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:


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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