Western Illinois As Warning


Inside Higher Ed has an article following up on the recent news of the elimination of the philosophy major at Western Illinois University (WIU). As we previously reported, the committee charged with reviewing programs (APER) did not recommend the closure of the philosophy department. And while Illinois has a reporting requirement for programs with low enrollments at public institutions of higher learning, according to Christopher Pynes, a philosopher at WIU quoted in the IHE article, this reporting requirement is not accompanied by a requirement to cut low-enrollment majors. Additionally, it is unclear that eliminating the philosophy major will save the university much money.

Philosophy programs facing similar pressure should be aware of the kinds of arguments that need to be made to defend themselves. Yes, we can talk about the value of philosophy, both in itself and for its more obviously practical benefits.

I think, too, that there is a project for the American Philosophical Association, or really any philosopher, to explain the value a robust philosophy program has for the mission of any university.

But in addition to that, there will be a need to take a close look at the numbers. From the IHE article:

The argument can be made that the degree programs approved to be cut Friday were generating surpluses, said William Thompson, president of Local 4100 of the University Professionals of Illinois at Western Illinois. Factoring in total credit hour production and using conservative revenue estimates, he calculated the women’s studies program as having a profit of about $240,000 in the 2015 fiscal year. Philosophy and religious studies—which would have been combined under a proposal—would have generated a surplus of more than $350,000, and African-American studies would have posted a small surplus of roughly $6,600.

The article goes on to admit that such numbers are not definitive defenses of the programs. Nonetheless, they are good figures for any department under threat to have. Perhaps there are other kinds of figures that would be useful (suggestions?).  Yes, we can moan and groan about a world in which philosophers have to defend the existence of their program on the grounds of its literal profitability to the university, but that is the world we live in, and it won’t get any more friendly to philosophy if our courses are eliminated because we are afraid of sullying ourselves with the numbers.

Geoff Myers, "Black + White Numbers"

Geoff Myers, “Black + White Numbers”

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Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

“Philosophy programs facing similar pressure should be aware of the kinds of arguments that need to be made to defend themselves. … But in addition to that, there will be a need to take a close look at the numbers.”

How is this the lesson of WIU? Christopher Pynes – and the WIU faculty union – had these kinds of numbers and made precisely these arguments, to no avail. It’s clear that the decision was already made, and it wasn’t about cost.

If the president, board, dean, or other decision makers already believe that philosophy makes a valuable contribution to the curriculum, then these numbers can be used to show that this valuable contribution is affordable. But if they don’t believe that then the fact that it’s cheap is beside the point. If they don’t believe philosophy is a valuable part of the curriculum, being a money maker is already beside the point. Why is philosophy or any other non-grant-winning department a money maker? Because of how many students enroll in their classes. But students only enroll in those classes because of some combination of (a) it’s required, (b) it’s a way of meeting a distribution requirement, or (c) it’s an eligible elective. But (a)-(c) are only true because the university makes it so – it can just as easily

The other problem with resting too much weight on the “we’re cheap” argument is that no matter how cheap or profitable a department is, it can always be cheaper. Small upper division classes taught primarily to majors can be made into another large gen ed class. The enrollment of your introductory classes can be doubled – from 20 to 40, or from 50 to 100, or from 100-200, with the only limitation being the size of your auditoriums. Tenured and tenure-track faculty can be replaced over time by cheaper contingent faculty. At best a cost-based argument can save you “for now.”

So yes, the numbers can be important, but only insofar as you’re already successful in convincing those in charge that philosophy is a valuable and important part of the curriculum. The lesson of WIU is that without that, the numbers don’t matter.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
5 years ago

Speaking as a voice from Wisconsin, I think it is right that this is not just a numbers issue. For a start, the financial crisis in Illinois as in many others states is the result of a politically induced austerity. Second, it is clear that there is an effort going on to change universities from being an institution of higher education to one of job training which in turn relies on a particular picture of what kind of jobs graduates should be trained for. There is a widely accepted view that graduates in things like philosophy and women studies are deeply in debt and unemployed, but the employment rate for college graduates as a whole is very low indeed, around 2.4%. The chances are good that not all philosophy and women’s studies majors are unemployable.Report

Jon
Jon
5 years ago

The numbers show moderate profitability from these programs, but obviously it’s more profitable to lay off faculty. So if something comes in $40k ahead, but there’s a faculty member making, with benefits, $100k, the administration sees $60k to be gained. In other words, the (current) profits are a red herring under the relevant accountancy. This isn’t to say that numbers are all that matters, but I don’t think the administration is completely misunderstanding anything. (Of course, the tenured faculty can’t be fired for 12 months, but they presumably can after that.)

More generally, these programs all have ~20 majors, which is really small. Out of 10,000 students. I’m not sure what’s wrong with closing majors that aren’t attracting attention. Note that the *department* isn’t closing, so there’s still philosophy minor and philosophy service courses. Say a faculty member gets fired as cost-saving, so there might be fewer courses. Or not (cf. adjuncts). But we can sit here and opine all day about how important philosophy is: if nobody cares, is it their fault or ours?Report

Mantis Shrimp
Mantis Shrimp
5 years ago

I welcome the suggestion that those of us at small departments might learn from WIU. Two questions that I’d love to get an answer to:

1) Why were students who pursued philosophy as a second major not included in the totally tally of majors? Our double majors are also excluded from our tally. Anyone else face a similar problem? Any ideas on how to address it?

2) Closing a program only saves money if it can reduce the cost of running the department that housed it. Perhaps permanent faculty at WIU will be let go. Perhaps they will be retained and teach only larger GenEd courses. Either way, it seems that the department itself, and not merely the program, has been deemed not viable, albeit indirectly. Why is the success of a department primarily assessed on the size of its major program? If the GenEd is an integral part of an undergraduate education, then I think that a department’s contribution to GenEd should also be considered in assessing how successful it is. Suppose dept. A fills 30 sections of GenEd per semester, but has only 10 majors, while dept. B fills only 5 sections of GenEd per semester (because they are a professional focused discipline) and has 50 majors. Why does admin. consider B a larger department, and subsequently more viable, than A?Report

Gordon
Gordon
5 years ago

Does anybody else smell a political rat? Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Religious Studies, and Philosophy are the departments that have to go? So the smaller departments that are most interested in promoting clear thinking, social justice and cultural understanding. The list of those facing reorganization – bilingual/bicultural education, public health, geography (David Harvey is a geographer, remember), and musical theater don’t make one feel any better.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Gordon
5 years ago

I’m in “Religious Studies” and one of those fabled right-wingers in the humanities.

From my perspective, “social justice” etc. is only a rhetorical fig leaf covering a nakedly political left-wing agenda. The reality is that philosophy, religious studies, and the social sciences have become much more concerned with political indoctrination than anything resembling “clear thinking.” So there is nothing nefarious or unfair about politicians who are concerned about that left-wing indoctrination, doing something about it.

Western academic “Philosophy” dug its own grave.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

You’ve not made any case at all that “there is nothing nefarious or unfair” about what you call from “your perspective” “politicians who are concerned about left-wing indoctrination”. That would require some clearer thinking and argument about that “concern”.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Alan White
5 years ago

I should think it self-evident that a sub-100 word post describing general tendencies in broad terms would not have been intended as a detailed case. Go to Heterodox Academy or read Passing on the Right if you want that.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

Ah–self-evident non-intentions. Nice stock-in-trade.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

That charge is too broad. Yes, there are left-wing biases in some parts of academia, including some circles in philosophy. That is regrettable, and I say that as a left-winger who wants to see more social justice. But philosophy does a heck of a lot of good, too, in the other direction. We do incline students to be critical thinkers and to show open-minded charitable skepticism. We are imperfect, as philosophy teachers have always been, but we do more good than harm. One task that political philosophers should take seriously is explaining to conservatives why their tax dollars are well-spent on philosophy.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

OK, troll. I’ll bite too. What do you mean by ‘indoctrination’? What is this unified left-wing doctrine you speak of? Should I be weary of the punch served at my next departmental function? Me thinks that no one is engaging in anything like ideologically spiking the punch, metaphorically or otherwise, and that there is conspiracy to push some kind of ideological agenda because there is no agreed ideology at work. (Also, I imagine that academics would make the most hilariously ineffective conspirators anyway.) Rather, you’re convinced that an indoctrinating conspiracy pushing a particular agenda only because you find that most other academics do not share your particular political views about the usual range of contentious political issues. But, surely, that there is a consensus that your politics is wrongheaded need not mean that there is a further consensus about what the right political views are, nor that those who disagree with you are somehow working together to push even that weaker, negative consensus. Perhaps most disagree with you because your views are plainly wrong by the lights of an overwhelming plurality of positions on the political spectrum, even if they agree on little else. I suspect, though, that seriously entertaining this possibility would get in the way of the persecution shtick that gets you through the cold lonely nights up here in the ivory tower among us Reds.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

The left-wing indoctrination in my LEMMing courses sure was subtle…Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

I wish to join in a duet with Margaret (if I may) from the land of the Cheeseheads. While UW System suffered even under the previous Democratic administration with pay-related furloughs and inadequate funding, that administration ended with moves to allow faculty to unionize–which, after the Tea Party revolution in 2010–was immediately quashed, along with legislation to require all state workers–relatively underpaid but with good pensions and benefits–to immediately contribute half of pension payments and raise contributions to health-care. The only justification was the politics of resentment–why are state workers getting such a sweet benefits deal?–ignoring the relatively poor salaries which they help compensate for. So UW faculty got a take-home pay cut that has only gotten worse ever since. Then came the removal of tenure from state statute–followed by a policy from a Tenure Task Farce that effectively makes scenarios like that of WIU much more likely here in WI–and much more likely for the non-Madison campuses. And I should know–I served on the Task Farce, and can say first-hand that the final tenure policy came from the top down, and that faculty input was window-dressed and had almost no impact on what the final version was. Politics involved here? Hell yes.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

It seems to me that few of our colleagues in other departments understand why philosophy is valuable. I think that very few people on the street understand why philosophy is valuable. They don’t know what they are losing when a philosophy department closes, so losing it doesn’t seem so bad. I think we need to do a better job of speaking to those outside the discipline, in language they can understand.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

These administrative decisions are often made within an academic political and personal context. Enemies are punished and allies are rewarded. To know exactly why Philosophy, Religious Studies, Women’s Studies, and African-American Studies were chosen for Major-termination, one *might* have to know whether members of those departments were critical of administration and one might also have to know whether members of other departments would be likely to complain about the termination of these majors, welcome such a move, or have been invited to take it as an object lesson. I say this because my understanding is that the elimination of the major was not mandated by the state and that the appropriate committee recommended keeping the major. An additional dove-tailing dimension of all this is the fact that administrators sometimes feel the need to do unnecessary things simply in order to give the appearance that they are doing their job, “moving the institution forward,” or “making tough decisions.” Without knowing the personal and political details of the WIU case, these are mere general speculations, but I offer them as a way to indicate that the fault does not necessarily lie in some alleged crisis of philosophy as a discipline. There are plenty of very small philosophy departments with very few majors which still offer the major, just because it doesn’t really cost anything, no one complains, and no administrators happen to want to target philosophy. If there is any lesson here, perhaps it is to make sure that your institution hires administrators who have a demonstrated respect for the liberal arts.Report