Philosophy Threatened at SUNY Fredonia


The administration at the State University of New York at Fredonia has targeted the school’s Department of Philosophy.

The Department of Philosophy may be eliminated, and the school will no longer offer students the opportunity to major in philosophy, if the plan being considered by the university’s president, Virginia Horvath and provost, Terry Brown, is approved.

The plan would make SUNY Fredonia the only SUNY comprehensive college without a philosophy BA program and without a philosophy department.

The proposal to close the department and discontinue the major is being made as part of a plan for “reducing expenses,” according to a memo from Horvath.

This is not the first time that the university has considered shuttering the Department of Philosophy. In 2017, the dean of the sciences and humanities at the school, Andy Karafa, considered the idea.

At the time, the department responded in detail, arguing that cutting philosophy would result in “minimal savings and substantial costs.” Its instructional costs are lower than the departmental average on campus and its full-time enrollment student-to-faculty ratio is higher than the average on campus. The number of philosophy majors is currently down, but that appears to correlate with an overall decrease in enrollment at Fredonia. Resignations and retirements have left the department with just two full-time members (both of whom are SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professors—a rank above full professor—and have won the top research-related awards at the school). In general, the philosophy department appears to run well and pretty cheaply at that.

It is striking that a university that bills itself as a “comprehensive, public, liberal arts university” offering “a complete college experience”, could seriously entertain the idea of no longer offering a philosophy major—especially since one of the criteria for assessing programs is their “centrality to the mission” of the university.

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Joel Pust
Joel Pust
2 years ago

This is horrible. A real liberal arts university can’t do without a philosophy department. Moreover, the two tenured faculty have each won a major teaching award (the sort of thing a liberal arts university should value) and are also distinguished researchers. The APA ought to push back hard against this ASAP. One hopes this has nothing to do with the controversial nature of Prof. Kershnar’s work.Report

Joel Pust
Joel Pust
2 years ago

It seems also quite suspicious that philosophy is re-targeted soon after a philosophy prof. offers a scathing critique of the administration in his resignation letter.

From the Fredonia paper:

“Dale Tuggy, a for­mer phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor who quit re­cently, wrote a scathing email on PROFTALK chastis­ing not only the Pres­i­dent, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion as a whole for its al­leged de­cep­tion and in­com­pe­tence.

“The year that I served as chair of the fac­ulty Sen­ate, I bought into Hefn­er’s scare­mon­ger­ing about the money run­ning out,” said Tuggy. “There was mys­te­ri­ous talk about ‘re­serves’ be­ing drained and lots of com­plain­ing about how sup­pos­edly the state is prac­ti­cally cut­ting us off.”

Tuggy be­lieves that foul play was in­volved. Sure, en­roll­ment was dip­ping a lit­tle and so the ad­min­is­tra­tion had to slightly rein in on their free spend­ing ways, but there were other fac­tors in­volved that led to more ques­tions than an­swers.

“Many of us started to re­al­ize that that was the one drum they knew how to bang in or­der to get changes made,” he said. “They some­how could af­ford new, ex­pen­sive ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions and reg­u­lar pay in­creases for ad­min­is­tra­tors, all while still cry­ing croc­o­dile tears about the bur­geon­ing ‘struc­tural deficit.’”

https://fredonialeader.org/2018/09/19/fredonias-budget-crisis-fact-or-fiction/Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
2 years ago

I gave a couple of talks in philosophy at SUNY Fredonia a few years back. I found the students there to be incredibly engaged and thoughtful and interested. The idea that future students will be denied the chance to study philosophy is extremely disheartening.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
2 years ago

What can we do to help?Report

Neil Feit
2 years ago

I’m one of the two full-time department members currently at Fredonia. Thanks to Justin and to those who have commented so far. As far as help goes, a student who graduated last year just informed me of a petition that he is working on, and I’ll try to provide the link when available. Individual letters are certainly welcome too, and could be sent to feit[@]fredonia[dot]edu. Sometime after Thanksgiving, we’ll be meeting with the dean and we hope to get more info on the administration’s cost-reduction case. We will have until February 1 to respond. Several other programs are threatened (for example, Art History and French majors). As far as I can tell, ours is the only case that would result in the elimination of an academic department (we’d be folded into another department, I guess).Report

Joel Pust
Joel Pust
2 years ago

Not sure if this link

http://ovsc.blogspot.com/2017/05/a-debate-over-eliminating-fredonia.html

is indeed what it appears, but, if so, Feit, Kershnar and Tuggy themselves suggested administrative retaliation as a possible motive behind a similar attempt to eliminate the department in 2017:

They wrote
“A previous dean told the philosophy department that the administration was aware of their pattern of questioning the administration and that it made them very unhappy with the department. The questioning was well within the appropriate range of academic discussion and governance. Here is what the unhappiness likely rested on.
· Administrative Review. Dale Tuggy and Steve Kershnar tried to allow the university senate access to reviews of the administrative divisions. It had long been a right of senators, but was eliminated by senate chair and English Department chair Bruce Simon.
· General Education Program. Ray Belliotti, Neil Feit, and Kershnar led the opposition to the new general education program. The senate voted down the first two versions.
· Enhanced Presidential Ceremonies. Belliotti was a leading commentator on the greatly enhanced ceremonies welcoming the appointment of the new president: Virginia Horvath. The ceremonies were far more than what had been done for previous presidents.
· Faculty Voting. Feit and Kershnar were part of the effort to retain faculty voting on new hires and chairs (it has been in effect eliminated in the case of hires and there was an attempt to eliminate it in the case of chair selection). The administration does appear to have stealthily eliminated the faculty right to vote on new hires, although this does not appear to be consistent throughout the college. At least two deans opposed faculty voting on the chair and tried to implement a right of the administration to vet chair candidates before the faculty were allowed to vote on them.
· Free Speech. Kershnar was denied a promotion by President Hefner and Vice President Horvath. There was then attempt to negotiate a prior-restraint requirement on his public writings. The negotiation broke down. Eventually, this was reversed but only after the college received a lot of bad publicity.
· Associate Provost. Neil Feit was among a group of senators to move to recommend against hiring two Associate Provosts in Academic Affairs, and later (after two were hired) he pressed Associate Provost Horowitz on the decision to hire a grants development specialist to fill the line left vacant by Maggie Bryan-Peterson’s departure.”Report

Neil Feit
Reply to  Joel Pust
2 years ago

Thanks, Joel, this is what it appears to be, an April 2017 memo sent by Philosophy chairperson Steve Kershnar to our administrators regarding the dean’s suggestion about eliminating the department. It is true that we philosophers have been some of the most outspoken critics of administrative actions here (in a civil and collegial way squarely within the bounds of shared governance at a state university). I am agnostic on the extent to which the present action is retaliatory or personal. I am willing to believe that my campus really does have a budget crisis, and in fact other programs (but not, we think, other departments) are at risk. I’m glad you shared some points from that memo, since it shows that even if this administrative action is not retaliation, our concerns about management were justified. They reveal an administration that (1) completely disrespects departmental and faculty autonomy, (2) spent and spent and spent even as enrollment (and hence revenue) was in a steep decline, largely for its own benefit instead of the institution’s, and (3) bills itself as a liberal arts college — which is historically the case — but is willing to throw core liberal arts programs under the bus first.Report

Alexa
Alexa
Reply to  Neil Feit
2 years ago

An honest question: what were the reasons for opposing the grant development specialist? That seems like a valuable position, especially when grant dollars bring in needed revenue for the administration. What were the Senate’s reasons for opposing this?Report

Neil Feit
Reply to  Alexa
2 years ago

Thank you for asking. Please keep in mind as you read my answer that SUNY Fredonia is a small university, under 5,000 total students and almost all undergrad. There is little day-to-day business for a grants specialist. More to your point, we were assured by administration that the second of the two new Associate Provosts to be hired would assume the grants-related responsibilities of the recently retired grants officer. After the new (second) Associate Provost was hired, however, the administration went ahead and hired another grants officer in addition to the Associate Provost whose advertised job responsibility was to deal with grants.Report

Pamela A. Marshall
Pamela A. Marshall
2 years ago

This is terrible. Philosophy is a core of the liberal arts education. The budget was a mess already when I left in 2003 and enrollment was in decline. it was clear then something was wrong. It’s been been 15 years and they wouldn’t even utter the issues until now, let alone fix them? Also, what happened to Dale? I really liked him.Report

Neil Feit
Reply to  Pamela A. Marshall
2 years ago

Hey Pam! I hope all is well. Dale left academia (the teaching part, at least) and moved to the Nashville area so that he and Candise could better support their family. Your old house is doing well.Report

Dale
Dale
Reply to  Neil Feit
2 years ago

Hi – yes, what Neil says is true. This administration has the policy of paying profs as little as the law allows. After 18 years I was making $68,500, not including extra summer and winter teaching. With three kids coming up to college age, and no tuition benefit for faculty kids, I could not afford to stay. And it was clear that there would be no positive correlation between the quality and quantity of my work and how much I would be paid. I was a full Professor but came to see it as a dead-end job. It was also profoundly disheartening to see consistently poor and surprisingly anti-intellectual leadership. The school badly needs a change of administration. Real leadership could turn the place around. Feit and Kershnar are excellent profs and great colleagues, and I was sad to leave the department, which has a proud tradition. I had precisely zero complaints about the Philosophy Department.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

This underscores the need for public philosophy. Very few people outside the profession understand what they gain from paying people to be professional philosophers, It’s hardly surprising then if they are willing to see philosophy programs defunded. We can expect more of this if we don’t make it clear why we matter.Report

Leonard Jacuzzo
Leonard Jacuzzo
2 years ago

This article leaves out that a large portion of the teaching load in the Phil. Dept. is met by two long-term contingent faculty members that also have a Ph.D. They average over 15yrs of experience at Fredonia and contribute to the academic culture there.
I am one of them.
We are a VERY inexpensive dept.

I am ambivalent about this as I know that I should be more economically responsible and get a real job.

I went to Fredonia and really enjoy being there. My dept. treats me with the respect that I deserve and offers the freedom to design classes as I see fit. I even have my own office, with a computer and everything! Sometimes I get to decide what I want to teach.

Unlike Dale, I don’t have kids, but I probably ought to subscribe to the capitalist materialism that I was raised to embrace.

I’d hate to see the department that I have been associated with since 1990 disappear.Report

MB
MB
2 years ago

We must protect Stephen Kershnar. One of the most interesting applied ethicists aliveReport

Aspasia
Aspasia
2 years ago

It’s happening. They are doing it. That is all. Let’s start a petition. It’s made a difference in other cases.Report

AR
AR
2 years ago

There are structural issues, also. I can’t speak to the level of administrative competence or good faith at Fredonia specifically (I take the representations given here at face value), but it is also worth noting that SUNY recently negotiated a contract with the union (UUP) while doing little to cover the costs associated with the contract. In other words, the state negotiated raises and benefits with the union, while leaving it (in very, very, very) large part to the campuses to figure out how to pay for the increased costs. These raises and benefits have long been delayed, and are well-deserved. But, the campuses have virtually no control over their revenue: they cannot set tuition, determine what percentage of tuition is returned to campuses, or (of course) determine how much the state legislature will allocate to their budgets. I don’t mean to generate sympathy for the administration (I’m not placed to evaluate any malfeasance or misfeasance at Fredonia), but as a faculty member in an administrative position at a different SUNY university, I can say that there are serious (avoidable) challenges for all SUNY colleges/university centers – institutions that are providing some of the highest quality affordable higher education in the United States. We shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger structural issue that are leading public colleges to make these sorts of decisions.Report