I recently interviewed Kevin Sterling, a former economics student at the University of Vermont, who helped organize and lead a student coalition to diversify UVM’s Department of Economics core curriculum before he graduated in 2015. He is currently writing a book about ecological economics, inspired by his experiences at UVM and what he sees as the problem with the way economics is taught in nearly every department in the United States. Below is the interview in its entirety.
Full disclosure: Kevin Sterling initiated a petition on my behalf, signed by over 700 (mostly) students, “demanding” my reappointment to the Department of Economics after I was wrongfully terminated based on flimsy, unsubstantiated, claims.
JS: Where did you grow up and why did you choose to study at the University of Vermont?
KS: I was born in Bogota, Colombia and moved to Miami, FL when I was 6. I have lived in Miami since then with the exception of the four years I studied at UVM.
How I arrived at UVM is an interesting story. During my senior year of high school, UVM sent me a letter of application. I didn’t have to pay the application fee or submit any additional essays. I decided to apply because there was no real opportunity cost. UVM was the first school I was accepted into. I didn’t think much of it because I had other schools in mind (BU, U of Colorado, Penn State, UCF, Fordham.) One week before the acceptance deadline, I was stuck between Penn State and UCF. On one hand, I wanted to go to Penn State but it was too expensive. On the other hand, UCF was a lot cheaper but I didn’t want to stay in Florida. I received an email from UVM saying I had not submitted financial information they needed in order to release my financial aid package. I sent it. Two days later they replied with an incredible offer. I decided to take my chances and go with UVM. I was also a cross country and track athlete. I emailed the coaches and they said I could walk-on the team. In the end, everything lined up for me to go to UVM. The first time I stepped on campus, it was for orientation.
“Some of the neoclassical professors became hostile towards me (even though they used to like me). For example, the way one professor looked at me as we crossed paths in between classes was clearly not friendly.”
JS: Can you describe your experience at UVM? Did it meet all your expectations academically?
KS: I love the University and I am grateful for all the opportunities it gave me. When I fought with the Economics Department to integrate ecological economics and other schools of thoughts, it was only so that the University could be better. If UVM focused on ecological economics, I believe they could be on par and ideologically challenge neoclassical (supply and demand model) universities, such as the University of Chicago. I believe UVM is already taking steps in this direction with the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics. But I don’t see why the Gund Institute should be housed in a different department instead of just having one economics program focused on ecological economics with multiple schools of thought. The entire University is already in favor of sustainable development. The economics degree shouldn’t be any different.
JS: What programs of study did you major in at UVM and what factors led you to declare these majors?
KS: I entered UVM with an interest in journalism. But since the school didn’t offer a journalism program, I decided to double major in english and political science. I figured that an english major would strengthen my writing and political science would help me understand world politics. But after my second semester, I realized the english major was not for me. In my comparative politics class (POLS 071), we had a two-week section studying political-economy. As soon as I saw that term, it sparked a light within me. I realized I couldn’t understand politics without understanding economics. After class that same day, I went to my dorm and switched majors from english to economics.
JS: But you also stayed with writing, as I recall, as a reporter for the school newspaper, the Vermont Cynic. How did that come about?
KS: One of the benefits of taking a year of English Department courses was that the professors were very welcoming. The late Professor Elaine Harrington was my TAP course instructor (a seminar freshmen take their first semester). She really pushed me to write for the Vermont Cynic, the student-led newspaper. While I had plans to write for the newspaper, I didn’t plan on starting my first semester. I was still adjusting to classes in a new state: I was dealing with winter for the first time; I was trying to make new friends; I was running with the cross-country team; and I also had a work-study job in the University’s bookstore. I had a lot going on but her encouragement convinced me to start writing for the newspaper. I am glad she did because I would write for the newspaper for all four years of college. I wrote for the news section for three years. I wrote everything from breaking news on school fires to investigative pieces on student housing. And during my senior year I began writing editorials about why we need to change how we teach economics. The newspaper became the avenue where I was able to voice my opinion and connect with students and faculty who felt the same.
JS: What other benefits did you get from taking english classes, or other classes, before concentrating in economics?
KS: Another benefit of taking english classes is that I was able to see how the English Department structures its curriculum. From what I can remember, the English Department’s degree requirements gave students plenty of opportunities to take classes that interested them. However, there was one class that every English student had to take: Eng 100, Literary Theory. I decided to take this class my second semester freshmen year to get it out of the way early. The class goes through multiple theories that can be used to study, analyze and interpret literature. It was the most intensive, intellectually challenging course I took at the university. (The professor did warn me the first day of class that the class is designed to prepare upper-classmen before embarking on their senior seminars.) The class taught me how to interpret a topic through multiple lenses. While I was writing editorials about economics my senior year, this same english professor emailed me to speak in his office about my writings. He encouraged me to write a book expanding on my editorials. While at first I was hesitant about this, his support gave me the courage to begin.
“By the time I began studying economics my sophomore year, I had already been exposed to two different degrees within the University that were teaching students multiple, opposing philosophies. I began wondering why this was not the case with the economics degree.”
Similarly, my favorite classes in political science were my political theory classes, where we study multiple theorists. By the time I began studying economics my sophomore year, I had already been exposed to two different degrees within the university that were teaching students multiple, opposing philosophies. I began wondering why this was not the case with the economics degree.
JS: Can you describe what led you to organize a student coalition while at UVM and what was the purpose of the group?
KS: Since I was born in Colombia and live in Miami, the environment has always been important to me. When I left Bogota, it was contaminated with air pollution. Similarly, climate change and sea level rise is predicted to impact South Florida especially hard. I was becoming frustrated that my economics classes considered the environment an afterthought. In addition, we were still recovering from the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-09. Yet, my classes were promoting this perfect economy in equilibrium. My classes were not addressing the topics I found important.
JS: What did you, and other students like you, feel was missing from UVM’s Department of Economics?
KS: My senior year, I was losing motivation for my economics classes. One of my friends suggested I look into ecological economics through CDAE (Community Development and Applied Economics). I had heard about the program before but I did not know much about it. I started doing research on it and began wondering why I had never been introduced to these classes (many of which were economics classes). My first editorial for the newspaper asked why ecological economics classes didn’t count towards my economics degree even though they were both considered economics classes. CDAE students are allowed to take classes in the Economics Department and receive credit toward their degrees.
JS: What did you decide to do about this double standard of not allowing ecological courses from CDAE to be cross-listed in the Department of Economics when the reverse cross-listing was allowed?
KS: After I wrote the article, my editors at the newspaper told me I needed to talk to Professor Joshua Farley (of CDAE) about it. While they could edit for grammar and syntax, they did not know if my argument was correct. And honestly, neither did I. I emailed Professor Farley and we were able to meet two days before the article was scheduled for publication.
I thought he was going to tell me that I was wrong (like so many of my other economics professors had when I brought up my concerns). Instead, he said I was right. He introduced me to the ecological economics diagram, which changed how I see, think and study the economy. He also introduced me to the history of students also discontent with their economics degree. Beginning with the French Ph.D students who started the Post-Autistic Economics Movement to the EC10 Harvard walkout.
From that point forward, I would no longer tolerate when professors said I was wrong. Now I knew that I was on to something. Professor Farley gave me reading material and I began studying multiple economic theories on my own. I was taking my intermediate micro, macro, and seminar classes while at the same time studying some of the critiques of what I was learning.
“When I realized that other economic students throughout the world felt the same, I began to organize with my classmates whom I believed felt similarly. The Student Coalition was the result.”
When I realized that other economic students throughout the world felt the same, I began to organize with my classmates whom I believed felt similarly. The Student Coalition was the result. I figured that if I had more students besides me, we could pressure the Economics Department to integrate ecological economics into the curriculum.
JS: As you know, my experience as a full-time non-tenured lecturer in UVM’s Department of Economics from 2009-2017 was a mixed one. On the one hand, I taught some courses that were popular with students and that challenged the dominant economics model (at the core of UVM’s curriculum) known as neoclassical economics. On the other hand, doing so pushed the buttons of certain faculty in a department that had become increasingly neoclassical and intolerant of my challenging approaches. What was your experience with acceptance by faculty in the Department of Economics related to presenting serious challenges to the core curriculum ideas in the Department of Economics?
KS: My experience with acceptance of diversity of ideas was mixed. I was nervous when I published my first article because I thought I was going to get attacked by my professors. However, I was surprised when several professors came forward to support me, such as yourself and the late full professor and economic historian Ross Thomson. In the end, they still taught me about economics and I respected them. At that point, I was still learning about different economic theories so I didn’t know which professors believed which theories. As I learned more about the different economic theories, it became obvious that the professors who came from different approaches were far more supportive than the neoclassical professors. Overall, while some professors were hostile towards me, others were more open in sharing their economic views.
JS: What was the reaction like from neoclassical professors?
KS: Some of the neoclassical professors became hostile towards me (even though they used to like me). For example, the way one professor looked at me as we crossed paths in between classes was clearly not friendly. I didn’t let that bother me though because I received support from the CDAE, Political Science and the English departments.
JS: Since you graduated in 2015 and non-neoclassicals teachers like Professor Thomson died and Professor McCrate retired that year, the majority of economists remaining were neoclassical and not interested in exposing students to the alternative schools of thought, particularly ecological perspectives and related models. So your last year there would have allowed you access to some non-neoclassicals? What do you remember about that?
KS: I had an instance where one professor began teaching me after classes the internal inconsistencies of neoclassical economics. Also you introduced me to the ‘Capital Controversies’ debate of the 1970s, (which to this day I wish I would have learned one semester earlier so that I could have brought it up during my intermediate micro class). Overall, while some professors were hostile towards me, some other people were open to share their views. Since I demanded to know more about alternative economic theories, I began teaching myself.
As a result, I ended up learning more economics during my senior year than at any point during my undergraduate career. I was taking intermediate economics while also independently reading the writings of ecological economists such as Herman Daly and Eric Zencey. While I learned general equilibrium theory in class, at home I would research the Kondratieff Wave– genuinely worried the economy was heading toward a double-dip recession. As the core classes in the major ignored money, I did my senior research project on student loans and debt overaccumulation. I learned a lot my senior year because I began learning on my own. If economics professors don’t want to teach this, I would teach myself. However, most students don’t have the discipline or the will to dive into alternative economic theories, so they won’t learn just how interesting economics can be.
JS: Coming back to how you were treated by neoclassicals, what was there reaction to you writing about the lack of diversity?
To me, one of the most surprising aspects of the editorials was the lack of response from economics professors. I always had this lingering feeling that one of the professors from the department was going to submit an article to the paper explaining why I was wrong. I always had this lingering feeling that one of them was going to write and explain why I was wrong. I was actually hoping for it. But that never happened. I knew my articles were being read because I had classmates tell me they were reading them in their business/economic classes. I also saw an economic professor saving a copy of the Cynic (I presumed to read for a different class). After almost four years of economics research, I now know that dissidents within economics are ignored rather than addressed.
“In the email he [a UVM Department of Economics professor] stated that discounting the environment is ‘uncontroversial among economists’. This is a lie.”
JS: My case for wrongful denial of reappointment centered on my claim that many tenured neoclassical faculty opposed my teaching of ecological economics and models based on alternative principles of economics — like the ‘invisible foot’ of markets (how markets incentivize and ideologically enable anti-ecological and anti-social behavior) and that these faculty retaliated against me with a now proven false pretext that I was a ‘poor’ teacher despite being highly rated by thousands of students. Leaving aside the issue of my teaching for a moment, can you describe what you experienced as a student in the economics department regarding ecological economics and poor teaching?
KS: As I began learning more about different economic theories, it became harder for professors to dismiss my questions. Professors stopped choosing me to ask questions when I raised my hand because they knew I was going to bring up a critique.
For example, during my intermediate micro theory class, the professor made a mathematical error on the board. He didn’t realize where he made the mistake even though a few students were mentioning it. I raise my hand along with another student (I raised my hand first). He looked at both of us, paused for a second, and picked the other student. I still had to show him where he made the mistake because the student asked about something else. This professor is particularly sensitive toward critiques and questions about neoclassical economics. After one of our first back-and-forth debates about discounting the environment, he emailed me saying I can ask him all the questions I want during his office hours, but the time in class is limited to more important topics. (In the email he says that discounting the environment is “uncontroversial among economists.” This is a lie.)
I had a similar incident with the intermediate macro professor. In class, she was lecturing about economic growth. Before I even had the chance to raise my objection of economic growth from the ecological perspective, she closed off all questions. She said there is some controversy about economic growth, but we won’t get into it right now and moved on to the next topic.
“Many neoclassical professors just want to teach what they are teaching and move on, regardless of the possibility that what they are teaching could be wrong.”
I wondered that if I cannot bring up these questions during class then where are we going to discuss the problems within economics? Since most students don’t know about the critiques, they just accept what they are learning. By not letting me voice my questions, they were purposefully shutting out the lively conversation that is occurring within the field. Many neoclassical professors just want to teach what they are teaching and move on, regardless of the possibility that what they are teaching could be wrong.
JS: Can you provide some examples of being denied participation during classes when it came to expressing challenging ideas based on ecological economics? Share as many stories as you’d like. And if you heard of others.
One of my Student Coalition partners told me how a neoclassical professor spent an entire class (during a seminar) trashing a paper that came out of the Gund Institute. He said how the paper was full of holes and what not. To my knowledge, this professor didn’t directly address these concerns with the Gund Institute, which I believe would had been more fruitful than talking to students who barely understand what is going on.
JS: I eventually discovered that the Economic s Department faculty — from liberal to conservative — held ecological economics in contempt, which I did not realize until after I witnessed a number of events and heard comments made by senior faculty. It would gradually become clear to me that ecological economics was not welcome in the department, yet I increasingly stressed teaching alternative ecological concepts and models as climate change began to take center stage as a public concern. Well, as you know, certain tenured faculty ganged up on me and ‘targeted’ me for removal (a former dean’s conclusion after being presented the facts). Do you believe ecological economics were welcome in the department?
KS: The Department was not open to ecological economics. The Department rejected Professor Farley’s offer to cross-list classes twice. The first was a few years before I arrived. The second was during the Student Coalition. The Chair said it would be too confusing for students to suggest that ecological economics and neoclassical classes are interchangeable. She said she wanted to keep students taking only classes from within the Department, and math classes.
“The Department was not open to ecological economics. The Department rejected Professor Farley’s offer to cross-list classes twice.”
I believe they know that once students take ecological economics classes, they begin challenging many of the assertions made during their core classes (questioning the benefits of economic growth, if people are rational individuals, or if the prices the economy is producing are accurate). Hence, they like to promote competition during class, but they like to keep a neoclassical monopoly within the Department. This way, students don’t have anything to compare neoclassical economics to.
JS: In a meeting you told me you once had with the Chair of the Department of Economics and other faculty in the department, there was discussion about making changes as a result of your pressure. What came of that?
KS: The Department gave us that space so we could voice our concerns, but nothing substantial came from that meeting. It actually became worse once we graduated. They divided the major so students could receive a diploma saying Bachelor of Science (instead of Bachelor of Arts) if they took more math classes. Neoclassical economics is not a science—it is a philosophy. Promoting neoclassical economics as a science is false, disingenuous and deceiving.
“They also fired you, which meant there was one less person in the Department of Economics who could voice their views against neoclassical economics. While the Department might think these are victories, in reality they are only hurting themselves. They are graduating students with only a limited (and largely incorrect) view of how economic activity takes place.”
They also fired you, which meant there was one less person in the Department of Economics who could voice their views against neoclassical economics. While the Department might think these are victories, in reality they are only hurting themselves. They are graduating students with only a limited (and largely incorrect) view of how economic activity takes place.
JS: Can you talk about Ross Thomson’s role in helping you?
KS: While I didn’t have the opportunity to take a class with Professor Thomson, I knew he was revered within the Department. When I first started talking to professors who supported integrating ecological economics into the curriculum, they would tell me to speak to Professor Thomson. He was at the meeting mentioned above. He did support including ecological economics classes into the curriculum and we considered this major victory. However, Professor Thomson passed away a few weeks after the meeting from a lung disease. This was a turning point for the Student Coalition. We lost a major supporter within the Department. Now we didn’t have someone with as much weight as he did.
JS: Ironically, the Chair apparently stated to you that I was an example of diversity of ideas, and this was proof that diversity existed. What do you say about that now?
KS: During the meeting with students and professors, the Chair did say that the Department offers classes in history of economic thought, which you taught alone. You were one of the few professors really challenging students to think about economics more holistically. But after Professor Thomson passed away, you were removed, and another heterodox professor retired, the Department lost what made it different.
“If the goal of the Department is to remove all diversity so that it can ideologically lean like every other department, then that is a real shame.”
It is truly sad because when I mentioned my initial concerns to one of my professors, she said I didn’t notice how rare it was that the Department was majority woman. Thus, the Department was truly unique throughout the world because it had: 1) diversity of thinking, and 2) women leading in a field dominated by men. But as they try to rid the Department of diversity thinking, they are making it more and more like any other economics department found at universities. If the goal of the Department is to remove all diversity so that it can ideologically lean like every other department, then that is a real shame.
JS: Can you talk about UVM Professor Josh Farley’s efforts to cross-list ecological courses from his department with courses offered by the Department of Economics, and what happened with that push?
KS: Professor Farley was a great help. I learned a lot from him even though I was never able to take a class with him. I appreciate that he took the time to submit the paperwork to have his classes cross-listed. As I mentioned earlier, we lost momentum with Professor Thomson’s passing. The Department denied our request for cross-listing one month before we graduated so we couldn’t push further. The majority of the students in the coalition were seniors, and even though I tried to recruit underclassmen to continue the push, they didn’t understand what was going on. The students who were repelled by economics found it easier to switch majors rather than fighting with the Department.
JS: Dr. Josh Farley testified at my hearing before the Labor Board that the Department of Economics was closed to alternative economics from an ecological point of view, and that he tried twice to cross-list economics courses, backed by students, from his department but was denied even though his department cross-listed credit courses from the Department of Economics. Why do you think he faced such opposition?
KS: When a department doesn’t have diversity of ideas, students don’t have choices to decide what they believe. In this case, many will just accept neoclassical economics because it is taught as “economics,” rather than what it is – one theory about the economy. This is why I appreciated the English and Political Science departments. They push their students to understand a topic through multiple paradigmatic viewpoints. They challenged us to see the world through multiple perspectives, and in the end, we had choices to decide what we believed. But not before having to argue and defend that viewpoint. I believe this is the best way to create strong students.
“Economics Departments may think that by removing diversity of thinking, they are somehow ‘winning.’ But in reality, they are releasing economists into the world with only a limited understanding of the economy.”
Economic Departments may think that by removing diversity of thinking, they are somehow “winning.” But in reality, they are releasing economists into the world with only a limited understanding of the economy. The society is the one that suffers because when there is a financial or ecological crisis, these neoclassical economists won’t know what do because their training is so limited. This is one of the reasons that economists such as Steve Keen gained so much popularity and esteem after the financial crisis. Unlike mainstream economists, Keen was trained to study instability and was able to provide answers to the questions the public had. Neoclassical departments are only making themselves irrelevant. When there is another crisis—as history tells us there will be—then the economists and departments with more holistic understanding of economics are the ones that are going to rise to the top.
JS: Since you graduated from UVM I understand you have been working on a book about economics and the economics profession. Can you tell me what the book is about and how it relates to your UVM experience?
KS: After my English Department professor suggested I write a book, I thought deeply about it. When the Department decided not to cross-list Professor Farley’s classes, I realized that I had to write a book for a wider audience making my case for teaching ecological economics. The book is inspired by the events that occurred during my senior year. It explains how ecological economics can better explain the world.
“Neoclassical departments are only making themselves irrelevant. When there is another crisis—as history tells us there will be—then the economists and departments with more holistic understanding of economics are the ones that are going to rise to the top.”
Once I graduated, I had more time to research ecological economics and fully dive into learning economic theories. I realized that while ecological economics could explain the environmental crisis (economic growth is causing climate change and species extinction, since the economy is expanding beyond the carrying capacity of the Planet), it couldn’t fully explain why financial crises occurred. For this, I needed to integrate debt-deflation theorists (Irving Fisher, Steve Keen, Richard Koo) into the body of ecological economics. This way, ecological economics can better explain both environmental and financial crises.
I understand that one of the biggest impediments to teaching an alternative theory has been that they aren’t fully developed. Neoclassical economics has over 200 years of research and development. I am doing my part in putting together the parts that I believe ecological economics needs to fully challenge neoclassical economics. I hope this book can help bridge that divide.
JS: What have other former fellow student coalition members done since graduating? Are you still in touch with them?
KS: I have briefly kept in touch with some of the members, but not with all of them. None that I know went deeper into economics so I think they lost interest. I have been making an effort to reconnect with economic students, present or former. I am on LinkedIn as Kevin Sterling, Instagram @Loveconomics and my YouTube Channel is Kevin Sterling Loveconomics.
JS: Thank you Kevin for keeping up the fight to diversify economic thought and for your support for my fight to regain my teaching position after being wrongfully denied reappointment in 2017.
Editorial note: The core curriculum of the Department of Economics is still today exclusively focused on neoclassical principles to the formal exclusion of all other competing points of view. While a few remaining non-neoclassicals do introduce non-neoclassical viewpoints, the core content is exclusively comprised of orthodox neoclassical thought, as are the textbooks used. For the record, I was the only member of the department to introduce a non-neoclassical textbook into my classes as the primary textbook covering both principles of neoclassical economics and competing models. The textbook, according to my experience with ‘colleagues’, annoyed hardcore neoclassicals in the department.