Philosophy Chairs at All SUNY Campuses Come to Defense of Fredonia Dept. (UPDATED)


[Moved up the page owing to update below with link to petition.] As reported last month, the administration of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia has proposed eliminating the school’s Department of Philosophy. In response, the chairs of the philosophy departments at all fifteen other SUNY campuses have now written a forceful letter to SUNY Fredonia’s president, Virginia Horvath, objecting to the proposal.

The letter advances several arguments against the elimination of Fredonia’s Department of Philosophy. These arguments appeal to the centrality of philosophy to a liberal arts education, the exceptional performance of the department along many relevant metrics, and how eliminating the philosophy department contravenes a core purpose of the SUNY system.

The whole letter is below.

UPDATE: People can register their support for the SUNY Fredonia Department of Philosophy here.

The letter is also downloadable as a PDF here.

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Joel Pust
Joel Pust
2 years ago

Nice job. Has the APA also lodged a passionate public protest?Report

Joel Pust
Joel Pust
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Great!Report

Kris
Kris
Reply to  Joel Pust
2 years ago

There should be a letter from them that we can all sign too though. Is there one?

Also, I accidentally reported Joel’s post above when I meant to hit reply. Sorry about this Joel and Justin. In my defense, all I can say is ….Kids these days with their crazy blogs and their cellphones. Get off my lawn! Report

Neil
Neil
Reply to  Kris
2 years ago

Justin is there any way the SUNY chairs’ letter can be set up like this? Some of our (I’m a Fredonia prof) recent grads are planning to do something like this but they are finishing up busy semesters in law school & grad school etc. Report

Neil
Neil
Reply to  Kris
2 years ago

Thanks Kris and Justin!Report

Jon
Jon
2 years ago

This strikes me as fairly reactionary and overblown. Canceling a philosophy major “violate[s] public trust”? Exacerbates income disparity gaps? Those just don’t seem like plausible claims. The others are just cherry-picked. For example, these chairs say “look, Fredonia has 33 majors” as if that’s remotely informative. How does any of us know if that’s a good number or a bad number? Or that enrollments declined by 24%. What does that mean, without context? What happened in sociology during a similar time period, for example? Or any of the other departments on campus?

More generally, I just don’t see why we *always* are supposed to think contracting philosophy departments is bad. Sometimes it is, sometimes it probably isn’t. And how a self-interested statement by philosophers is supposed to provide any non-biased apparatus for us thinking through this. Obviously they have to say the things they say above, which substantially undermines their epistemic import. How are we supposed to evaluate any of this if there isn’t, for example, some statement by the administration? And if such a statement would never be forthcoming for all range of reasons, it just seems this “debate” is never going to get off the ground.

Wouldn’t it be fun if DN invited some former dean to argue for closures? Just to see what that’d look like, intellectually and in practice? I feel like we’d have a better chance to understand both sides.Report

SUNY undergrad
SUNY undergrad
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

I think the remark about the number of deans, assistant deans, provosts, assistant provosts, and other frivolous administrative posts (with huge price tags) alone carries the argument against closing the philosophy department. Those of us who are in the SUNY system now are all too familiar with the trend of bringing in outside-hire administrators with massive salaries and then slashing the humanities. It hardly bears mentioning that this is in the interests of literally no one except said administrators.Report

Jon
Jon
Reply to  SUNY undergrad
2 years ago

That’s just obviously false. How could someone be working 40 hours a week for a university and have their work be “in the interests of literally no one”? That implies they’re just sitting at a desk getting a paycheck, not contributing anything to the university. There’s no way that’s plausible. Whether their salaries are justified, whether their numbers are justified, what the opportunity cost for administrators vis-a-vis faculty hires, etc. are all real questions. But it’s not like these people don’t do anything all day long or that their job descriptions don’t comprise prima facie contributions to the university as a whole. But that’s the problem with these conversations: they’re all hubris and little substance.Report

SUNY undergrad
SUNY undergrad
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

I think you’re being quite uncharitable. My point isn’t that *no* administrators contribute to the university. My point is that, presumably nationwide but certainly in the SUNY system, there is a trend toward hiring far more administrators than necessary, paying them salaries that are excessive at the very least, and making up for it by slashing humanities programs. In the tradeoff between (a) having robust humanities programs and (b) having a bloated and overpaid administration, (a) is clearly the more beneficial option for students, obviously academics, and society as a whole. Perhaps my above comment wasn’t as perfectly careful as you were looking for, but my point here is definitely substantial and not hubristic.Report

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

Ok, they are probably acting in their self-interest. But sure, lots of incompetent folks are in fact not serving any interests but their own. Not all of them are administrators. But there are lots of folks who are doing damage in their jobs and often they do that by having the power to do damage that a relatively powerful administrative role gives them.
Report

Neil Feit
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

Hi Jon. This might not be the sort of statement by the administration that you’re looking for, but here is a quotation from a SUNY Fredonia dean regarding the estimated annual cost savings of discontinuing the major:

“The original estimate was approximately $40,000, based on what we believed would be instructional savings… This took into account, to a degree, the continuation of the minor and Fredonia Foundations [gen ed] course sections.
Please keep in mind that this was a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, which we knew was likely off. (The deans only had so much time and could not reach out to departments in advance.) ”

And here are some on my thoughts on the quoted statement above. (1) The estimate is way off and the real number is probably in the $10,000 neighborhood, maybe even less. (2) As the campus president is deciding which programs to identify as candidates for elimination and asking for data on savings from the deans, it is odd that (merely) a back-of-the-envelope calculation would be performed. (3) It’s also odd that either the dean didn’t tell higher administration that this was back-of-the-envelope or that higher administration used such a calculation in making decisions. (4) It’s also odd that deans could not reach out to departments in advance. Final decisions have not yet been made and I realize this, but the data gathering process had been going on for months. Departments know their programs best (including their place in the broader curriculum), and it would have been much better to get info from departments before identifying their academic programs for potential discontinuation.Report

Jon
Jon
Reply to  Neil Feit
2 years ago

L-O-L. “Only had so much time and could not reach out to departments in advance.” Like any chair wouldn’t have answered that email in five minutes.Report

Neil
Neil
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

I know right? And admin is working under procedures that require data to be shared with us, and we still have not been given info on that calculation. Our own analysis was that at least in the near term, we would need only two courses annually dedicated to supporting the major, over and above the minor (which is not currently threatened) and our contribution to gen ed etc.Report

m
m
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

Another way to frame the question is, how many SUNY campuses should there be? Why aren’t people clamoring for an extra SUNY campus (say in White Plains?), complete with philosophy department and all.

People are less likely to complain about not getting things they don’t already have. I’m still wondering how I’ve survived without all the Borders bookstores I used to frequent.Report

David Levy
Reply to  m
2 years ago

I’m not sure if you meant your question about a campus in White Plains to be taken seriously/literally. In any case, I’ll note that there is a SUNY campus in Purchase (not at all far from White Plains), and it does have a Philosophy Department (and that Department offers a Philosophy major).

Fredonia is the only SUNY campus in Chautauqua County. In fact it’s the only comprehensive college in Chautauqua County.Report

John Self
John Self
Reply to  Jon
2 years ago

I disagree with a few things in your response, (as someone with a philosophy BA from a SUNY school that isn’t Fredonia.)

Firstly, the claim that gutting the major would exacerbate income disparity is fairly clear as it is presented here, I am not sure what there is to disagree with. Consider it an issue of equality of opportunity. It’s just a fact that most higher-cost liberal arts institutions offer a philosophy program (and will continue to do so). Regardless of the actual quality of the program at any institution, students who can’t afford these higher cost schools, or can’t afford travel to an affordable school that hasn’t foolishly gutted the humanities, are at a disadvantage if they are not presented with the opportunities wealthier students are.

As far as cherry-picking goes, that’s a highly uncharitable reading. The letter is addressed to the Fredonia university president, not to you. It’s reasonable to assume the university president has access to the data to make these statistics relevant and persuasive. Clearly the statistics about the department size and school enrollment were a significant and common frame of reference for each SUNY philosophy chair, to the point that they didn’t feel they needed to include the wider context. There is a shared understanding at work here. If this is the case among chairs at different schools it is surely the case for a college president, who ought to be even more intimately aquainted with the data. This is not truly a fault of their argument, but a fault with how it is presented when read by someone outside the primary audience of the letter.

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