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 Payscale.com) 
  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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Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I do not understand the stubborn determination to measure a program’s worth by its number of majors graduated. In practice, large numbers of students from other majors have told me that when they take our courses in Philosophy, we have made them better at what they do in their home disciplines. It seems we make engineers better engineers, and economists better economists, and nurses better nurses. Either all my students are lying or administrators are staring at the wrong bit of data.

Meanwhile, the high-enrolling majors that universities tend to retain, such as Business Administration, make headlines for having students with poor critical thinking and analytical skills. It boggles the mind. I know there must be administrators and politicians who don’t actually want what’s worst for students, but providing the students with Business programs and not Philosophy, when the evidence suggests they rather need the skills imparted in Philosophy, *even according to would-be employers of Business majors,* is illogical. Report

mhl
mhl
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Imagine two schools similarly situated in terms of rating tier, funding (state/private), size, demographics – one school produces 4x the number of philosophy grads as the other. I think in this case it is fair to ask why one school is having a lot more success than the other with respect to that metric.

There must be real life experiments out there waiting to be analyzed – schools which eliminated their philosophy program that whose student bodies can be studied to determine impact.Report

harry b
5 years ago

Enthusiasts for faculty governance might want to read the APER report in full. The reason is that it exemplifies some of the worst tendencies of faculty committees on these kinds of issues. They were asked to assess whether programs should be eliminated, and were given a selection of 8 low-enrollment/low graduation programs. They found that none of these programs should be eliminated. Each program was, no doubt, grateful to the committee for finding in their favor. But, of course, the committee just refused to make a judgement about the relative merits of maintaining the programs, or even the relative contributions of the programs to the university’s mission, leaving the administrators to make the recommendations to the BoT themselves, but without useful faculty input. My thought, reading it, was “would this committee ever support the elimination of any program, ever? If they didn’t want to make judgments, why did they agree to serve?” So, now, all 4 programs will do what Philosophy is doing, and enlist the efforts of supporters, and those with the most effective supporters (regardless of the merits of their case) will likely survive.

Strategically I suggest that, in this climate, it is wise to reverse the order of the talking points Gordon Pettit mentions, and also to try to get information about the cost (to the university) per credit of other programs which are not perceived to be ‘useful’: going from what I know about other colleges, I take a bet that the cost per credit for Musical Theater (one of the programs not being recommended for elimination) is higher than for Philosophy.

I share Pettit’s concern about the future of Philosophy in regional state colleges. Someone with the time, energy and skills might want to do an analysis of that layer of HE, looking at the cost-per-credit of Philosophy credits and comparing it with the cost-per-credit of other programs that might be vulnerable, and maybe with some that are invulnerable (eg some of the business-lite programs that are popular with students who don’t get into the business major and with the ‘paying for the party’ students). Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

“I take a bet that the cost per credit for Musical Theater … is higher than for Philosophy. ”

Doesn’t leading with this strategy begin by giving the whole game away? If we grant that these kinds of narrow measures of cost effectiveness are the right metric for selecting which programs to keep, what is left of the broader educational values that lead so many of us to want to pursue academic careers, even at significant personal cost? It also seems to involve going out of our way to do the “divide” half of the cost-cutters’ divide-and-conquer strategy for them. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

I’m not sure that the remit of the APER should be to say which programs deserve elimination more than which other programs. The APER has a defined role at WIU:

When the University is considering eliminating academic programs that would result in the layoff of an employee, it will constitute an Academic Program Elimination Review (APER) Committee composed of and elected by employees in the bargaining unit. The sole purpose of the APER Committee shall be to provide recommendations to the Academic Vice President concerning academic programs being considered for elimination which would result in the layoff of an employee….

In the process of developing its recommendations, the APER Committee shall review program costs and enrollment history, contributions of the program to the general education requirements, interdisciplinary and service functions, graduation requirements, the University curriculum, and contributions of the program to the mission and goals of the University.

What this does not say is that the APER Committee is supposed to (as Harry said) “make a judgement about the relative merits of maintaining the programs, or even the relative contributions of the programs to the university’s mission.” It’s supposed to deliver an up or down verdict on the particular program under review. I have not in fact read the reports all the way through, but it doesn’t seem a priori implausible that all the programs contribute to the mission and goals of the university and aren’t such big cash drains that you’d say they should be eliminated in some way.

But, you might say, the University has such a big hole in its budget that it has to eliminate something! Well, even if that’s true*, that doesn’t seem to fall under the remit of the APER. The University can lay off employees due to demonstrable financial exigency or enrollment reduction, or as a result of established program review procedures. If the university needs to close programs because of the hole in the budget, they should be demonstrating financial exigency, not co-opting the established program review procedures in order to implement recommendations that are the opposite of what the actual committees recommended.

So I agree that this exemplifies some of the worst tendencies of shared governance. Specifically, it seems to exemplify the tendency of university administrations to abuse shared governance processes by ignoring the faculty’s views, even where shared governance practices (and in this case, a collectively bargained contract) call for them to take those views into account.

*And I’m a little skeptical that it need be so–from the report, it seems that there’s not a structural deficit so much as a problem caused by the state’s failure to pass a budget, because the Republican governor is essentially shutting down the budget process in an attempt to force the legislature to pass his agenda. Responding to a temporary budget gap by permanently laying off faculty seems disproportionate. Though the harm that the governor’s intransigence is doing to Illinois universities may be converting a temporary situation into a permanent one. Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

That short-sighted strategy is a terrific way to make enemies and is exactly why administrators try to create a zero sum game among departments. I’m sure there are many philosophers who have never experienced the personal growth and enhancement of life skills and poise that studying and performing Musical Theatre can provide. These philosophers may then feel that, being philosophers, they know better the comparative educational worth of Philosophy and Musical Theatre. I’m also very sure there are lots of chemists, economists, management profs, etc., who have never taken a Philosophy course (or who hated it), and who don’t feel as if their education was diminished in any way whatsoever by their lack of philosophical training. Report

harry b
Reply to  Avi Z.
5 years ago

So, we shouldn’t comment on the relative merits of different programs? Then we shouldn’t complain when administrators makes decisions without our input. Of course, I agree Musical Theater might, in some colleges, be more valuable than Philosophy, and in thos colleges, if the adminstrators have to cut one or the other of those programs, they should cut Philosophy.

The leaders at Western Illinois do not want to make cuts, and do not want to fire anybody. Matt’s right that this is a completely artificial crisis, created by the legislature. The administrators, though, have to find costs savings, because they are running an organization with a budget. So, faculty can help them do that well, or absent themselves from the process. The latter is much preferred by faculty because then they get to keep their hands clean, and get to feel contempt for administrators who embrace neo-liberal values, or something like that. And say that they want to ignore faculty views, when, in fact, the faculty governance process has failed to give them views that are at all helpful. That’s my original point, and the rest is just trying to provoke people to take it seriously.

That said, regional state colleges are under a lot of financial pressure, and will, I think, continue to be for quite a long time, and small programs are going to be If people here want actually to preserve Philosophy in those schools, then a strategy is needed, and Professor Pettit’s list of 3 talking points are each good chapter headings. What is persuasive will depend on the circumstances, but we shouldn’t just leave it up to individual departments to reinvent the wheel when they face the axe.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

Harry, I think that this post is completely non-responsive to the point I was making, which is that the administration does not seem to be following the proper procedure, and that the remit of the APER does not appear to be (as you suggested) to make comparative judgments of programs that the administration has slated for elimination.

I mean, it’s right there in the resolution: they are allowed to lay off tenured faculty for demonstrated financial exigency, for demonstrated low enrollment, or as a result of established program review procedures. Well, they went through the established program review procedures and the committees said not to eliminate these programs (though they did recommend eliminating the Public Health major). This seems to leave open the option for the university to demonstrate financial exigency and initiate the whatever procedures are in place for laying off faculty for financial exigency. Instead, the administration appears to be using the program review procedures as an excuse to make an end-run around the need to declare exigency by shitcanning the actual report. If the administration is trying in good faith to arrive at solutions to address the budget deficit, I agree that faculty should do what they can to help. But this abuse of procedure is not an evidence of good faith. And this procedure is spelled out in a collectively bargained agreement, so it’s not to be lightly discarded.

(Also, you misquoted me when I said the crisis was created by the legislature. I said that it was created by the governor, as he’s the one who’s vetoed budget bills, and continued to threaten vetoes as long as the legislature does not include union-busting provisions that are unrelated to the budget.) Report

harry b
Reply to  Matt Weiner
5 years ago

Matt — yes, it was non-responsive to you, because it was a response to what Avi Z said Sorry about the misquote — yes, obviously it is the governor, I was writing quickly while surrounded by chattering people.

Thanks for clarifying the remit of the Aper. I don’t really understand how a single committee could recommend the elimination of some programs and the non-elimination of others — which was within their remit — without making judgments about the relative merit of those programs. But my main point, which I should have made less obliquely, was that when faculty are involved in this kid of decision-making often they do not take seriously that sometimes it is good to eliminate programs and, as I said, a careful reading of the report raises the suspicion that the committee just would never recommend eliminating anything — and this casts doubt on the value of the faculty side of shared governance when major financial decisions are at stake. Report

harry b
5 years ago

Yes, it does! And I am being provocative. But, you want to save Philosophy, and you know programs are going to be eliminated. I think Philosophy is more valuable than numerous other programs. And… don’t you think some programs really should be cut? (I do, as well as thinking some programs are much larger than they should be and others much smaller).
And… on a local basis, if faculty refuse to make judgments about the relative merit of programs, they basically allow non-faculty free reign, Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

But it seems like this strategy just “saves” philosophy for now by granting that it’s worthless (on the measures we’re endorsing), but insisting that it’s cheap. Report

harry b
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

My suggestion was just to emphasize the cost — since this essentially a cost cutting measure — but obviously not agree that its worthless. Problem is that every discipline thinks it is valuable (even when it isn’t) and we’re all too polite to make public judgments of the relative value of the different disciplines, so it is kind of assumed that everything is valuable — but then the arguments cannot be about value.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  harry b
5 years ago

Cost should certainly be one factor in a shared, good-faith discussion of priorities among various members of the university community, and of the surrounding communities to which that community also belongs. But that’s hardly a reason for members of each discipline to enter into a competition to see who can more effectively throw their university colleagues under the bus. Report

Eric
Eric
5 years ago

I made this comment on a previous story below but I think it bears repeating. A “university” that does not offer the chance to major in philosophy or other central liberal arts disciplines like classics probably doesn’t deserve the name and should be stripped of it. A school that only cares about high enrollment and jobs immediately after graduation is a degree mill or trade school or whatever and the diploma should reflect that fact. Report

harry b
Reply to  Eric
5 years ago

How does this comment help the philosophers, or the administrators, at Western Illinois? Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Few people, including university faculty, seem to understand the value philosophy provides. We must do a better job of demonstrating our value if we want the discipline to flourish. We’re going to be an easy target for cuts if people don’t know what good we do.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
5 years ago

Modified from from existential comics, I wish this could just be applied to anyone wishing to dismiss philosophy’s value anywhere:

“Why do you think philosophy is less important than ?”
“Well in subject x – ”
“YOU’RE DOING PHILOSOPHY!”
Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Edward Teach
5 years ago

That would be nice! In the real world, we’re going to have to explain ourselves in words non-philosophers can understand and in venues in which they will read what we have to say. We are doing terribly on this front. I see a lot more complaints about the undervaluing of philosophy than I see efforts to make our value clear.Report

Bob
Bob
5 years ago

While we philosophers like to think we are cheap, this is not necessarily the case. There is a trend in the sciences and even social sciences for universities to hire faculty on the condition that their funding – salary, lab equipment, grad researchers, etc. – is all funded from external grants. So, while they certainly cost more than philosophers, it’s not the university covering the costs. An implication of this is that no matter how cheap philosophers are, they’re still more expensive than scientists hired under such arrangements. Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Nonny Mouse · May 27, 2016 at 9:39 pm

“Few people, including university faculty, seem to understand the value philosophy provides. We must do a better job of demonstrating our value if we want the discipline to flourish. We’re going to be an easy target for cuts if people don’t know what good we do. ”

A commercial company would look very closely at their product. They would not focus all their attention on persuading people to buy the existing one on the assumption that they just need some arm-twisting. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

We have a great product that people should want. By all means, we can try to make it better, but it is my confidence in the value of our product that makes me care whether people are buying it.Report