Patty’s Bench: UVM honors a retiring associate dean and her gift for listening to students, but ignores what she heard

Following 2018 commencement, Patty Corcoran, UVM’s beloved Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), retired from UVM after 37 years of service. To honor her a new wooden bench was installed at 438 College Street, which has inscribed on it the following: “For Patty, who would always sit and listen.” Yes, indeed, Patty listened, and she had a gift for listening to students, to which the bench attests. CAS Dean William Falls stated that Patty had “deep institutional knowledge” and possessed “incredible interpersonal skills.”

In addition to “Patty’s bench,” which was presented to Patty on graduation day, the outgoing associate dean received the President’s Our Common Ground Staff Award, which “recognizes staff who exemplify values of respect, integrity, innovation, openness, justice, and responsibility.” Patty also was deservedly honored by the UVM Foundation, which established a permanent student scholarship in her name, the Patty Corcoran Scholarship Fund.

UVM having it both ways: Dismissing Corcoran’s letter of support

The bestowing of all the well-deserved gratitude contrasts markedly with the dismissive statements about Patty made by the Dean and Provost during my examination of them under oath at a hearing last year before the Vermont Labor Relations Board in the matter of my grievance for wrongful denial of reappointment. A large part of their sworn testimony was centered on a support letter Patty wrote that strongly backed my reappointment as a full-time lecturer in economics. The letter was sent to UVM’s Department of Economics Chair, Sara Solnick, ahead of my reappointment review in 2016, along with support letters from top performing students. Dean Falls and Provost Rosowsky described Patty’s writing of the letter as “inappropriate” and not based on viewing the “evidence,” despite interacting with (and listening to) countless students of mine over eight years.

Separating the “weak” teachers from the “strong”

Patty’s words, such as “John’s strength as a teacher is well known by all in the Student Affairs Division of the Dean’s Office” and “He is a strong, caring and knowledgeable instructor who takes genuine interest in his students…John is a huge asset to UVM,” were not based on the “evidence,” chimed UVM’s Provost, Dean and Chair of the Department of Economics. Patty explained why she could write this, though. Listening to many students, she wrote, allowed her to know who the “weak” teachers were and which teachers were “strong” — in short she listened well, and students trusted her to say what they knew and thought about their teachers. But Dean Falls, her boss, implied her letter represented insubordination, when he was examined under oath. And Provost Rosowsky defended his statements. I have it all filmed and it will be edited into a film about my case of wrongful denial of reappointment at the University of Vermont.

Dean and Chair discuss efforts to “exclude” the Corcoran letter

Even worse, the Chair and Dean were caught discussing the possibility of excluding the Corcoran letter from my dossier, and the Chair sent an email to UVM’s Department of Economics faculty before they reviewed my dossier, essentially telling them (the faculty) to ignore the Corcoran letter, and wrote that there was “no way” to “exclude” the letter. In emails obtained through a public records request, the Chair expressed dismay over the letter, particularly how it would be “awkward” for the department if the letter remained in my dossier, given that I might not get reappointed (mostly due to the Chair’s negative peer reviews). The Chair wrote the key unsubstantiated negative comments about my teaching, so clearly Patty’s words would represent a challenge to the Chair’s credibility.

The Vermont Labor Relations Board, where I filed my grievance after UVM swept all this, and much more, under the rug, is led by Chair Richard Park (who has deep ties to UVM). When I presented evidence of the Chair’s actions to the Board, members ignored the facts (the Board did not “find” any facts related to the Chair’s behavior). Yet the facts show a Chair working behind the scenes against my reappointment by exploring if Patty’s support letter could be excluded — a letter from a distinguished and revered member of the UVM community.

What’s more, the record shows that the Chair took it upon herself to broadcast her disapproval of the Corcoran letter to faculty right before they voted on my reappointment — a clear interference in the process of reappointment, thus tainting the vote, what amounts to a violation of my right to include the letter. But the Labor Relations Board ignored these facts when presented with the evidence. The Chair, as the factual evidence clearly shows, was the leader in a move to remove me from the department for purportedly not teaching the standard model of economics “fully and fairly,” (a claim that could not be substantiated). Distinguished members of UVM’s Faculty Standards Committee, meanwhile, which reviewed my dossier and the Chair’s behavior (and then promptly voted me reappointed unanimously), believed that the Chair was clearly “out to get” me, as one committee whistleblower admitted (this fact was entered into evidence, too).

“Targeted” for removal — “pushing their buttons”?

Patty’s description of my teaching, based on her gift for listening to students and her “deep institutional knowledge,” clearly stood in the way of the Chair’s “railroading” of me out of teaching (a conclusion reached by one lawyer who has reviewed the facts). In case the reader has any doubts about the use of the term “railroading,” one UVM official recently wrote that I was “targeted” for removal by the Chair and certain faculty because I had “pushed their buttons.” Some of those buttons are far-right ideological ones — the UVM Department of Economics, once self-described as a heterodox department, has since shifted to the right, where now conservative neoliberal and neoclassical economists are in the majority.

As for this right-wing tilt (along with opportunism of a few left-over liberal economists), during the same year that I was voted out the Department of Economics promoted to full professor, Marc Law, a senior fellow at the right-wing Fraser Institute of Canada (a think-tank heavily bankrolled by Koch Brothers and fossil-fuels industry money). And a year earlier another senior conservative member of the department, Art Woolf, directly received a donation from a homegrown version of the Koch Brothers (a Vermont-based right-wing, anti-union firm through its charitable foundation), which gave $800,000 to UVM in 2015 and 2016 (including to the Grossman School of Business), according to IRS records. The Vermont firm’s foundation funded a newly created chair in the business school at UVM with a “mandate” to “promote…capitalism”

The concept of “good” economics does not exist in the profession

Challenging the status quo, as the UVM official cited above made clear, can provoke a “vindictive” retaliation from facutly, based on this official’s experience. It was exactly what happened to me, as the facts show. I have argued that the real issue behind my removal was that I was not teaching what the Chair and conservative department members deemed “good” economics (word choice by Chair Solnick). Others were teaching “good” economics. So the reason “really why,” in the Chair’s words, the department had run “out of patience” with me was “content.”

No matter how the Chair tries to spin the meaning of “content,” it is quite clear they did not want me to criticize the standard model (the Chair’s “good” economics) with serious challenges in the form of presentation of valid, competing models and visions (post-keynesian, classical and neo-Marxian, Austrian, deep ecological, etc.), which I was doing. This included assigning Steve Keen’s provocative but authoritative book, Debunking Economics. Exposure to these schools of thought, Keen’s book and associated critiques of the core curriculum standard model was not welcome by most, as I learned after I was removed. The Chair, of course, maintains that this is not true and that it was how I was presenting these alternatives that led to my dismissal. She made unsubstantiated claims that I made provocative statements and did not teach the standard model fully and fairly. This is pure pretext (aimed at hiding the real motive), as I proved in front of the Labor Board. Most observers (including hundreds of students) see right through this, especially if they have been in any of my classes.

What is meant by the Chair when using the word “good” economics? First, it is laughable to even refer to any economics as “good” economics, and most economists would scoff at the notion, largely because everybody knows that your good economics is my idea of bad economics, and vice versa. In other words, there is no agreed upon consensus anywhere about what constitutes good economics. Thus the Chair’s words reveal a complete lack of the existential crisis and raging debates about standard model approaches going on in the profession, and the fact that even many top practitioners in the field have abandoned the approach.

Clearly, then, content was what really pushed the buttons of my colleagues: I argue it was among other things my challenging ecological and maverick critiques of neoclassical economics (again, the standard model at the core of UVM’s curriculum). The Chair tried to spin this during my deposing of her under oath to mean again how I was teaching and that she meant that I was not teaching economics well. But as I indicated to her lawyer, who interfered repeatedly during the deposition, “good” is not an adverb, it is an adjective! The very literate Chair would have had to write not teaching economics “well,” which is entirely different from writing that somebody is teaching or not teaching “good” economics.

My economic ideas were considered so not good (e.g., bad) in fact, that it led one colleague to verbally attack me in front of students for criticizing a standard economics trade model to which he was professionally attached. I had exposed some of the model’s assumptions as defective, and presented an informed challenge to the standard model depiction of how capitalist firms actually behave —but only after fully teaching it. My sin? I had presented to the students the concept of “real capitalist competition” as a real-world, rigorously tested alternative view of how capitalist firms actually compete, as opposed to just presenting a highly idealized perfect competition model that lies at the core of the standard trade model, again which I had presented to the students in three separate classes prior to doing any criticism of it (following my syllabus and textbook). The alternative competition model is that of Anwar Shaikh, a preeminent economist published by Oxford University Press. The colleague ridiculed the alternative approach without having any knowledge of it, and right in front of my student, which is completely out of line (I documented the attack, corroborated by a student witness in writing, and sent it to the Dean — to no avail).

Yet the Chair claims, again, it was how I was teaching, not what I taught, that led to my removal. As stated before, this claim is a specious attempt to redefine the meaning of “content.” Once again, the “how” I was teaching twist is clearly undermined by her own words in an email obtained from a public records request. The “how” part, as her words make clear (time management, etc.), is clearly set apart from actual content — the “what” part. She makes a clear distinction between these two by constrasting content with issues like time management. Content, then, cannot be contorted into a safe “how” I was teaching claim along with time management concerns to hide the obvious disapproval of my challenges to the standard model and exposure of students to alternative ways of thinking. It was what I was teaching, therefore, from which the Chair wants to divert attention, that elicited their disapproval (and as to how I was doing it, I would say I was showing very effectively why the standard model economics is deeply flawed). She had to say I was not teaching “fully and fairly” but that got her into trouble because it was not substantiated with any facts, as I have demonstrated. See the Chair’s over-reach by claiming I even made an error, which I fully debunked.

The “what” part (content), I argue, was related to my mostly ecological criticism of standard model economics (although there was clearly other content that pushed their buttons) of the standard model (profoundly missing in the department’s curriculum and any classes), which was deemed “provocative” by the Chair — such as presenting to students an “invisible foot” model of markets (in front of the Chair) and contrasting it with the dogmatically taught “invisible hand” model of modern textbooks. In short, she had to invent the idea that I did not present the standard model properly in order to get away with this — otherwise she looks like she is opposed to being provocative and critical, which would constitute a violation of my free speech rights.

Invisible foot” economics of markets — bad economics?

Teaching an “invisible foot” model (the Chair probably never even heard of) was clearly bad economics from the Chair’s point of view (again she tries to spin this to be how I presented this model, not the model itself). “Invisible foot” refers to how markets can incentivize ecological destruction and, in general, is a model that shows how markets can be anti-social. Remember, the Chair implied I was not teaching “good” economics (in her email to a colleague that I obtained through a public records request). She did not write, “not teaching economics well”. “Good” describes a subject, and “well” would be used to describe action (how somebody was teaching). The lawyers twisted “good” to mean “well”. Really? It does not pass the smell test — as it is obvious to anybody that this represents a lawyer’s attempt to manipulate the truth.

In the same email, the Chair excuses bad (as evaluated by students) teachers in the department because they are teaching so-called “good” economics (read standard model with some mild criticism of shortcomings of this approach to economics), for which she gives them good reviews. They get tenure, and I get railroaded out. I got excellent reviews from students, being highly rated in the year they kicked me out. Overall, during the review period, I was exceeding half the department based on over 1,250 student reviews, and I was teaching double the load of others, with some of the hardest courses (econometrics, statistics, international finance, etc.). Not just a basic micro section and a pet seminar course, which others did.

As my students know, furthermore, I meticulously taught the standard model, precisely because I needed students to understand its mechanics in order to deconstruct it and explore its limitations and dead ends. I would use multi-colored chalk diagrams to illustrate all the key parameters, variables and dynamics, ad nauseam in fact. Geeks loved it, but students just trying to get a requirement (non-majors) done would have prefered less involved standard model chalkboard work. The Chair’s claim of not teaching the model “fully and fairly” first (before criticizing it) thus is absolutely false, and represents a red herring — and a claim she was unable to substantiate in sworn testimony. Yet the allegation was sent to the Dean, who relied on it to deny my reappointment. To date, nobody has answered my factually based arguments in this matter, and I doubt the Supreme Court of Vermont will either, where my case currently is under appeal.

Finally, I wish Patty a wonderful post-UVM life and thank her for being honest in describing my teaching as “exceptional,” and in writing that I was a “huge asset to UVM.” Thank you, Patty.

~JS