Philosophy at Western Illinois Targeted (updated)

At its upcoming meeting in June, the Board of Trustees of Western Illinois University will take up Resolution 16.6/5 which, among other things, calls for the elimination of the university’s philosophy program as a way of responding to severe budget cuts:

from p.45 of the WIU June 9-10, 2016 agenda

from p.45 of the WIU June 9-10, 2016 agenda

The move to eliminate the philosophy program, reported earlier at Leiter Reports, contradicts the recommendation of the Academic Program Elimination Review (APER) Committee cited in the resolution, which states:

The committee discussed simply eliminating Philosophy Program (major). While the current fiscal crises elimination an option that must be considered, a majority of the committee recommend maintaining the Philosophy Program (major). Despite the current costs and Western’s extraordinary fiscal challenges, a majority of the committee recommends that the administration retain the Philosophy Program (major) on the condition that the program complete the curriculum revision that will include Religious Studies as an option in the Philosophy Major. 

The idea to include religious studies as an option in the philosophy major was proposed jointly by the Philosophy and Religious Studies Departments, according to the document.

The APER Committee’s full report on WIU’s philosophy program notes that the main challenges facing the program are the low number of declared majors and annual graduates. Still, it emphasizes that “Philosophy has a unique role as a fundamental discipline in the identity of any institution that aspires to call itself a university.”

I’ll update this post as further information becomes available.

UPDATE: Professor Gordon Pettit, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Western Illinois, writes:

First, a few details about our particular case:

This unfortunate decision was made strictly on gross numbers regarding enrollments and ignored several significant factors. Though the Academic Program Elimination Review Committee emphasized the fundamental nature of the discipline and the importance of philosophy to our university, those aspects meant little in the light of cherry picked data.

In our particular case, the decision was based on numbers from the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2015. Our philosophy program is small with only five faculty teaching in 2011, and in 2015 we had only three. One wonderful faculty member had passed away and was not replaced, even though his courses enrolled at greater than 95% of capacity. In 2015 we also had one faculty member on sabbatical. Thus our student credit hour production was down nearly 40% — exactly what one would expect with a 40% decline in faculty available to teach. Despite that, our number of majors had actually increased.

I only mention these details because I fear there will likely be many more similar program eliminations across the country. With data driven standards that can ignore the particular context of a situation, administrators can justify eliminating programs. This is exactly what many of those in governing positions desire. One goal is to have programs that produce degrees leading to high demand careers immediately after graduation. This myopic approach ignores three things in descending order of importance.  

  1. The traditionally valued reasons to study philosophy 
  2. The pragmatic value of having one’s intellectual skills honed (e.g. consider data from standardized exams like the LSAT, the GRE, the GMAT, as well as salary data from 
  3. The “cost effective” nature of many philosophy programs (you don’t have to pay philosophers much to produce a large amount of general education credits)

Small programs are especially under pressure since administrators and boards often look at degrees conferred and the number of majors to measure the value of a discipline. The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently increased their standards to having at least forty majors and nine degrees conferred per year. If other Illinois institutions follow suit, more philosophy programs will be eliminated. Of course, it is not just Illinois but other states who have boards of higher education setting similar standards.  We may be in just the initial wave of many philosophy program eliminations. How chilling to imagine!

UPDATE (5/30/16): Please see this post for a link to a petition supporting philosophy at Western Illinois.

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