A College without Philosophy? A Philosophy Department without Philosophers? (updated)

A College without Philosophy? A Philosophy Department without Philosophers? (updated)


After program cut upon program cut, at what point does a liberal arts institution cease to be one?

That’s the question in an article at Inside Higher Ed that centers around faculty cuts at Wartburg College in Iowa, a Christian college.

This month, at least three tenure-track faculty members at Wartburg received notices that the college was not recommending them for reappointment. The decision was the result of a process described in the Faculty Handbook, whereby the college dean and a representative faculty body, the Faculty Council, evaluate full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and tenure-track faculty contracts for continued “institutional need.” The college also is proposing not to fill open French, philosophy and theater positions — the only ones on campus, faculty members say… Faculty members say the annual review is typically pro forma. But this year it targeted some of the most beloved faculty members on campus… [including] Jennifer McBride, an assistant professor of religion and the college Board of Regents Endowed Chair in Ethics. The professors were notified their jobs were at risk by being copied on a memo to their respective chairs. A note at the bottom indicated that mental health services were available to them.

Even with Professor McBride, the Wartburg department of religion and philosophy does not appear to have any philosophy PhDs in it. Maybe this is just an unusual point in the department’s history (I don’t know). But if not, it seems strange to call it the department of religion and philosophy. Perhaps the APA should make some noise about “philosophy departments” at BA-granting institutions that lack anyone with a graduate degree in philosophy?

And what should we say about colleges that lack philosophy? As we discussed a few days ago, perhaps the APA should look into putting pressure on such schools. The kind of fundamental questioning that characterizes philosophical study is a crucial part of a college education. Schools which are institutionally incapable of providing the opportunity for such study are lacking something very important.

Wartburg is not alone among Christian colleges in lacking philosophers. Are there secular colleges that are similar in this regard?

UPDATE (10/30/2015): Rider “University” in New Jersey will be shuttering its philosophy program, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

death of no socrates

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Manyul Im
6 years ago

I hope it’s not bad form here to ignore your question, Justin, and say a few other things related to the Wartburg cuts…

This shouldn’t be overlooked: “So far, the college has pointed to declining enrollment and a $3.7 million budget gap as a reason for the cuts. Graham Garner, a Wartburg spokesman, said the college has seen a decline in enrollment for each of the last five years, from just over 1,800 students in 2011 to about 1,537 today.” That’s the kind of trend that puts the fear of God (not necessarily intended for Christian colleges exclusively) in trustees and administrators. Something has to give, and at Wartburg they decided on those full-time faculty lines.

The argument to preserve not just Philosophy, but other liberal arts faculty positions and/or degree programs, can take two broad directions. One is the move to reassert relevance of the liberal arts within the rhetoric about career training — e.g. Philosophy courses make students into better or even better-paid *fill-in-your-profession-here*. The other move is more complicated because it reasserts a particular, historically developed idea of the university as occupying a role in making some people in society — those who can attend — into a morally or politically better class of individuals. The liberal arts are supposed to encompass fields of inquiry that make people better intellectually and artistically, and thereby better morally. The important historical element here is the proper placement of the responsibility for teaching the liberal arts in the university or college. It’s not so much the former — though there are loud voices in some quarters decrying the liberal arts’ actual influence — but the latter, I think, that is challenged tacitly by such moves as Wartburg and plenty of other colleges and universities are making. So, the large societal question really is: should universities and colleges be obliged — in some way to its students or to society in general — to provide liberal arts training (questions of the value of the liberal arts aside)? I think boards of trustees in higher ed are increasingly inclined to say no. That’s at any rate how these decisions end up being justified, ultimately.Report

Adriel Trott
6 years ago

I don’t know what the situation is here, but I’m wary about saying that we need to assert that philosophy departments must have faculty with degrees from philosophy departments. I can see the political strategy of wanting to say, you aren’t a philosophy department if you don’t have philosophers, but judging who the philosophers are by the degree-granting department serves to police the borders of what counts and what does not count as philosophy. I think individuals can make judgments about philosophical background of people in many other kinds of departments. I recognize the ways that philosophers are pushed out by saying people in other areas are doing this work, and I think it is problematic when the real expertise of philosophers is denied, but I don’t want this fighting for our existence in the academy to come at the expense of discrediting others as non-philosophical. Of course, we should also want to foster philosophy and find ways to encourage the APA to take more proactive roles in doing that, but policing the border of who gets to be called a philosopher and who does not should be resisted.Report

Gray
Gray
Reply to  Adriel Trott
6 years ago

@Adriel Trott

“…but judging who the philosophers are by the degree-granting department serves to police the borders of what counts and what does not count as philosophy.”

But isn’t this the point of a University discipline, to define a field of enquiry within the framework of its history and methodology? You could replace the word Philosophy here with any other discipline. Should we demand faculty who teach and engage in research in Biology have an academic background in Biology? I can see some special cases where we might, I’m certainly in favour of cross-disciplinary research, but in general it seems to me we ask that Biology professors, like any discipline, have relevant credentials in their field because it demonstrates they understand the history and methodological norms of their discipline, and are able to pass the benefit of that proven knowledge on to new students and in worthy research projects.

I guess I’m asking if you would extend this more open approach to all the other disciplines at a University? Which ones might you, and which ones might you not, and for what reasons? And while I agree with you that you don’t need to have a degree in Philosophy to be a philosopher, just like you don’t need to have a degree in Biology to understand the history of the discipline and do solid and important research in the field, it seems to me like the whole point of a specifically academic discipline is to codify the accumulated knowledge and methodological norms for it. In this regards I kind of differentiate between academic philosophy and philosophy as a broader cultural activity.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
6 years ago

I think it is okay to have a conjunctive department like a Department of Religion and Philosophy (or what have you) if some of your faculty have at least a Master’s level training in philosophy. though I wouldn’t say that the department is a good PHILOSOPHY department. These sorts of departments have limited goals like teaching a general history of philosophy and how it intersects with religion.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
6 years ago

One needn’t have a Ph.D. in philosophy to be a philosopher. Technically, my Ph.D. is in “informatica” (i.e., computer science, though no right-thinking comp. sci. dept. would hire me!), while a colleague of mine’s PhD is in history. Between the two of us, we could cover pretty much all aspects of medieval philosophy, which both of our dissertations were directly written on. And this is but one example; I’m sure there are many other people who, over the years, have gradually shifted from the discipline in which they received their Ph.D., and increasingly there will be more people who, due to interdisciplinary research, get degrees in programmes other than philosophy who should still be called philosophers.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

I would be very careful what you ask for. If the APA gets into the business of departmental accreditation, this power will be at the center of vicious political disputes over what counts as philosophy, what a department needs as far as diversity and philosophical pluralism (or the opposite), curriculum, and even syllabus choices, etc. Such power could also be used by those within departments to attack their own colleagues. The APA should not become a police enforcement unit at the service of whoever happens to wield power or influence in the profession. Also, imagine how easy it would be for an administrator to use lack of APA accreditation as a reason for getting rid of a philosophy department. There are many substandard philosophy programs, but policing purity seldom ends well.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

I think that few people outside the profession understand what we do and why it might be important. I think that we need to change that if we want them to care whether we are around.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
6 years ago

What’s perhaps a little different in Wartburg’s case isn’t just that it has a department of religion and philosophy in which nobody has an advanced degree in philosophy, but that none of its faculty members appear to be professors of philosophy at all: they’re all professors of religion, except for McBride, who also holds a chair in ethics. Their ‘about’ and ‘courses’ pages say a lot about religion specifically, but very little about the philosophy side of things except by association. There’s a little philosophy other than religion-related stuff being taught, although it’s not clear who’s teaching it.

That, I think, is weird. I’m not sure that this is the kind of boundary that we can or should be policing, but I think I share the OP’s sentiment that there’s something amiss when this kind of thing is allowed to happen. And the more often it’s allowed to happen, the worse it is for us a discipline. I, too, would be curious to get a sense of how widespread this kind of situation is.Report

Knightofthe08table
Knightofthe08table
6 years ago

I am an alumna of the institution that is discussed in both this and the Higher Ed article. The professor of Philosophy who did have PhD retired not long ago. Their religion department considered philosophy to be an off shoot of their department, and counts all coursework in philosophy as a religion credit. Intro to Philosophy can in fact be substituted for any required religion credit, save for Literature of the Old and New Testament, which is required of all students, and is taught more as a literature course than a conversion or browbeating into the college’s parent congregation’s viewpoints.
The nature of a small ELCA college in a fairly rural (10,000 full time citizens) community can be a difficult draw for faculty, and the administration is notoriously stingy on tenure track positions. Most freshmen courses in the liberal arts areas are helmed by adjunct professors, or are larger settings (the highest course population is roughly 75 students in a biology lecture). The big student complaint that neither article discussed, is that the college recently rolled out a new marketing and tagine camoain, proclaiming #WorthIt, when in fact, they have cut majors, course options, and are now cutting professors whose majors aren’t the hot majors of the year.Report

PeteJ
6 years ago

Maybe the department of religion feels like a safer place without any philosophers around.Report

Manyul Im
Reply to  PeteJ
6 years ago

The ELCA is fairly progressive. I wouldn’t put this on the Religion part of the department since it seems clearly to have come from higher up in the chain.Report

Takeanemetic
Takeanemetic
6 years ago

The religion department at Wartburg has been pressuring the administration to hire a philosopher. Wartburg faculty KNOW that we need a philosopher (actually, we’d love to have several philosophers, but we realize that it would be delusional to think that we can get more than one). At this point, we’re just hoping that we can keep philosophy on the books until the administration decides that they’re willing to offer us a philosophy line. A liberal arts college without philosophy is inconceivable (but I’ve heard that word doesn’t mean what I think it means).Report