Why Did This Philosophy Program Survive?

Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, like several other institutions of higher education, has decided to cut its undergraduate programs.

The school will no longer offer majors in math, physics, music, religion, Russian studies, studio art, theatre, and elementary and special education. But it will continue to offer a philosophy major.

The cuts, listed here, were reported on by The Baltimore Sun and Inside Higher Ed. According to a statement from Goucher College president José Bowen, “there is no financial crisis” at the school. Rather, he says, the cuts are being made so as to “offer the best education for a price more people can afford.”

Philosophy seems to be among the subjects often considered for elimination by schools attempting to save money. Why was it not targeted at Goucher?

I began to wonder whether this signaled a turn against the trend of targeting philosophy programs, and if so, why?

Part of the answer, I thought, may be that cuts to philosophy programs are often well-publicized among philosophers who then loudly object to them. Additionally, knowing that they may be threatened, some departments take proactive steps to protect themselves.

Perhaps, I thought, philosophy’s stature in the eyes of university administrators—and society more broadly—is improving.

While philosophers have long been among the famous there is no doubt about philosophy’s increased visibility over the past several years, owing to more and more public philosophy and outreach, forms of popular entertainment that reference philosophy, high-profile prizes for philosophy and other awards won by philosophers, increased recognition of the practical value of a philosophical education, high profile philosophy-focused philanthropyconcerns about emerging technology that have been raised by philosophers, and so on (not to mention the creation of a place aimed at collecting, discussing, and publicizing a lot of this news).

The extent to which any of these factors are playing a role in affecting the public’s opinion of philosophy (and not merely reflecting changes owed to other causes) and, in turn, affecting the fortunes of philosophy programs is a complicated empirical matter. My thoughts here are admittedly speculative.

They’re also, in the case of Goucher College, just plain wrong.

According to a source at the school, the decision just came down to numbers. The college hired a consultancy which gathered a lot of data about students, enrollments, and faculty costs, and calculated how many student credit-hours each department needed to be responsible for in order to remain “viable.” Some departments were deemed viable, such as Business, Communication, Public Health, Psychology, Political Science, Africana Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Equine Studies (!) to name a few. Other departments, including Philosophy and many of the other humanities and sciences, were put into the category of “in need of revitalization” and given time to develop a plan to improve. The rest of the majors were cut.

Goucher College’s Philosophy Department has done a good job at attracting students to the philosophy major and keeping enrollments in their courses high. They have around 40 majors, which is excellent for a school population of roughly 1,400 undergraduates. Good for them.

As for whether the broader cultural factors and developments within the philosophy profession noted above make any difference to the flourishing of philosophy programs—that remains to be seen.

James Nolan Gandy, “Drawing from Drawing Machine #605”

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