Philosophy at University of Wyoming Threatened


The philosophy program at the University of Wyoming has been targeted for “elimination” by its administration in the face of impending budget cuts. Word of this came in a letter to the editor of the Laramie Boomerang from Renée M. Laegreid, a professor of history at the school (and brought to my attention by Matthew Weiner). Laegreid writes:

Governor Mead announced to the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees last week that in the next biennium, the University block grant will be reduced $41-51 million (depending on how one does the math). According to the Governor, the University budget increased 35 percent since the early 2000s, and now need to contract 8 percent. Where has this budget growth occurred? It occurred throughout the institution, with increased expenditures in administrative positions, athletics, technology, and yes, also in academic programs.

So, why is the administration focusing on eliminating academic programs and faculty positions to cut costs? Latest word is that 100 faculty positions will be permanently cut. Faculty retirements and departures for other jobs will meet some, but not all, of the targeted number. As for program elimination, Sociology, Philosophy and Statistics have been sentenced for elimination in the College of Arts and Sciences; other Colleges are surely finding programs to cut as well.

I contacted Franz-Peter Griesmaier, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wyoming for further details. He reported that the school’s new president, Laurie Nichols, had just held a “townhall meeting” with members of the university community, and that in its wake the Department of Philosophy is issuing the following statement (emphasis added):

Franz-Peter Griesmaier, head of the department of philosophy, was informed, on May 13, 2016, by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Paula Lutz, that if a worst case scenario (WCS) comes to pass, the philosophy department will be eliminated and all faculty in the department, including all tenured faculty, will be terminated by June 30, 2018. According to Dean Lutz, all deans were tasked to prepare for a WCS by outlining in detail how their respective colleges will respond to the budget reductions to UW ordered by the Governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead. It is our understanding that such a WCS entails that university cannot respond to budget reductions by any means other than cuts to programs and personnel. Dean Lutz assured Griesmaier that she, together with the other deans and the new President of UW, Laurie Nichols, will work to make other response options available, which might include the following: furloughs, program mergers, tuition and fee increases, early retirement incentives, and reductions in temporary faculty. However, if none of these options become available or are sufficient to absorb the 12% cut to the university budget, Dean Lutz will propose vertical cuts in the College of Arts and Sciences which include the elimination of the philosophy department (along with statistics and sociology). At this point, we have no information about how other college deans propose to meet the budget goals and to respond to the budget reductions.

We intend to work intensively for the survival of philosophy at the university using both quantitative (e.g., research productivity, credit hour generation, and number of majors) and qualitative (e.g., centrality of philosophy to the nature of a credible university, role of philosophy in collaborative ventures at UW, and success of our graduates in the world).  However, we will need help from throughout campus, around the state, and across the nation.  

The new president also outlined strategies for responding to the reductions that she will pursue. First, they are working on early retirement incentives. Second, they are working to pass a tuition and fee increase.

Afterwards, Professor Griesmaier was briefly interviewed by Wyoming Public Radio and asked, among other things, about the morale in the department. It is low, he said, and stated that members of the department are surprised that philosophy is on the list, for basically two reasons. First, no official program review of our undergraduate major has been initiated, as is required when reviewing programs for possible elimination (only our MA program is currently under review). Second, philosophy is perceived by the university itself as central to the core its mission, which is reflected in the opening paragraphs of the establishment document from 1886 (so-called Title 21). Here is the relevant passage:

“21-17-101.  Establishment. There is established in this state, at the city of Laramie, an institution of learning to be known as “The University of Wyoming”.
21-17-102.  Objects; departments. 
(a)  The objects of the university are to provide an efficient means of imparting to men and women, without regard to color, on equal terms, a liberal education, together with a thorough knowledge of the various branches connected with the scientific, industrial and professional pursuits.  To this end it shall embrace colleges or departments of letters, of science and of the arts together with such professional or other departments as in course of time may be connected therewith.  The department of letters shall embrace a liberal course of instruction in language, literature and philosophy, together with such courses or parts of courses in the college or department of science as are deemed necessary.
(b)  The college, or department of science, shall embrace courses of instruction in the mathematical, physical and natural sciences, together with such courses in language, literature and philosophy as shall constitute a liberal education.”

Finally, the financial context. WY has about 18 billion dollars in the so-called permanent mineral trust fund, and about 1.8 billion dollars in the rainy day fund. To this date, the legislature has not authorized the use of any monies from the rainy day fund. Moreover, the university is still moving ahead with purchasing a new accounting system at a cost of about 20 million dollars. and additions to our athletic facilities, which also purportedly cost about 20 million dollars.

I’ve asked Professor Griesmaier to keep us apprised of any new developments in the situation.

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JAB
JAB
5 years ago

Here is an analysis by Christopher Newfield that points out that administration can fail to determine how efficient humanities departments are in creating revenue through instruction. https://profession.commons.mla.org/2015/12/16/the-humanities-as-service-departments-facing-the-budget-logic/
In the essay he explains why he recommends this: “Faculty members need to be able to compare the revenues a unit generates through its overall instructional workload with the funds it has on hand to expend. Whether enrollment money comes from the state, student tuition, university endowment interest, gifts, or some other source, it is distributed to a given department through the campus’s central administration. Central administrations collect enrollment money from many sources and then distribute varying proportions of it among departments. They do not, as a rule, give a department the same revenue that its workload earns. Some departments get more instructional revenue than what they earn through their teaching, and some get less.”Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  JAB
5 years ago

Thank you, JAB, for posting this valuable link. F-PReport

Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

That would be bad. Judging from their graduates (who go on to good PhD programs) they have a good MA program. And the faculty I have spent time interacting with have been very helpful with feedback on stuff I was working on.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

Thank you Mark for your kind words!Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Very sorry to read this news, but at least it is still at the worst-case scenario stage. Hopefully philosophers have access to a good institutional research office that can provide helpful data on their costs, enrollments, space requirements, and other numbers that will likely show philosophy to be more efficient than some other departments? (I do hate the new world order in which we try to prove our coworkers cost more, a mean and vicious thing to be complicit with, but there it is.) A few key alumni can often make a difference, especially for Philosophy departments, as our majors often go to law school and do quite well. If you have any recent and comfortable alumni that you could easily contact, now’s the time. Keep in touch, Wyoming philosophers, do let us know how it all goes.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Thank you, Kate! Unfortunately, our Office of Institutional Analysis is pretty bad. They have over-counted and under-counted the MA students we have, under-counted the number of philosophy majors repeatedly, and since one of my colleagues happened to supervise a PhD student in another department, philosophy was once credited with graduating a PhD, despite not having a PhD program. However, the dean assures me that I will have the chance to check their data against our own, should this become necessary.Report

Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

No one has explained to me how university administrators can effectively eliminate academic programs and academic departments (and the tenured faculty members in those departments) under the banner of financial exigency when those same university budgets are supporting athletic programs, non-educational programs and offices, and general administrative bloat.

According to Wyoming’s Regulation 6-41, financial exigency can be declared only when there is “a financial crisis so severe that preservation of the integrity of the University and prevention of substantial harm to the institution requires termination of the employment of tenured faculty.” A 12% total budget cut would not do this.

If the administration is responding to a 12% budget cut by saying that every entity (colleges, administration, athletics, etc.) has to cut 12%, and, as a result, the only way for the College of Arts and Sciences to cut 12% is to cut academic programs (a real possibility if the college is running on fumes currently), then you can see why the dean would have to place programs on the chopping block. But that the university has chosen to approach a budget cut in this way wouldn’t justify exigency.

It seems to me that if tenured faculty members were terminated, then there would be reasonable grounds for a lawsuit as long as programs and personnel who are not essential to the “preservation of the integrity of the University” (i.e., fulfilling its educational mission) remain. If someone thinks differently, please let me know. I’d be curious to know what legal grounds they have to eliminate tenured faculty when it’s quite clearly not an option of last resort.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

I absolutely agree with you, Chris. However, the situation is actually more involved, as the university has not declared financial exigency. From what I understand, the administration might be trying to use a different Unireg to justify program closure, which allows them to target underperforming programs. We are not one of them, and our major has not been – as of yet – under official review. We are certainly looking into retaining legal counsel.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Franz-Peter Griesmaier
5 years ago

Ah, yes, the “program discontinuation” route. UNO has used that in the past, most recently with geography, to get rid of tenured faculty members. That approach strikes me as dubious as well, for all of the reasons you’ve probably thought of.

My only suggestion would be to track down old copies of the faculty handbook, copies from the years you and your colleagues were hired, to see what the policies were then and what the guidelines were for making modifications to those policies. I assume that your initial contract letter states that the terms of your employment is governed by the faculty handbook. I’d be surprised if your handbook outlines the procedure for changing items in the handbook, and even more surprised if those procedures were actually followed. My guess is that the handbook they have now is significantly different from the one they had when they hired you, especially when it comes to the rights of the tenured faculty and the conditions under which tenured faculty can be terminated.Report

Eric
Eric
5 years ago

I am wondering how long before they come for the rest of us. I wonder if a “university” that is stripped of vital departments (like philosophy) should be called a university and not a trade school, which is what some people seem to want state universities to become. Maybe their accreditation can be dropped to a lower level? There should anyway be clear consequences for these politically motivated actions.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Eric
5 years ago

I am not sure that targeting the philosophy department at UW is politically motivated, Eric. From what I can tell, there was a panic reaction to budget reductions of about 17 mio. that have to be in place by July 1, 2016. However, whatever their motivation, I do think that the accreditation of the entire university might be at risk if they proceed with closing central departments, esp. without having declared financial exigency. If any political motives are in play at all, then they are not directed at specific departments, but rather at the idea of publicly funding education that goes beyond producing workers for the state’s economy. This is of course bad enough.Report

Stephen Darwall
Stephen Darwall
5 years ago

This is terrible news. I’ve visited the Wyoming Department twice over the past twenty plus years and well remember the very interesting interactions I had with faculty and students there. There is all sorts of evidence of the value of philosophy, even just measured in economic terms. For a Wall Street Journal analysis that shows that Philosophy majors show the greatest percentage increase of all majors (except mathematics, with which it is tied) between starting and mid-career salaries, see: http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html

The explanation for this is not far to seek. Philosophy trains one to think, speak, and write clearly, and gives one the flexibility and creativity of mind that enables one to flourish in a wide variety of professional, commercial, and non-profit settings. It is the best education for the constantly changing job market that our students will increasingly face.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Stephen Darwall
5 years ago

Thank you, Stephen, for your kind words and the very useful link, which we will use for our PR campaign this coming fall. I still remember fondly your last visit here. Best, F-PReport

Katherine
Katherine
5 years ago

This is heartbreaking. My BA in Philosophy at UW absolutely paved the way for an amazing graduate school experience and my ability to adapt in an unplanned career field. Most importantly, the department faculty helped me become a better student and human being; my experience as a UW Philosophy student will always be what I credit as the foundation to my successes and happiness.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Katherine
5 years ago

Thank you so much, Katherine! I am very happy to hear that your experience here at UW had such a positive and lasting impact. Best, F-PReport

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

If we want philosophy to survive and thrive, we need to make the value of our work clear to people who are not professional philosophers. Most people, including many university faculty, have no idea what would be lost if philosophy departments were eliminated.Report

Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Franz-Peter Griesmaier
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I agree, Nonny Mouse! We are actually starting this fall with an experiment designed to get philosophy out into the public. We have two very prominent writers on our faculty (split with the MFA program), one a poet with a philosophy PhD from UT Austin, the other one a former entomologist, who is going to co-teach a course in “philosophy writing”, modeled after “science writing”. Physicists have long been in the business of making their research available to the public, and we need to do the same. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s important to try something like this.Report

harry b
5 years ago

Franz-Peter
I posted my piece on Crooked Timber mainly because of hearing about this, and the threat to WIU Philosophy in such close proximity. I think we do need to articulate the value of what we teach. I just tried to friend you on facebook so you can see (and use) the rather wonderful testimony of a company CEO about the value of philosophy to him which is a response to my fb link to my speech.

I don’t know your context, but my guess is that you could calculate the number of credits taught per $50k of faculty/instuctor salary, and ask for that to be compared with other departments and programs; and it would also be worth gathering testimonials from current and recent former students about the quality of instruction they received in their philosophy classes, compared with other classes they take/took, and ask for detailed testimony. I know that is difficult after the end of the semester, but it seems that you need all the help you can get..

As a general rule, administrators find it annoying to get what I often see expressed by faculty, which is a sense of outrage and entitlement — ‘how can you call this a university without a philosophy program’, but can respond well to reasoned argument that combines attention to costs with attention to academic value. Your brief comments indicate you are the kind of person who can do this well. Best of luck, and please let people know how they can be useful, and keep Justin updated.Report

vicki Lindner
vicki Lindner
5 years ago

Why not imbed a philosopher in other relevant departments and have them teach , for example, the philosophy of art, medical ethics, the philosophy of science, religious philosophies etc . Anyone who wanted to major or minor in philosophy could take all the courses plus get private mentorship for what has not been included in them.. No university that calls itself an institution of learning should be without the profound study of the very nature of thought that only this discipline can provide other disciplinesReport

Adam Donze
Adam Donze
4 years ago

From the Recently (last 5-6 years) side:
As a graduate of the University of Wyoming philosophy department (half a decade ago) I find this development shocking. That the Philosophy department would be on the chopping block greatly upsets and concerns me. Something so integral and indispensable as philosophy being made unavailable for formal study is alarming in a time when young people need access to more ways to think, understand, and process ideas and concepts, not less. Having spent the last 6 years managing tens of millions of dollars in government contracts, across a number of branches of government, subject to every department of labor, federal acquisition regulation, DFAR and DCAA requirement, I can say with absolute certainty that the praise and success in these theaters I have enjoyed are directly and almost solely attributed to my years studying philosophy at UW. The ability to erect a kind of cognitive scaffold to safely and quickly work around problems, no matter the complexity or subject matter, owes its genesis to serious philosophical inquiry and study. Moreover, I believe that I came away with more than just ‘job-skills’. The cacophony of ideas and ways things could be bombarded at us each day, given structure and form by the faculty, added a good deal of temperance to my personality and range to my ability to understand a thing or person as well as the means to weed out redundant, contradictory, or otherwise unsafe assumptions and conclusions.

Perhaps this will read a nothing more than bias, and I am certainly capable of speaking from that position, but it seems this closure is more the victim of some kind of Dunning-Kruger effect insomuch as they (progenitors of the idea of cutting philosophy) have either underestimated the benefits of the philosophy program or overestimated their understanding of the programs benefits or both. I have a lot of respect for academia and I view learning as paramount at every instance of life. While i can appreciate being told what X business model is and how it works, what X author wrote, or what X formula/function is and how its used, I think that just as important (maybe even more so) is being educated on how to think, not just the what to think.

It is my firm belief that the loss of the philosophy department, whose roots extend so far across academia that no department can easily claim to have never felt its influence, would equate to a loss of something precious and difficult to reacquire once gone. Whether the inherent benefits or the amazing faculty that accompanies it, this closure should be heavily reconsidered.

If this is all about that time I brought a durian fruit into the hall for aesthetics seminar with Lockwood, i’ll apologize!Report