Economics professor vents at class, quits job
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
Students in Econ 454 The Next System were shocked when their professor berated them for laziness and announced by email he was leaving the school, one week before the end of spring semester. In a video taken by a student of Econ 454’s Monday, Apr. 26 class, student Seth Bell (‘23) asked former Visiting Professor of Economics Joel Magnuson whether their final would be open- or closed-note shortly before the end of class. Magnuson asked the class what professors’ general policies were on having finals or tests be open-note or open-book. A student responded that while many professors have tests be closed-book, it is rare for professors to have tests be both closed-note and closed-book. Magnuson said it was “bullshit,” but that the test would be open-note. He said by advocating a policy of being able to use notes on the final, he felt students were convincing him that they didn’t intend to actually learn anything. He told students to “stop whining about it,” then ended the Zoom call.
Magnuson did not respond to a request for comment sent via the Facebook profile linked at his personal website. His Willamette email was terminated before news of his resignation was known.
Magnuson’s frustration with student performance was part of a pattern of behavior Bell detailed, saying that throughout the semester, Magnuson “assumed the worst of us a lot. For example, on [Monday Apr. 26], he was accusing us of plagiarism on all of our other quizzes and cheating more generally.” Bell said that the incident was “shocking,” but not surprising, looking back on the context of the year. Throughout the semester, Bell said, students had noted in Magnuson a lack of organization, favoritism of certain students, attendance issues, and unwillingness to accommodate students attending remotely and students with disabilities. Bell said students were given fewer assignments than promised at the beginning of the semester, Magnuson cancelled classes suddenly, and Magnuson gave qualitative grades (e.g., A, B, C, etc.) rather than standard quantitative grades (e.g., 90, 80, 70, etc.). Bell said his class, Econ 454 The Next System, was interesting and that students started off “very, very engaged,” but by the time of the midterm, classes had little to do with the readings, and quizzes would be based on lengthy asides in an already lecture-heavy class that he told students they did not need to take notes on.
Later that Monday, Magnuson sent an email to students in his classes saying he would not be returning to teach the rest of the class. He followed this up with an email on Tuesday outlining plans for the final. Students forwarded these emails to the Economics department, who had met with Ruth Feingold, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Associate Professor of Economics and chair of the Economics Department Tabitha Knight, on either late Monday or early Tuesday. Professors from the Economics department, including Professor Knight and Associate Professor of Economics Nathan Sivers Boyce, took over Magnuson’s classes.
On the evening of Apr. 27, Bell held a meeting for students in his classes and compiled grievances from 11-12 students to give to the Economics faculty. All of Magnuson’s classes met with their substitute professors on Wednesday, Apr. 28 to discuss what happened and make plans for how to finish the semester. Bell said his experience working with the Economics faculty “has been extremely positive.”
When asked for comment, Professor Knight said she is “legally prohibited from making any comments on issues related to personnel matters.”
Since Magnuson gave qualitative grades, the substitute professors for his classes had to do a lot of work to fairly grade students. Bell said the substitute professor for his class, Associate Professor of Economics Nathan Sivers Boyce, drew up a class plan for the last week of classes that covered material not covered previously in the class and redesigned the final to be optional, project-based and open-ended.
“I would just say I've never felt unsafe in a class before in my life, and this was over Zoom,” Bell said. “It was really jarring and I was not able to focus for the rest of the day.” Despite the disruption of the incident, Bell said the response from faculty and fellow students had been overwhelmingly positive. He said that the “very busy, the very small relative to the student body, Econ faculty is going out of their way to make sure we can succeed.” He also said seven students individually reached out to make sure he was okay on the day of the incident, which made him “really proud to be a part” of the Willamette community.
Magnuson, who is an institutional economist and author, taught three classes at Willamette in Spring semester 2021: Econ 132 Intro to Economic Inquiry, Econ 364 Macroeconomic Theory, and Econ 454 The Next System.