One set is the partial equilibrium model of trade [reviewed by Dr. Harrington] which is taught by peers using the same kinds of slides. What is more, I am known by my students to spend an enormous amount of time drawing elaborate diagrams in front of them and often bring colored chalk to class to make the diagrams come alive.”

UVM Exhibit 33 has a picture taken from the class visited by Dr. Ramirez-Harrington, which contains the two-colored chalk diagrams. She acknowledged that there were two colors used. As stated in Grievant’s rebuttal to the peer comments about pre-drawn diagrams, the Grievant wrote that sometimes he “draws shell diagrams and fills them in live…in front of the students with their solicited input”.

The Grievant in his rebuttal related to concerns about peer review literature explained that the use of mostly non-academic articles in the early part of the seminar is “an attempt to engage students through fun, intriguing, compelling and informative readings so that they can read and present (required in part 4) PowerPoint presentations based on a peer-reviewed article they select from their research paper sources [minimum six required]…” and that the “arc of the course moves from a few academic articles to an increasing number of them” pursuant to the syllabus.

Concerns about “text-heavy” slides usage (in EC143 only) was cited by the Chair in her summary to the Dean of peer concerns, in addition to concerns about lack of academic articles in his seminar on the Global Financial Crisis (EC220). Moreover, the Chair cited the concern about not teaching the standard model (here in the context of trade) “fully and fairly” as the biggest concern faculty had and one that was a “serious” concern.

In an email obtained from a Vermont pubic records request (UVM Exhibit 51), the Chair writes that: “ It is clear that we expect the standard model to be presented fully and fairly….The content is really why we are out of patience and not willing to let him continue”. In examination, the Chair acknowledged that the word “content” referred to how the class was being taught, specifically acknowledging the concern about allegedly not teaching the model fully and fairly was content related. She said this was the biggest concern about content, which led the department to run out of patience.

Under examination, the Chair acknowledged that this specific content concern (the biggest concern about content) was not a concern in the Grievant’s 2012 review for reappointment. She also acknowledged that this concern was never communicated to the Grievant prior to her evaluation of his teaching in 2016. Thus, the Chair has acknowledged the Grievant had no prior knowledge of the biggest concern about his teaching, one that had become an annoyance (“we are out of patience”).

The proposed findings of fact do not support the evaluation and summary statement of concerns, large and small, made by the Chair to the Dean. This statement misrepresents and mischaracterizes the Grievant’s teaching. This constitutes a breach of the Grievant’s CBA contract rights pursuant to Article 14.13.a of the CBA. Based on the proposed findings of facts, concerns about text-heavy slide usage, lack of usage of academic articles, and most importantly not teaching the standard model fully and fairly, cannot be supported by the evidence, and the existence of such mischaracterizations related to these key concerns should call into question the veracity of any negative peer letter comments and the fairness of their rendering by the Chair in her evaluation and summary statement to the Dean.

In the Dean’s denial of the Grievant’s Step2 grievance, he made clear the gravity of this biggest concern communicated to him by the Chair in her summary statement. “Professor Solnick summarized the faculty concern over the manner in which you presented the model this way: ‘the model must be presented fully and fairly before its limitations are examined’” (UVM Exhibit 50). Based on Solnick’s statement, the Dean thus concluded that “your critique was not presented in the most pedagogically sound way”. As the proposed findings of facts show, however, the Dean here is relying on a stated peer concern (a premise) that cannot be supported in the proposed findings of facts. Thus, it cannot be a basis for denying his Step2 grievance after initially denying his reappointment.

The Dean has acknowledged the high quality of teaching by senior faculty in the Department of Economics. In his evaluation of the Grievant’s teaching related to this observation, he quoted the Chair’s statement about faculty teaching in the department: “the department is a very good teaching department with nearly all senior faculty; thus averages generally represent a high standard of comparison.”

The Chair in her examination acknowledged that the Grievant’s teaching based on student evaluations was at or near department averages, and the chair admits that the Grievant’s “teaching evaluations are mostly, and especially for recent classes, near the average, sometimes better and sometimes worse….The teaching evaluations are not the problem. They are acceptable.. Nobody in the meeting said that the teaching evaluations were disturbing to them”(see UVM Exhibit 51). The Dean, furthermore, acknowledged the same in his comments section of his evaluation of the Grievant: “his student course evaluations remain at or near to department averages”.

Therefore, from the standpoint of student evaluations, one of rubrics used to evaluate faculty teaching pursuant to Article 14.5.e,, the Grievant’s teaching was satisfactory, and by logical deduction, must have improved. If the Grievant’s 2012 review cited student evaluations in two key rubrics as having been below department averages, how could his evaluations not have improved if in his 2016 reappointment review the data show he is at or near (and sometimes above) department average in annual reviews?

If the faculty, Chair and Dean are now agreed that the teaching based on student evaluation is “acceptable” and “and especially for recent classes” (averages the Chair defined as representing a “high standard of comparison”) then these proposed findings of fact undermine UVM’s claim of teaching not having improved based on one of two key evaluation criteria— drawn from hundreds of student evaluations. (UVM Exhibit 24).

In the Grievant’s rebuttal to the Chair, he described the pattern of peer comments (three letters written by her) and her summary statements as evidence of “discrediting, not assessing” a strong lecturer. This view was supported by the Grievant’s narrative testimony under oath when he recounted what he was told when he received an unsolicited call from a current member of UVM’s Faculty Standards Committee. The FSC had reviewed the teaching of the Grievant and found that he had “met the standard for reappointment” and that peer letters should be discounted (see SECTION II below) due to procedural defects related to absence of any interim peer visits to assess progress of the Grievant pursuant to the cautionary language found in the Dean’s first reappointment of the Grievant in 2013.

During testimony, and allowed into evidence over objections by UVM, the Grievant recounted what the FSC committee member said to him. This FSC committee member, who was not on the committee when it reviewed the Grievant’s case, stated that he had been party to discussions by FSC members who had reviewed the Grievant’s case and that they (FSC members) believed Sara Solnick was out to get the Grievant. The proposed findings of facts outlined above support this belief of FSC members, which is the same belief the Grievant had when he wrote in his rebuttal to the Chair: that the “chair’s behavior amounts to discrediting a good teacher rather than doing fair assessment of teaching ability.”

Finally, during examination, the Chair acknowledged contacting the Dean prior to the vote for the Grievant’s reappointment in the Department of Economics to discuss a letter indicating very positive support for the Grievant, written by Associate Dean Patricia Corcoran. The letter described the Grievant as a “strong” lecturer well known to the entire student affairs division in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As Associate Dean Corcoran wrote:

John’s strength as a teacher is well known by all in the Student Affairs division of the Dean’s Office. We are often the first folks to hear when a course is going poorly or when an instructor is perceived as weak. Conversely we are quite likely to hear when an instructor is exceptional — and that is the case with John. Students enjoy his classes, consider him to be approachable, fair and challenging…. We think John is a huge asset to UVM and are very happy to support him” (Grievant Exhibit 73).

Under examination, Chair Solnick was asked why she was inquiring with the Dean (just prior to the Department faculty’s reappointment vote) about the appropriateness of Dean Corcoran’s letter. (She already had seen the peer letters, and had written her own negative letters of the Grievant’s teaching). She stated in an email obtained through a public records request that the Dean “agreed” with her that it was inappropriate to write such a letter while acknowledging that it was the Grievant’s right to include it. She concluded with the following “…therefore there is no way to exclude the letter” (Grievant Exhibit 14). In an earlier email to the Dean, she wrote that it would be “awkward” for the Department to have that letter in the Grievant’s dossier because the vote may go against him. (Grievant Exhibit 49)

The Chair’s email announcement to the full faculty just prior to the review for reappointment represents interference in the RPT process by a faculty person not allowed to vote in an RPT process (pursuant to CBA). The issue of appropriateness of writing the letter should be a matter for Dean Falls to take up with Associate Dean Corcoran, not the Chair with the faculty members about to read the letter and vote on the Grievant’s reappointment.

The Chair and Dean acknowledged the right of the Grievant to have the recommendation letter in his dossier. Therefore, any communication about its merits constitutes unfair interference by the Chair in the RPT process. By communicating her concerns about the letter to the faculty right before the vote, she diminished its value (despite my right to have it included).

This interference thus constitutes a breach of Article 14.13.a in the form of tampering with the dossier, even if the letter was never removed. The notice to the faculty arguably discounted its value and this amounts to a virtual removal of a supportive document from the dossier, which is a violation of the Grievant’s right to include such a letter of support. Furthermore, the Chair’s responsibilities pursuant to RPT as spelled out in Article 14.3 of the CBA, and the Greensheets, make clear that “it is the responsibility of the Chair/Director to oversee the objective assembly of all pertinent, candidate-approved supportive materials…” not oversee removal or attempted removal of supportive documents. (UVM Exhibit 24, p. 000047)

There was no procedural basis for notifying the faculty ahead of the vote about an internal matter between the Dean and his Associate Dean, Patricia Corcoran, and thus this action constitutes a violation of the Grievant’s contract rights pursuant to Article 14.13.a, as the email to the faculty signaled that the letter should not be taken seriously, a violation of the Grievant’s right to include all supportive material without interference.

In Nzomo v. Vermont State Colleges, 136 Vt. 97,99-103 (1978) reappointment and tenure procedure as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement must be scrupulously observed by the college. This same view was put forth by the VRLB in the Grievance of Mary Lee McIaac, 26 VRLB 24 ,83 (2003).

The behavior of the Chair produced a breach in his contract rights pursuant to Article 14.13.a whereby the discounting of the Patty Corcoran letter in front of the peers (and to the Dean who she wrote to express her concerns to about the letter), just before the faculty and Dean would be reviewing the Grievant’s dossier, constitutes interference and a failure to conduct herself pursuant to her RPT responsibilities, which contributed to a materially adverse outcome for the Grievant.

Likewise, peer and Chair exaggerations and mischaracterizations of the Grievant’s teaching, particularly the proposed findings of facts showing there were no facts to support the biggest concern about his teaching, is a violation of Article 14.13.a, as this behavior departs from the CBA expectation that the evaluators will be accurate and unbiased, and scrupulously adhere to RPT procedures outlined in the CBA.