The CAUT Investigation

Warning: this blog is not about hockey. Just something I need to get off my chest.

As noted in today’s Winnipeg Free Press article, the CAUT has released the report of its investigation into alleged violations of academic freedom at the University of Manitoba’s economics department, where we work.  The report was damning in its opinion of the department, and recommended a number of drastic measures that would steer the department in a direction that the majority of faculty are against. Many of the points raised in the report are inaccurate and misleading, but this is to be expected when the CAUT had no access to confidential documents and could not compel university faculty to be interviewed. As a result, the report is based on the opinions of a small minority of the department who agreed to the investigation. That the CAUT released such an obviously biased, one-sided report should raise questions and outrage from all of us whose union dues are being spent to fund such activities.

Although I do not wish to give credibility to the report by spending too much time criticizing it, there are a couple of points I wish to raise. First, the WFP article states that “CAUT claimed university president David Barnard urged economics faculty members not to meet with investigators and some professors subsequently refused to talk to them.” I did not participate in the CAUT investigation. To say that some professors refused to talk to the investigators is an understatement. The CAUT interviewed only seven of the current slate of 24. My choice to not participate was due not to advise given by senior administration, as was alluded to in the WFP article. I did not meet with them because I believed my participation would be fruitless. Knowing the source of the allegations, and the agenda of the CAUT, it was my opinion that the outcome of the report was clear before the investigation even started.

The WFP statement that heterodox economists are, in lay terms, those who “think outside the box” is lazy journalism. There are many people within mainstream economics who ‘think outside the box’ and move the field forward. Economics is not static and the working definition of what is inside and outside the mainstream is constantly changing.  However, within the department those who claim to be heterodox have a very specific definition of the term – heterodox is limited to those fields in the JEL codes B5.   In practise, we have no Austrians on faculty and the feminists do not align themselves with the heterodox group. So the view of heterodox in the department is actually very narrowly represented by Marxists and Institutionalists.

The investigators write that “among the panoply of academic economists, and in the Department that we are investigating, we discern three groups. (1) Those who practise and embrace heterodox economics; (2) those who practise mainstream economics but feel that heterodox economists have an important place in the profession; and (3) those who…feel that practitioners of heterodox economics have no place and should have no standing in the profession.”

I would place myself in group (2), with a caveat. As has been stated many times by many on the so-called ‘orthodox’ side, many of us believe that heterodox is a valid and important field in economics, but no more or less valid and important than the other fields represented in the department. That is the philosophy that drives my votes in department meetings on hiring and curriculum, and I believe this is a common view among faculty members. This viewpoint is different from the direction of the department in decades past, when faculty members considered heterodox economics to be of higher standing than other fields. In recent years, our faculty have voted to hire more mainstream economists in fields such as applied microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics, where we needed faculty. We have voted to increase the undergraduate and graduate requirements of theory, econometrics and math to bring our programs in-line with the rest of the discipline. But, we also voted to maintain the requirement of Honours students to take 6 credit hours of history of economic thought and 3 credit hours of alternative (read: heterodox) macro. Our union (UMFA) will argue that departments should have the right to self-govern on curriculum and hiring, that the faculty within a discipline are best equipped to determine the academic path of the department. To this end, the union should have clearly defended the department faculty votes to CAUT. They did not. Apparently our rights to self-govern are defended only when the results of the votes are consistent with the views of the union staff.

The WFP picked up on a section of the report that concerns interactions with graduate students. The WFP writes that “…orthodox members of the department behaved in ways that discriminated against doctoral students being supervised by heterodox economists,” the committee concluded. “This included treatment at oral examinations, advice about potential areas of study, funding decisions, and advice that their choice of heterodox supervisors was unwise in terms of their future careers.”

The statement that faculty were biased in their treatment towards students in funding and examination situations is a serious accusation. I cannot imagine that the CAUT has any factual evidence to make such a claim, since they did not have access to confidential documents and did not speak with the graduate chair. I have certainly never been aware of any such discrimination. To the other point, that advising a student that choosing to write a heterodox dissertation would be an unwise career move – well that is simply good advice. I don’t recall ever actually saying this to a graduate student, but if one had asked I would certainly tell them that unless they had a deep passion for writing a Marxist dissertation, if their goal was to land an academic job in a North American university, this would not be a good move. I was given the same advice in graduate school when I flirted with the idea of doing an economic history dissertation. I was told that the market for this field is thin and that I should focus on another topic until after tenure and then I could indulge in this area of research. The professor who gave this advice had earned a Nobel Prize in economic history, so it was not given out of disdain for the field but rather meant to be informative about the current economic PhD market.  I would absolutely give the same advice with the same motivation.

To end, it is hypocritical of the CAUT to make recommendations on the hiring and curriculum decisions of the department – the recommendations include that we must hire 3 heterodox positions in the next few years, that the head of the department should be replaced immediately and that any new head should be committed to maintaining two broad traditions in the department. They outline the composition of search committees and insist that our department council meetings should be chaired by an external academic. All this in the name of ‘academic freedom.’ As one twitter commenter (@alexusherHESA) noted “I think Academic Freedom as an intelligible concept in Canada, may just have jumped the shark.”



2 thoughts on “The CAUT Investigation

  1. Sounds like you guys don’t have a good handle on things. Sorry to hear that you’re not accepting of other ways of economic thought. I know your ‘mainstream’ has been wrong for the past 20-some-odd years, but you shouldn’t take it out on people with a different opinion than you. Why hire more of the same misguided individuals (have you read that Globe and Mail article or New York Times article about how you guys keep getting it wrong, and then training a new generation of students to also get it wrong?) And maybe be more professional to your colleagues? At the hospital they say; “Honour the absent” as one of the rules for healthy workplace, not put other people down. If you have a problem, speak to that person directly, don’t ignore and gossip. We teach this to our children btw.

  2. Mainstream economics is not one idea, one method. And it is not fixed. The discipline is constantly changing. We would love to hire professors with different ideas than what we have on faculty, professors in a wide range of economic fields doing research on a variety of topics, approaches, etc. What we don’t want to do is hire more Marxist economists. We have enough faculty to cover that area. The CAUT report is recommending that we limit the variety of fields in which we hire, not expand it. But regardless of what it recommends, the report should never have been released by the CAUT. It should have been recognized that the report is biased, that the investigators heard only a minority of voices and a selected group of voices at that.


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