Our colleague and friend Ross Thomson died on February 12, 2015. His passing is deeply mourned by his family, colleagues, and students. He was an extraordinary individual who brought a keen intellect, sunny disposition, quick wit, and steadfast sense of what is right and just to everything that he did. Ross is survived by his wife, Floria, also an economist, his son, Justin, and Justin’s family. The core relationships in his life were well tended and strong.
Ross excelled in his academic career; his engine fired on all cylinders, all the time. He was an outstanding scholar, teacher, faculty union leader, and – deliberately last, administrator.
After earning his Ph.D. in Economics from Yale in 1976, Ross spent the first 15 years of his career at the New School for Social Research, where he was an important member of an intellectually diverse, high-powered, and hard-working faculty, and worked closely with many graduate students who became life long colleagues and friends. The University of Vermont was fortunate to attract him in 1991 to lead the Economics Department, a role he carried out with integrity and imagination. His administrative talents did not go unnoticed; he was soon recruited into the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences as Associate Dean, where he initiated programmatic and administrative innovations that survive to this day. But a permanent career in administration was not for Ross; he left that and turned his service attentions to United Academics, the faculty union at UVM, where he applied his skills of economic analysis to the betterment of the material conditions of UVM faculty across campus.
Ross was a dedicated and productive scholar of invention, innovation, and technological change in the nineteenth century U.S. His economic history was rich with institutional detail and new data, painstakingly constructed, and informed by his deep knowledge of theories of growth and accumulation, starting with the Classical economists, particularly Marx. He was the author of 3 books, The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), Learning and Technological Change (ed.) (St. Martin’s, 1993), and Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age: Technological Innovation in the United States, 1790 to 1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). He also authored numerous journal articles and book chapters. At the time of his death, he was well into another book project, about the role of government in undertaking and organizing technological innovation in the period between the Civil War and the outbreak of the second World War. The arc of his research is one of deepening refinement of his core ideas about the economic and social institutions that have fostered innovation and productivity growth.
Ross was equally dedicated to his students, who are bereft at losing him. He was the founder of the Integrated Social Science Program for first-year students, and directed it for the past 20 years. His hallmark seminar course, Capitalism and Human Welfare, was the launchpad to self-directed, critical study in the social sciences for hundreds of UVM students. Those of his students who live in Burlington continue to talk about his course, and how important he was to their intellectual development, decades later. In Economics Department meetings, his was always the voice of reason and sanity.
The Economics Department at UVM extends its deep condolences to Ross’s family, honors his many contributions and accomplishments, and is greatly diminished by his loss.
A memorial service will be held at the University of Vermont’s Ira Allen Chapel on Tuesday, February 24, at 4 pm. Ross’s family and colleagues are establishing an award in his name for students in the Integrated Social Sciences Program. To make a contribution, please donate via check or online at the UVM Foundation website, being sure to direct your contribution to “Economics Fund in memory of Ross Thomson.” For further information about the service or the scholarship, please contact Jane Knodell at Jane.Knodell@uvm.edu or (802) 656-0189.