Univ. St. Thomas Administration Plans to “Terminate” Philosophy PhD Program (Update: Plans Have Changed)


The philosophy department… has been told that the administration plans to go to the board in the next week or two and terminate the PhD program. This, we are told, would allow the administration to change the terms of our contracts and increase course loads and remove tenure. 

The foregoing remarks are from a statement sent to Daily Nous by John Hittinger, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, prompted by earlier reports of threats to philosophy there. [See the update, below, for newer information.]

The whole statement is below, but, in addition to the announced plans to terminate the department’s PhD program—which is the only PhD program at the school, and the only PhD program in the country “uniquely focused” on the work of Thomas Aquinas—other striking features of the situation there include:

  • the Dean of Arts & Sciences was apparently in the dark regarding the administration’s plans to withhold contract renewal letters from the philosophy and English faculty
  • program reviews normally take one to two years at the university; this one will have taken three weeks
  • program reviews normally include substantial faculty input; this one had no faculty input
  • the president of the university, Robert Ivany, appears to be holding all of the philosophy [correction: English] department’s contracts hostage in order to extract $80,000 from the department’s budget.

Here is Professor Hittinger’s statement:

The policy of the University of St Thomas states the following: All full-time faculty will receive annual contracts designating rank, salary, tenure status, assignment and any special provisions by May 15 for the ensuing academic year. (2010). This same statement has been in the Handbook from the very beginning. I served for 2 1/2 years as Vice President for Academic Affairs—our office took the greatest care to have these contracts ready by May 15 and would often strive to have them by May 1. The subsequent VPAA has also faithfully produced the contracts by May 15. So for the last 25 years or more the University has observed this policy and established the custom of having contracts by May 15.

The year 2017 now stands out as a revolutionary one—the President decided to withhold the contracts of 18 tenured faculty, the entire Philosophy department and the entire English department, and instead sent them a letter threatening to eliminate their programs after a “review” and possibly terminate them. Program or Departmental Reviews with an eye to reduction typically take at least one-two years, depending on the size of the department, and are conducted by the Dean and a committee of faculty members—not Administrators.

On the afternoon of Friday May 12, 2017, Dr. Tom Osborne, Director of the Center for Thomistic Studies, Dr. Shannon Forbes, Acting Chair of the English Department, and Dr. John Hittinger, Chair of the Philosophy Department and former UST V.P.A.A, were alerted in person or via email by Dr. Chris Evans, Dean of Arts and Sciences, that on Monday, May 15, 2017, all seven tenured faculty members of the English Department and all eleven tenured members of the Philosophy Department would receive letters in lieu of contracts, in strict violation of UST policy, practice, and norms. Subsequent to the emails, all those noted above had personal conversations with the Dean, who had no idea as to the contents of the letters and had himself learned of this distressing development in a meeting with the Administration earlier that morning.

On Monday, May 15th, at 1:00 P.M., members of both departments received the following letter:

Dear_______:

Your department is currently under review for potential reorganization and/or program elimination. For that reason, the University is not able to provide you with a contract renewal at this time. The University anticipates completing its review of your department by June 12, 2017 and making contract renewal decisions for faculty in your department at that time.

The University regrets any inconvenience that this delay may cause you. I hope you will understand that certain financial circumstances require the University to carefully review certain programs and departments before making contract renewal decisions.

With faith in our future,
Robert Ivany, President

Of course this revolutionary deed created a state of chaos and panic. This may well have been part of the intention of the administration, for on Tuesday, May 16, the Dean approached Dr. Forbes and conveyed the following message from the President: if the department could surrender $80,000 (or a $60,000 bail out minimum) from its budget by around 2:00 P.M., members of the department would likely get contracts the following day. At a department meeting that day, it was revealed that President Ivany would likely axe one department faculty member if we didn’t come up with the money from such sources as student workers, adjuncts, travel money, increased course loads, coffee money, etc. The department defined the action as a form of financial coercion and decided we would not negotiate

The philosophy department, on the other hand, has been told that the administration plans to go to the board in the next week or two and terminate the PhD program. This, we are told, would allow the administration to change the terms of our contracts and increase course loads and remove tenure. Retirements from our department would also be strongly encouraged. It should be noted that program reviews normally take one to two years and involve major faculty participation. In this case, the chairs and directors first heard of such a review on Monday, and apparently it will be done without faculty input, and in the time frame of three weeks.

Those who favor academic custom are accused of being nostalgic for the past. For future flourishing, the administration appears willing to destroy tenure and ruin countless lives.

UPDATE (May 20th, 2017): Thomas Osborne, director of the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, writes that as of Friday afternoon, the administration’s plans had changed:

The Center will not close, and will continue to provide promised financial aid, courses for graduate students, and academic support for ABD students.  Furthermore, there is no plan as of this date to remove the PhD program.

Also, Professor Hittinger reports that within the past day:

the members of the English department have received contracts or retirement agreements. The details and conditions under which such were obtained must still be considered by legal counsel. The faculty group has used a social media site to raise funds and they have now met their goal to obtain a retainer fee for legal counsel. Their counsel has been very busy yesterday and today gathering information to be ready for decisive and appropriate action.

UPDATE (May 22nd, 2017): Inside Higher Ed reports:

Ivany reiterated in an interview that no tenured faculty members will be laid off this year, and everyone will receive a one-year contract by mid-June. He also said there’s no way the university would eliminate English or philosophy, two of its major service departments. Yet St. Thomas is reviewing programs within these departments—such as degree offerings, he said. The Board of Directors could eliminate jobs at some future date, pending the outcome of the review…

Asked if it was prudent to consider shearing foundations of the core curriculum, Ivany said the college’s liberal arts mission remains strong—as does its commitment to English and philosophy, in particular, as departments. But even packed lower-level courses can’t justify low enrollments in upper-level classes for lack of majors, he said.

 

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recent grad
recent grad
4 years ago

For those who know the law: is there a lawsuit here?Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  recent grad
4 years ago

Some of the targeted faculty are planning legal action. You can support their effort here: https://www.gofundme.com/true-to-the-core. They are almost 80% to what they need for a retainer.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I wonder, now that the university is no longer focusing on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, will the university be changing it’s name to the ‘University of Not St. Thomas’?Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

That would be the University of Ain’t Thomas, thanks very much.Report

Christopher Martin
Christopher Martin
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

Congratulations and thanks for that excellent suggestion, from one of the philosophy professors at USTReport

Stacy Ulbig
Stacy Ulbig
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

That needs to be a t-shirt – proceeds from sales going to the legal action.Report

Aaron
Aaron
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

Schwenkler that seems a little extreme because they’ll still have an English department after all. However, perhaps it could become the St. Thomas Vocational and Professional College.Report

John Schwenkler
4 years ago

This is a really scary development. It must be resisted. These are our colleagues. And the Center for Thomistic Studies is an extremely important locus of contemporary scholarship in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Having this program close would be a disaster.Report

Jeffery Kinlaw
Jeffery Kinlaw
4 years ago

This is a Catholic university faithfully and furtively committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition and the integration of faith and learning–or so we thought! The philosophy department has been at the center of sustaining and executing that mission. I suppose the current president and the Board have no conception of what it means to be a Catholic university, let alone a liberal arts university.Report

Aaron Krohn
Aaron Krohn
Reply to  Jeffery Kinlaw
4 years ago

AmenReport

jcoyle_libman
4 years ago

This saddens me and angers me at the same time. I received an MA in Philosophy from the Center and I have many friends that graduated from that program. It sounds like UST has lost its way.Report

Prof. Em. Jeremiah Hackett
4 years ago

If this is true, and there is some reason to think it is true, it reminds one of the fact that Nihilism is at the gates. And who will guard the guards? This seems to be a direct attack on the very mission of the humanities, the Departments of English and Philosophy and the Center for Thomistic Studies. Hang you heads in shame, President and Board of Trustees!! Have you lost your minds and your faith?Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
4 years ago

What is the understanding of “tenure” at this institution such that “tenured” faculty face a question of contract renewal every May?Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Crimlaw
4 years ago

And what’s the understanding of “tenure” such that it can be removed from a department without a Ph.D. program?Report

M
M
Reply to  Dale Miller
4 years ago

It could very well be a condition on tenure at UST, as it is in many places, that while one cannot be simply removed from one’s position, a drastic reorganization of the university can result in dismissal. But it is clear in this case that this is being done hastily, contrary to fair procedures, and stupidly.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  M
4 years ago

I understand that even faculty with tenure can be let go under certain radical conditions that do not seem to be met in this case. What I still don’t understand is how things have worked in previous years when things were going normally at this school. Faculty with tenure apparently were still subject to annual renewal of contracts? That sounds like the faculty with “tenure” did not have the sort of contract that faculty with tenure have. No university where I’ve had tenure views a tenured appointment as involving an annual contract renewal.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Crimlaw
4 years ago

Technically at my school (a public R2) tenured faculty are reappointed annually. We get new contracts every year. But when you’re tenured the reappointment is a given. It’s not longer the case that anyone is decided whether to reappoint you or not. Tenure-track faculty are reappointed annually, too, of course; there is no three-year contract and then a second three-year contract if they like you.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Dale Miller
4 years ago

Hi Dale,
Scott Lemieux was fired from a tenured position at the College of St. Rose when the graduate program in political science was terminated, even though the undergraduate department remained in place. So this isn’t the only case where a school has tried to use* the elimination of a graduate program as a pretext for getting rid of tenured faculty, even though their home department remains intact.

*Where “tried to use” includes “succeeded in using,” per Jennifer Hornsby.Report

Patrick Mayer
Patrick Mayer
Reply to  Crimlaw
4 years ago

I work at a small Catholic liberal arts college. We don’t have tenure at all. Our contracts are renewed yearly. The most protection we get is that after you teach for 3 years they stop being able to fire you at will, and from then on have to show cause to fire you. The faculty here tell themselves and all new hires that it is just as good as tenure, which it clearly is not. They also claim that all small Catholic liberal arts colleges work the way we do when it comes to tenure.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Patrick Mayer
4 years ago

This is awful. The president of the small Catholic college where I taught previously almost managed to put this sort of system in place, but thankfully we fought it off. It is certainly NOT a universal practice at such institutions.Report

Brian Long
Brian Long
4 years ago

The faculty should immediately write to the Congregation for Christian Education and the Secretary of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas and request that they intervene immediately. If the local Basilian leadership will not fight to preserve the legacy of their own order then the Basilian bishops in Canada should also be engaged and asked in intervene. It is profoundly unjust that an outgoing President of the University is railroading drastic changes through in his final months. It smells like retaliation. It should be resisted.Report

Jonathan Greig
4 years ago

Has anyone considered an open letter of protest to the admin?Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

Is there an “Evil Administrators Conference” or maybe just a playbook where they get all these maneuvers witnessed at St. Thomas and elsewhere? It is the same damn thing playing out at many schools.Report

Ray
Ray
4 years ago

Another rogue President! Heaven help us all!Report

Mark McNeil
Mark McNeil
4 years ago

As a graduate of the Center for Thomistic Studies (MA), it is profoundly sad to hear of this possibility. My studies at the Center have profoundly enriched my teaching theology and philosophy over nearly two decades at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory. Hundreds of students have taken my course on Augustine and Aquinas that grew out of my studies at the Center. The impact of the rigorous and faithful teaching of Dr. Hauser, Dr. Knasas, Dr. Hall, Dr. Rebard and various others is felt daily in my work with our students. The world of Catholic education will truly be diminished by the loss of the Center. I pray it does not happen.Report

Aaron Krohn
Aaron Krohn
4 years ago

I graduated from UST with a major in Philosophy. My father teaches in the English department. It seems to me – and I’m probably stating the obvious for those who have lived thru it day by day – that the wrong person is “running” the school. How did this happen? Is the board to blame? Is money the root of the problem or the need for money?
This president, besides seeming unqualified to run an institution of learning, seems to want to make UST into something that it is not.
I ask – I. Ignorance – do the priests have any say?Report

David Alvarez
David Alvarez
4 years ago

It is very disturbing to hear that this sort of thing has been happening at UST too. At the University of Dallas, we are also going through analogous problems in which the administration shows that it does not have any solid dedication to Catholic liberal arts education.Report

Christopher Martin
Christopher Martin
4 years ago

The update says “The Center will not close, and will continue to provide promised financial aid, courses for graduate students, and academic support for ABD students. Furthermore, there is no plan as of this date to remove the PhD program.”
Surely this should read “*The administration now claims* that the Center will not close, etc”
I notice, also, that the original letter threatening the “elimination” of the philosophy department, sent over the President’s signatur, has not yet been withdrawn or disavowed.Report