A Philosophy Department’s Impressive Fight For Survival


Robert Stufflebeam, chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of New Orleans, shares some of the challenges his department faces, and some of the measures they have implemented in order to survive in hostile circumstances. He writes:

I’m the chair of the only remaining Department of Philosophy at a public university in the state of Louisiana. (LSU has a department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, which is the only other public university in the state where a student can major in philosophy.) Under our current governor, nearly a billion dollars has been cut from higher education in the past 8 years. Higher education here is bracing for another—and potentially fatal—cut of between $200M-$600M. If anything like that happens, a great many more programs than Philosophy will surely be eliminated.  But let’s ignore that. With the relentless promotion of STEM programs and the notion that Liberal Arts majors make no money after graduation, Philosophy is not merely being attacked, it is being targeted. My back has been against the wall for the entire 4 years I have been chair here. With the forced loss of 50% of the department in the cuts following Hurricane Katrina, my first priority was to increase the number of majors and completers.

How did they do it? One thing was to create an online B.A. program delivered via iTunes U.  He continues:

Every day for 20 months, my tiny department of 4 full-time faculty has utterly dominated the “Top 10” courses in Philosophy. Here is the snapshot of the standings as of this moment:

Univ New Orleans online courses

Five out of the top ten philosophy courses at iTunes U. are offered by the University of New Orleans Philosophy Department! Professor Stufflebeam says there are approximately 250,000 subscribers to their courses.

The department’s online success has generated benefits for their on-campus students:

Since our online program began 3 years ago, my department received a $2.1M bequest from a former graduate. With interest on the endowment, we fund a host of scholarships, awards, and grants for Philosophy majors, as well as supporting department development that would be impossible in the budget situation that has existed for years now. Currently, we offer at least $3,000 to every major, with the possibility of more money for various kinds of merit scholarships and grants. We currently have 43 majors.

But wait, there’s more:

As we are facing a budget apocalypse scenario at UNO, despite the fact that we are efficient, productive, and profitable, my department is in danger of being eliminated simply for having committed the sin of being a small program. Hence, we are actively marketing our program. The aim isn’t simply to increase the number of majors. The aim is to change the notion that our discipline is “useless” (Neil deGrasse Tyson), “dead” (Stephen Hawking), and that Philosophy majors make no money upon graduation. Ultimately, the idea is to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to recommend the elimination of my program.

To help do this, the department created some data-based ads, which Professor Stufflebeam gave me permission to share with Daily Nous readers:

Univ New Orleans GRE score ad

Univ New Orleans salary ad

I think Professor Stufflebeam and the University of New Orleans Philosophy Department should be commended for these impressive efforts.

If your department has taken steps to confront similar challenges, I would be interested in hearing more about that. Additionally, we might ask what steps professional organizations like the APA might take that could be of use to struggling departments.

UPDATE: See the Daily Nous Value of Philosophy Pages.

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Robert Stufflebeam
6 years ago

Thank you Justin. And for anyone else in the profession who is unaccustomed to hearing positive things and would like some visuals to help defend Philosophy, I shall share all the charts I have made. And we have a bunch of new ads coming out. Cheers.Report

Molly Mahony
6 years ago

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, a well regarded surgeon and author. I am not a philosopher, but, as I read the book and the many references made to philosophers throughout the book, I thought to myself, “He must have studied philosophy as an undergraduate.” I looked at his CV, and yes, Gawande was a Rhodes Scholar at Bailol College Oxford and earned his Masters in PPE . Aside from the fact that this book should be required reading for every medical professional, and anyone who cares about quality of life as we age; it was another demonstration of the study of philosophy for our future leaders in all arenas, health, medicine, business, and science.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

“I think Professor Stufflebeam and the University of New Orleans Philosophy Department should be commended for these impressive efforts.”

I heartily agree with this, but I also think it’s important to notice which of these efforts can be widely adopted and which are, by their nature, successes that cannot be widely repeated. For example, only one department can “utterly dominate” the iTunes top-10 online courses. And even many of the efforts that are repeatable within philosophy still work by competing with other university programs (including other humanities departments) for an increasingly limited pool of funding. I also wonder how credible the case for the value of a philosophy degree will be at institutions where the very experts teaching those classes can barely make a living themselves.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

I think there’s plenty to be said about the GRE and salary stuff, and I suppose the principle “whatever means work to get undergrad butts in seats” might be acceptable to some of us. But you might think that there are good alternative descriptions of those data that aren’t very flattering to philosophy. Who tends to major in philosophy? White guys. Who tends to be the beneficiaries of salary unfairness? White guys. Who might be inclined to major in a field alleged to be not very suitable for finding a career? People with the family wealth and connections who are not particularly worried about needing their major to ground their career. I know that there are women, people of color, and people of relatively modest means out there in the field. But I’d be shocked if philosophy did not have comparatively very few of them.

Us urging these charts is just us capitulating. “Remember all those lessons we insisted upon about taking care with respect to causal claims? They go out the window when your own interests are at stake. Gorgias was right after all!”

By contrast, I think showing how the content and methods of philosophy are important, as in the Gawande text, is a great way to think about the value of the major.Report

Derek Shiller
Derek Shiller
6 years ago

I think that there are alternative ways of understanding the point of such ads. The causal story is, as you rightly point out, dubious. But philosophy has a reputation for being both a fluff major and being career suicide. These charts can help fight that reputation without misleading students.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Anon Grad Student makes an excellent point. One way to make traction on whether the success of philosophers majors is due to race/class privilege or to philosophical training is to: 1) compare philosophy majors against departments in the humanities with similar demographics (if there are any) 2) compare philosophy majors at universities with large populations of students of color and working class students. If it turns out that philosophy majors are doing well because most philosophy undergraduates are well off white men (who would have done well regardless of undergraduate major) then we’re in trouble since we’ve been tooting the “philosophy majors earn a good living” horn for a while.Report

Peter Cheyne
6 years ago

Very heartening.Report

Blergh.
Blergh.
6 years ago

There are a lot of ways to promote the discipline. We are not capitulating to baser interests if we use a variety of different permissible tactics to preserve philosophy departments. It is at the very least not obviously damaging to indicate that philosophy students are often successful in the GRE and in obtaining decent salaries. I suspect that women are as interested as men are in obtaining both good scores on the GRE and high salaries.

Of course, the best and most effective way to save philosophy departments – and the liberal arts in general – is political organizing. People should fight against the right wing’s assault on public education by building political institutions that have the power to change the priorities of the government. I recommend that people strongly consider how to build and/or support meaningful political organizations that directly act against the GOP and its horrible policies.

Viewed from this perspective, I find complaints about the UNO philosophy department’s focus on salaries and scores to be distracting. (And of course the UNO phil department cannot actively campaign against those with political power since that would almost immediately result in the department’s destruction.)Report

John Christman
John Christman
6 years ago

As a graduate of this department I am especially heartened at efforts to keep it afloat (and flourishing). I know from other friends at UNO that the entire university is under threat from heartless and short-sighted state funding priorities. I am somewhat ambivalent about on-line education but I use it in my department and know when it’s done well it can be a valuable pedagogical resource. I applaud Dr. Stufflebeam for his leadership in protecting this fine department.Report

Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

Interesting that this morning (4/15/2015) there is an advertisement for UNO’s on-line philosophy program (with the $3,000.00 bribe) taking up the entire back page of The Reveille, LSU’s newspaper.

I would love to know how much of the 2.1 million is being used trying to poach majors from other threatened philosophy departments besides LSU.

I can’t blame them for trying to buy (our) majors. In Louisiana if you don’t graduate 10 majors a year the board of regents will shut your program down. But independent of this, should we really be praising a department for using donor fees to undermine the kind of institutions at which most of us work and learn?Report

Robert Stufflebeam
Reply to  Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

Just to be clear, we are not trying to poach LSU’s majors … or the philosophy majors of any other program. In case you are not aware, because of this state’s obsession with LSU football, the LSU student newspaper is read by a great, great many people in Louisiana. Some of them live in New Orleans and cannot attend LSU. Some of them live outside both New Orleans and Baton Rouge and could become an online major in our program. We are simply marketing our program.Report

Jim
Jim
3 years ago

Hi Justin. Thanks very much for this small piece of good news in troubling times. In the DN article “Protecting Philosophy from Budget Cuts” you linked here, you mentioned at that time that the APA was working on a toolkit for departments facing closure. I searched around, but couldn’t find any updates about this. Do you know anything more about this? I ask because my undergrad institution is considering eliminating the philosophy major, and I’d like to do something to help. Thanks again!Report