The Job Insecurity of Philosophy Instructors: A Case Study

“I love being a professor. I have been a professor my whole life. I don’t know what I am going to do.” That’s Pamela Ryan, who has been a philosophy instructor at Morehead State University for 15 years. This past Friday she was called into the office of the Dean of the Caudill College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Morehead, M. Scott McBride, and told that her contract would not be renewed and that her position is being eliminated. Unless something changes, this coming Friday she will be out of a job. Because she was a contract employee, she says, she will not qualify for unemployment benefits or health insurance.

Professor Ryan says that over the course of her career at Morehead she was among the “top-rated” teachers on campus and that her recent peer and student evaluations have been excellent. Indeed, the elimination of her position doesn’t appear to have anything to do with her performance. She was an excellent instructor, but excellence provides no protection for contract academics.

In this case, the university claims to face a budget crisis—it even decided not to pay its faculty and staff over Spring Break to save money. Part of its plan to get out from under its $9.7 million budget deficit is to eliminate some positions, based on a study of academic programs there. In an email to faculty and staff, Morehead University President Wayne D. Andrews said:

“These position eliminations were not an easy decision to make and I recognize the grave difficulty this will impose on 30 of our current employees and their families… We will follow our personnel policies related to position elimination and reduction in force as we implement these cuts and provide appropriate support to those individuals impacted.”

In the meanwhile, supporters of Professor Ryan have started an online petition to save her job (the text of it contains an error—she was at Morehead for 15 years, not 25). Many students have shared their thoughts about her on the petition site. For example:

I had 1 class to completion with Pam Ryan, and had it on recommendation from some friends as a good class to fill my schedule. I cannot say how thankful I am for the course as it allowed me to think of concepts not covered in my usually STEM fields, how to think critically, how to be a good person, and how to view the world through compassionate sunglasses. I was a self-centered, hateful, and angry young man with no real aspirations of helping people. After taking eve the base level class with Pam an interest in philosophical thought flourished that is still a key virtue of my character. The people that know me best know that I would not be the person I am today without the guidance of Pam. If any professor is an amazing asset it’s her.

On one reading, Professor Ryan’s career may just be the casualty of politics and poor budgeting. In March, the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, said he would be cutting $1.95 million (4.5 percent of the state’s appropriation to the school) during the fiscal year that ends June 30th, and the university had to respond. Even so, it is important to recognize the real and detailed consequences of these large decisions. Politicians and administrators planned poorly, and as a result a philosophy instructor’s career is on the line.

But there may be more to the story. For over a decade she was the only woman on the philosophy faculty. While she taught, presented work at conferences, and published, she says, “as a single mom of two young children, [my male colleagues] simply could not understand why I could not publish more or travel more. When a tenure track position came open, this was held against me.” She adds, “By the time my kids were old enough to allow me to do more of my own work, the opportunity for publishing and getting into TT jobs was passing by. I hadn’t been able to publish anything in a while between trying to keep my job and take care of two kids. I often reflect on how different my life would be if I were male.”

The decision to eliminate Pamela Ryan’s position becomes finalized in four days. She says:

I have been told not to raise ‘holy hell’ about this. I have never raised holy hell. I am insulted… I’m not supposed to ask or complain. I am constantly encouraged to be paid less, do more and be grateful about it.

I don’t know if it is possible to stop Dr. Ryan’s position from being eliminated. But if you are interested in trying, you can add your name to the several hundred signatories here, and write to Morehead University President Wayne D. Andrews at [email protected].

Morehead State Mascot Holding Socrates

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