- Matthew Thorsen
- John Summa
Students in hoodies and fleeces shuffled into a lecture hall at the University of Vermont shortly before 8:30 a.m. last Thursday for an intro-level course, the Principles of Microeconomics. Half the class had skipped to go on spring break early, and the rest looked as if they would rather still be in bed.
The drowsy assemblage in Williams Hall woke up, however, when lecturer John Summa greeted students and got things rocking. Literally. He played a guitar-clanging Beastie Boys video from the 1980s to jumpstart his lesson on the dull-but-important economics concept known as the Coase theorem.
The clip of the raucous Beastie Boys anthem "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" proved to be an effective, if unorthodox, entry point into a lecture about free versus regulated markets, with Summa pointing out the shortcomings of the former.
Meanwhile, the provocative professor is fighting to keep his job at UVM. Summa is in a messy labor dispute that touches on academic freedom and job security at the powerful academic institution on the hill in Burlington.
In January, the dean of the UVM College of Arts and Sciences, William Falls, informed Summa that his contract would not be renewed. Summa responded by filing a formal grievance, thus far without success. As it stands now, he will be out of his $78,000-a-year job at the end of the semester, after eight years as a full-time lecturer.
"I'm looking at unemployment starting in June," Summa said during an interview at Muddy Waters coffee shop in Burlington, a short drive from the New North End home he shares with his wife and two teenage children.
Some in his shoes might quietly agitate behind the scenes. Not Summa, a tall, balding, 59-year-old with a PhD in Marxian political economy.
Summa says he was sacked for challenging the "straitjacket" economics curriculum at UVM. He maintains that he's being punished for pushing more alternative models, including analysis and theories that show how globalization can promote environmental destruction.
His job loss will be part of a documentary he's shooting that's already titled, Class Action: The Fight Against Dumb and Dumber Classroom Economics. It, too, is proving controversial.
Last month Summa set up a camera during one of his classes to film himself lecturing. UVM administrators got wind of it and ordered him to stop. Now Summa is planning to film himself lecturing at the Burlington Friends Meeting House on North Prospect Street on April 21. Also in the works: an April 10 event at Radio Bean in Burlington that Summa has headlined as a "Night of Rage Against UVM's Thought Control Machine."
- Matthew Thorsen
- John Summa
As Summa goes on a public crusade, UVM is responding with silence. Falls and Economics Department chair Sara Solnick both declined to comment. Burlington City Council president and former UVM provost Jane Knodell, a longtime professor of economics, ended a phone call abruptly. Other members of the department also clammed up when contacted by Seven Days, citing privacy rules around personnel issues. Even UVM union leaders are staying mum, with United Academics vice president Julie Roberts issuing a no comment on behalf of the labor group.
UVM executive director of communications Enrique Corredera also declined to weigh in. Via email, he said UVM is not in a position "to discuss Mr. Summa's contentions, which involve a personnel matter that is currently being grieved. However, academic freedom is a highly cherished principle at UVM."
Against the advice of his union, Summa released documents related to his grievance to Seven Days. They show that Falls strongly disagrees with Summa's version of the situation. In a March 9 letter denying Summa's grievance, Falls said the decision not to renew Summa's contract was based on his performance in the classroom.
"The fact remains that there is evidence of significant weaknesses in your teaching," Falls wrote, contending Summa used too many unconventional texts and failed to fully engage students during lectures.
The dean dismissed the idea that academic freedom was at issue, or that Summa was being faulted for simply questioning the standard model of economics.
"I find no evidence that your critique of the standard model in and of itself was a concern by your colleagues. In fact, your colleagues praise your willingness to critique the standard model," Falls wrote.
He cited peer review letters, including one by Solnick that said "we appreciate that Summa includes critiques of the standard neoclassical model in his teaching. Faculty in our department often strive to emphasize where the standard model falls short as well as where it is successful in reflecting and predicting behavior."
But, Falls continued, the concern of the faculty focused on how Summa presented the model and his critique. He then quoted Solnick again. "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. Rather than present the merits and weaknesses of both the standard neoclassical model and the alternative model and guide the students to think critically, he made provocative assertions that were not questioned or discussed.'"
Summa contends that department leaders were not open to new thinking, and that they wanted to discredit him for using texts that brought Marxian analysis into the classroom. He suspects that conservative donors might have complained about him and has made a public records request seeking department emails in an effort to prove it.
"In short, most of the peer concerns are red herrings to divert attention from their real concerns — use of Marxian economics," Summa said.
He also points to the fact that the Faculty Standards Committee voted 5-0 to support his contract renewal. He considers that body more objective than the Economics Department faculty, which voted 10-1 to let him go.
In a written rebuttal to the department's vote, Summa compares himself to the character played by Tom Hanks in Sully, the Clint Eastwood film based on real events involving pilot Chesley Sullenberger. "Sully" landed a crippled passenger plane in the Hudson River, without anyone getting hurt — and still faced scrutiny for his actions.
"I'm sort of the 'Sully' of the Department of Economics at UVM..." Summa wrote.
Many students appreciate his teaching style, Summa told Seven Days, noting that some of his classes have been overenrolled.
After last Thursday's class, first-year student Jordan Tanneberger confirmed that Summa is a good professor who pushes students to analyze. "He likes to get you thinking on your own," said the 18-year-old business administration major from St. Albans.
Summa is well organized, and keeps things interesting, said Lucie Collimore, a 19-year-old first-year student from Connecticut. "He seems, like, very passionate about teaching and the subject that he teaches."
Born in Bronxville, N.Y., Summa grew up in Connecticut, where his father was a cardiologist who taught at Yale School of Medicine. Family trips to Jay Peak introduced him to skiing and, after high school, Summa moved to Stowe. He competed on the professional freestyle ski circuit — and worked as a handyman — before eventually giving up aerials for academia. He earned master's and doctoral degrees at the New School in lower Manhattan. One of his inspirations was the economist, author and philosopher Robert Heilbroner, a socialist who also saw benefits in capitalism.
Summa has had teaching stints at various colleges but claims he never wanted tenure, because the pressure to publish academic research would force him to specialize and limit his energy for other creative pursuits, such as filmmaking. He wrote and produced The Resurrection of Victor Jara, a film that tells the story of the Chilean political activist and folk singer, who was murdered in 1973. It won the Ben & Jerry Award at the Vermont International Film Festival in 2015.
"I didn't want to be tenured," Summa said. "Tenured life is hell."
But lifetime job security would surely help now, if he had it. Tenured faculty are untouchable in comparison to non-tenure track faculty, who may be up for reappointment annually, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, an expert on tenure and academic freedom at the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.
In principle, both types of employees have the same rights. But in practice, lack of tenure often constricts free speech in higher education, according to Tiede.
Tenure protects faculty who disseminate research that might be challenging or unpopular, and also protects free speech in the classroom on difficult topics, he added.
"The purpose of tenure is to make it possible for educators, for teachers, for researchers to do their job even though some people would take exception to it," he said.
It's more difficult to get tenure than it used to be. The percentage of non-tenured full-time faculty at U.S. colleges increased from 55 percent in 1975 to 73 percent in 2013, according to the AAUP.
"That imperils academic freedom in this country and is a serious threat to the quality of higher education," Tiede said.
Summa's defense is a spirited offense. Under the grievance rules, he can appeal to the UVM provost, then to the Vermont Labor Relations Board and, ultimately, to Vermont Superior Court.
He vows to do all that and cover the odyssey in his Dumb and Dumber documentary. He said: "For me, this is a better platform to educate about economics than in the classroom."
Correction, March 16, 2017: John Summa's PhD is in Marxian political economy. Also, the date of his lecture at the Burlington Friends Meeting House is April 21. A previous version of this story contained errors.