The Making of the Disaster at the University of Tulsa (Updated)
Last week, I reported on the proposal of the administration of the University of Tulsa (TU) to reorganize the school, reorient it towards vocational training, and eliminate departments and majors in philosophy and other disciplines. It turns out that the making of this disaster was itself pretty disastrous.
Writing in City Journal, long time TU philosophy professor Jacob Howland explains some of the factors that led up to the reorganization, and also lays bare the ways in which Provost Janet Levit manipulated the process of developing the proposal:
After Levit became provost in May 2018, she established the Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC), “tasked with reviewing all academic programs and evaluating each one across a number of dimensions, including their contribution to the university’s core mission, their trajectory, their outcomes and their financial sustainability.” Faculty were repeatedly assured that this process would be transparent, inclusive, and data-driven.
In fact, it was none of these things. One immediate indication of trouble was the composition of the PPRC, which included no one from the humanities or the sciences (other than applied ones).
In most cases, the PPRC was effectively limited to considering financial data.
Some departments and programs submitted comprehensive, internal academic reviews to the committee; others, including English, Philosophy and Religion (my home department), Film Studies, Arts Management, and Language and Literature, were scheduled to complete their reviews more than a month after the PPRC made its secret recommendations to Levit in February 2019.
Worse, the financial data generated by the PPRC—calculations of total cost per credit hour taught—were prejudicially constructed and rife with errors. Instructional costs included the full compensation of endowed chairs, though these are not part of the university’s operating expenses. Courses taught in Honors and other non-major programs were not included in the calculations. Departments were charged for faculty holding courtesy appointments.
Receiving pushback at a faculty meeting, Levit insisted that, while she had not seen the PPRC data, it was accurate to “within 2 percent–3 percent.” (The PPRC ultimately admitted that it had overstated instructional costs for my department by 40 percent.) Levit concluded the meeting with an ominous pronouncement: if faculty could “suspend disbelief,” and if we supported what the administration was doing, there would be a place for us at TU. But would there be a place for the liberal arts? [emphasis added]
Professor Howland diagnoses the underlying problem:
The communities of teaching, learning, and creative expression that TU has fostered and nurtured for the past 30 years are being destroyed by individuals with little understanding or appreciation of their value.
(TU’s board of trustees is composed of business executives and lawyers, none of whom has a higher-education background.)
This is combined with what Professor Howland sees as problem of increasing superficiality in higher education, in which a foolish enthusiasm among the trustees and administration for the school’s athletics (“TU had for years been running a structural deficit of about $16 million. Athletics accounted for most of the total loss”) and a shallow emphasis on appearances and feelings (he notes that the central question of current TU President Gerard Clancy’s strategic plan was “How do we want TU students to feel?”) takes priority over knowledge and learning.
Even if one disagrees with Professor Howland’s disdain for efforts to ensure that universities are “inclusive, safe, and diverse,” one could still object to the TU administration using the language of such concerns as cover while they plotted to eviscerate the core of the school.
Should you wish to voice your concerns about what’s happening a the University of Tulsa, Provost Janet Levit‘s email address is [email protected], and President Gerard Clancy‘s email address is [email protected].
You can read the whole of Professor Howland’s essay here.
(via Adriel Trott)
UPDATE (4/22/19): University of Tulsa undergraduate Adam Dees spoke at a protest event regarding the proposed changes, with a focus on the university’s philosophy offerings. You can read his prepared remarks here.
“The communities of teaching, learning, and creative expression that TU has fostered and nurtured for the past 30 years are being destroyed by individuals with little understanding or appreciation of their value. ¶ (TU’s board of trustees is composed of business executives and lawyers, none of whom has a higher-education background.)”
This description applies to so many Universities nowadays (including my own). How did we get here? How did it happen that Universities are often run like fool-hardy corporations, utilizing McKinsey-style consultants to 80/20 us into the ground?
I know that a frequent answer is simply to point to capitalism but I think a more nuanced answer is in order. Capitalism has been around for a long time, and Universities for even longer. But, I gather that this trend of bloating the administration (along with runaway tuition) started specifically in the 1970s USA. What happened? I genuinely don’t know. Recommended readings from DailyNous folks would be highly welcome.Report
Student loans happened. Then universities jacked up their tuition prices by tens of thousands of dollars. That made universities big business.Report
I’ve heard that explanation, too, but the timing doesn’t quite sync up. The first Federal student loans began in 1958. I’ve also heard people point to the G.I. Bill but that was 1944. If you look at the history, the curve upward starts in the 1970s. Why that moment in time?
Take a peek here for the sobering stats:
I was particularly struck by the third graph showing 3 distinct phases of more rapid increases in the cost of education.Report
Right, that’s just the standard rhetorical answer, but doesn’t really bear any critical scrutiny. (Nor, really, does the other standard rail against assistant deans and football programs.)
If you want to actually get into the weeds, I’d recommend:
1. Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.
2. Derek Bok, Universities and the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education.
3. Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
Nussbaum’s is more an existential defense of the humanities than an accounting of the the finances, but it definitely covers relevant terrain. Bok was the president of Harvard–his wife (Sissela) and daughter (Hilary) are well-known philosophers; perhaps that’s why his work has always resonated with me.Report
What happened in the United States during 1970s and after? One thing that might play a role here is the outsourcing of industrial production to so-called “developing countries” with much lower wages and fewer health, safety, and environmental regulation. This trend only accelerated during the following decades, as the US increasingly shifted towards a “knowledge economy” (see, e.g., the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980).
These broad trends in US Political Economy made university degrees an increasingly valuable credentialing mechanism. Whereas university degrees have long functioned as a preferred mechanism for social elites to reproduce their class status, it now also became a means for prospective knowledge workers to signal their “quality” to employers.
This, coupled with the availability of cheap loans (as you point out) caused university tuition to skyrocket.
I don’t know if that qualifies as a more nuanced answer, but I do think it basically boils down to (neo-liberal and global) capitalism.Report
I’m no expert on these issues, but I found Benjamin’s Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty to be illuminating and, of course, sobering.Report
You might also look up the term ‘coercive isomorphism’. The basic idea is that a non-profit organization starts to look like its funders. If their funds come primarily from government grants, they start looking pretty governmental, because they need to keep books like the government does to ensure that money is used for its intended purposes. (Government accounting is a weird beast). If their funds come primarily from corporations, they start looking pretty corporate, because they need to convince funders that their funds are being wisely spent, which means having the types of budgets, powerpoint presentations and reporting structures that a corporation assumes are the only right way to be effective and efficient.
Given that governments fund higher ed less and less, while donations from businesses and businesspeople have been rising, coercive isomorphism would tend to make higher ed look more like a for-profit corporate business.Report
That’s a really neat idea. Hadn’t heard of it; thanks for sharing.Report
It is tough to say exactly what happened because so many changes happened in and after the 1970s that causal explanations tend to be overdetermined. I can list a few factors that are worth considering.
(1) The 1960s to mid 1970s saw a gigantic temporary increase in college attendance among men driven by the dual incentives of the college deferment to the draft and the GI Bill. Women meanwhile have increasingly attended college over the entire relevant time period.
(2) Economists (e.g. David Autor’s work) point to a hollowing out of the labor market, where middle class jobs have disappeared in favor of jobs at the top and bottom of the income distribution. This increases the incentives to compete for the very top jobs (an interesting book in this regard is Robert Frank’s “Darwin Economy”)
(3) Public funding for universities has steadily decreased over this time period.
(4) Student loans exploded and became partially non-dischargeable in bankruptcy in 1976 and then fully non-discharable in 1984. http://business.time.com/2012/02/09/why-cant-you-discharge-student-loans-in-bankruptcy/ This made it much less risky to lend money to students.
(5) Monetary policy shifted significantly in the early 1970s to a system that allowed greater capital flows across borders and perhaps enabled outsourcing, leading to the above-mentioned hollowing out of the labor market.
(6) I hesitate to mention it, since Daily Nous readers have seemed almost impossibly irrational about rankings in the past, but college rankings increased in prominence over this time, creating incentives for colleges to compete on different margins (i.e. margins less friendly to successful humanities education)
(7) Economic sociologists would point to this period as a transition from managerial control to shareholder control of large corporations. Universities appear to have mimicked many features of this new model, giving funders greater control.
Good luck disentangling the partial effects of these and other factors.Report
A hearty thanks for all the suggestions. And, to IGS, that is an extremely good list. Really appreciate it.
On top of all the recommendations, I’ve been curious to look at “The University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education”, but I don’t know if it is any good.Report
IGS’ list is great. I would add:
Academia in 1960 was mostly white. So many white non-academics looked to academia as a space of “their” culture being propagated. Last 60 years totally undid this, with academia becoming a more honest reflection of the diversity in America. So many people are upset that what they thought was “theirs” has been usurped by others, and feel is now being used to dominate them. From that point of view, it is entirely instrumentally rational to break down academia. Academia now is drawing the circle of “our culture” differently than how it was drawn 60 years ago. If you prefer the older view, you are faced with three choices:
1) Give up your older view of how to define “our culture”, and so basically get on board how academia is now;
2) Work from within the liberal arts format of academia, and so argue for your position through rational debate; or
3) Shut down academia as a space of “culture” altogether. So basically from their point of view, give up on academia as lost, and focus on other places (churches, social media, news, etc.) where to have the culture battle.
(1) is psychologically unfeasible. (2) is great, but it is intellectually extremely hard to do, especially when one feels like one is a minority in academia and not with “the status quo”. Just ask minorities, or any one really, who left academia about how hard it can feel to “argue just the ideas” when you feel the system is stacked against your concerns. (2) is all the more hard to do for most whites when a brown person like me knows more about “white intellectual history and culture” than most whites who mainly see European history as theirs because of their shard skin color or cultural connection, and not because they actually understand it. When people like me claim Plato, Kant, Shakespeare and Newton as mine, as part of my intellectual culture, what will whites who never read them do? They will say, “this is all stupid, and not part of who we are”. Their claim to Plato and Newton will become something non-intellectual; something they can’t, and won’t, try to debate in academic terms, but will try to change the terms of the debate into something they feel they can control.
Academics: your move. How will you respond?Report
My last question wasn’t meant regarding responding to me. It was about responding to the people who don’t want to debate, but just want to restructure academia.
This is the broader issue we are facing in our society, even in politics. How to respond when some people see “debate” as itself fundamentally partisan, and so aren’t interested in debate. If one debates, they resist. If one doesn’t debate, they cry “foul! You are just using power!” What is a third option as a way of responding?Report
I applaud Janet Levit: we need a more compliant citizenry. Will any courses in doublespeak be added.Report
Basically the same thing happened/is happening at the uni where I worked (Southern Nazarene University). I was brought in to assist with the philosophy major while the chair took on a temporary administrative position for a year. Three months into my stint, I receive an email that the philosophy major is terminated; the same semester the administration also tried to eliminate the physics department.
This especially saddens me, because my 40-year career began at Northwest Nazarene with an excellent major heavily focused on the history of philosophy (and as a result I dropped my intention of becoming a minister and have been non-religious ever since).. Dropping philosophy and physics is a complete repudiation of being an advertised “university”. Shame indeed.Report
Really interesting that you mention philosophy at Northwest Nazarene Alan- the first philosophy class I took (at BSU) was a philosophy of religion class taught be a professor from Northwest Nazarene who was teaching it as an extra class. It was really great, and literally changed my life. I have to admit I’ve forgotten his name, but I’ve been grateful to him ever since.Report
I’m an SNU alumn. The philosophy department back then consisted of one person. He taught an introduction to the philosophy of mind using Churchland’s “Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul.” Working through that text – and more generally the course – was a life-changing experience for me. In retrospect, it’s seems sort of unbelievable that a prof at a small, conservative college in Oklahoma would be teaching from Churchland. Anyway, agreed: it is sad indeed.Report
This is really unbelievable. Society needs academic philosophy – not as the only or even the standard of philosophy, but still as an essential guide and resource. Yet as it is dwindling, where is the concentrated effort by academics to respond? My sympathies to people personally affected by the closing. But there has to be a response bigger than sympathy for the people involved or putting down the “stupidity” of the administrators. Neither response will stem the tide.
Academic philosophy is really good at poking holes in arguments, analyzing texts, grading papers. But can it bring people together? Can it bring even academic philosophers together to create an institutionally healing and inspiring message? It’s going to take more than public philosophers like the Nussbaum, Appiah, Dennett, Stanley, etc. to get the general public to care. Academics need to start using their intelligence and skills to defend themselves in a way that inspires people, rather than just seem defensive.
One can blame the administrators or the conservatives all one wants. But when academics can’t get on the same page and fight among themselves, sorry if I am unmoved by all the handwringing about the stupidity of those who don’t get the intrinsic importance of philosophy professors.
I am not trying to be an asshole. This is more a plea. The same controversies erupt for the 100th time on this site and the comments go into the hundreds. But posts about departments shutting down get a dozen comments, mostly condolences or anger, but nothing to intellectually engage with. This is a great mistake in priorities.Report
In partial defense of the Daily Nous commentariat, there was more substantial discussion of the original news story here: http://dailynous.com/2019/04/12/philosophy-threatened-university-tulsa/
But of course that discussion is not itself likely to endear us to a skeptical public, since it involves a genuine controversy over the value of what we teach whose resolution seem to require mastering an established academic literature studying the effectiveness of pedagogy. And, were that discussion to continue, it would also involve deep disagreements about the aims of the education we seek to provide. All of this is (and if extended would be) more intellectually worthwhile than mere expressions of condolence or anger. But they are unlikely to inspire confidence in a skeptical public, who can just as easily find in such discussion confirmation of their belief in the obscurity, insularity, and inconclusiveness of what we do.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, this sort of tension between intellectual inquiry and public engagement has always been a part of philosophy. So while I share your frustration, and your wish that academic philosophers were better able to respond to these challenges, I’m not surprised.Report
I am not surprised either at how academic philosophers are responding to this challenge. Because for the most part academic philosophers are turning away from and ignoring _legitimate challenges_ to current academic philosophy as such, and so they are identifying any challenge to academic philosophy with neoliberal bureaucratic thinking.
Here is the biggest challenge to academic philosophy. Most lay people respond to either (a) inspiration for how to live and deal with life’s pains or (b) material benefits. Academic philosophy offers neither to the masses. (a) is now offered more by religion and say new age spirituality (even in an atheistic form, like with Sam Harris), and (b) is offered by technology and science.
There is a big space between (a) and (b), a space of (c) intellectual reflection which links both inspiration and science. But – and here is the key problem – from the outside the space of (c) looks very small, almost nonexistent. When in addition (c) is stuck in an institutional context with student loans, etc., taking a passive approach of “they” should appreciate Plato is ineffective.
Perhaps I am being disingenuous. Because maybe really I am all for academic philosophy’s demise, or significant loss. That way philosophy in the general public might actually become more important. Academic philosophy of the last 200 years in the West is a particular moment in philosophy’s history, and now philosophy is breaking free. What looks like calamity from within academic philosophy, looks from the outside like opportunity and new possibilities.Report
Perhaps you’re being disingenuous. Or perhaps, like me, you’re deeply ambivalent. Despite it’s flaws there is so much that is good about academia as a space for serious intellectual inquiry and philosophical reflection, and I’m uncertain about the prospects of building alternative institutional forms that do as well, perhaps especially under current economic and cultural conditions.Report
Thank you. Yes, it is the ambivalence in me. And yes, academia has so much good about it, it is sad to see not only non-academics put it down, but also academics taking a blase attitude to their own survival.
I thank academic philosophy for all it gave me. But I am done with it. It is out of step with big movements happening in the world right now, and it’s exhausting hoping academics will live up to their potential, but then have them get mired in internal arguments and a self-satisfied attitude. I am not an academic anymore, so why put myself through this?
A note to academics: when you lose people like me who want you to succeed, good luck reaching most people. And no, you don’t get to have things go on the same old way and have respect, while us non-academics have to deal with seismic shifts in our modes of life.Report
These discussions have been happening in the field of English for some time (English seemed to hit an identity crisis earlier than much of the rest of the humanities). Since the 60s, the traditional notion of the academic humanities as the “bearers of culture” has been increasingly untenable, and humanists have been flailing to explain why what they do and teach is important ever since. They seem to have largely settled on “critique” which looks to me to have proven inadequate. It’s resulted in a public image of academic humanists as wholly negative – interested only in tearing down rather than building.
Going back to the old mid 20th century picture is impossible. I agree that something like Nussbaum’s idea – reasserting the bearers of culture role with a different and expanded notion of “culture” – is probably the best way forward, but it’s genuinely difficult. The 90s notion of multiculturalism seems to me to have been a failure in this regard.Report
Agree very much. The critique approach – which academic phil has come to especially in the last decade – is important, but ultimately not healing and doesn’t bring people together. Only a “bearers of culture” approach can do that. But multiculturalism failed because it treated “bearers of culture” not as a unified whole, but as a segmented groups, which might help with toleration, but not with synthesis. So – as you say, and as Nussbaum says – an expanded notion of culture approach is needed.
Two things follow from this. 1) The expanded notion of culture approach is not primarily a matter of just respecting other cultures, but of reorienting the old sense of us and them, since they have fused together. This fusion requires an intellectual basis, something akin to a global vision for philosophy. Most academic philosophy in the West, being eurocentric, is failing this.
2) The people who want to cut philosophy programs are best seen not as stupid, but as having modes of culture which they don’t see depicted in philosophy and humanities more generally. Hence engaging with such critics is not caving to neoliberalism, but is another facet of the expanded notion of culture issue.
To put it bluntly: academic philosophy for the most part, and certainly in prestiguous places like NYU and Harvard is alienated not only from, say, Asian philosophy, but also from the modes of culture of many whites in the West itself. These are two sides of the same limitation of academic philosophy. My bet: only addressing both sides together will inspire the public enough to get them to see why academic philosophy is needed.Report
When Fredonia was threatened last Fall, the SUNY Philosophy Department chairs united in several ways. First, we wrote a letter to the President of Fredonia. That was our reactionary response. Next, we committed to the sharing of strategies and resources for spreading the message concerning what we do and for recruiting students. Perhaps the former played some role in preventing immediate harm to the program at Fredonia. Perhaps the latter will play some role in strengthening our programs’ positions within our individual institutions.Report
I don’t agree with all of what Vallabha says, but I do think he raises issues with Howland’s column that are vitally important for how we academics in the humanities respond to these kind of threats. What struck me in reading Howland’s column more than anything was how tone deaf it was. He does a very good job of documenting the incompetence and dishonesty of the TU administration but he does much less well in explaining why the general public ought to care about the loss of the philosophy major or the assault on the humanities generally. At worst he seems to expect the general public to care about faculty’s increased workload and loss of privileges. A 4/4, the horror! That is not going to garner any sympathy from the general public without some further explanation of why it’s a bad thing; heck it won’t from faculty like myself who’ve been teaching 4/4+ for years. When he does defend philosophy and the humanities it’s in terms of abstractions like “culture,” “knowledge,” and “intellectual ferment.” What he doesn’t say how any of this benefits any of the students at the university in any concrete way. Now I know I may be taken to be a philistine for saying that but I think it’s a legitimate question from anyone paying tuition at a private university or taxes to support public ones (or actually since students at private colleges get subsidized loans and grants it’s a legitimate question there too). Even if college were free it would be a legitimate question since studying any field requires an investment of time. The thing is that I don’t think it’s too hard to defend the humanities in concrete terms and to explain their benefits. But if we don’t even try or see the need to try then we are going to lose these debates every time.Report
Sam–I’m very sympathetic with what you say here, particularly with the legitimacy of asking the humanities to justify themselves in terms that appeal to students, parents, and the wider community. But can you say more about the concrete benefits of the humanities? I’ll admit to skepticism that the case is “not hard” to make. Professional preparation via the humanities seems overstated and I’m generally convinced by the claims that knowledge-independent skills of, say, critical thinking don’t exist. What would you say to students and parents at your school about the benefits of philosophy?Report
I haven’t really had to talk to the parents, and given that it’s a CC and a lot of my students are 30+ they might not be the people I have to talk to. But we did recently have a sort of reorganization here and part of it is that the various degree tracks have to narrow down their recommended courses to a few choices. So I’ve done a lot of talking to faculty in the more career oriented fields about philosophy and I’ve always found them open. Honestly, in some fields like the Health Professions they’ve been so receptive that I didn’t have to say much; showing up to their meetings and talking with them was pretty much enough. The thing was that even there most of the other humanities didn’t bother to show up. One of the things I really emphasize about philosophy is that it develops the ability to communicate about controversial subjects with people who might not agree with you and by showing how complex a lot of those issues are it helps people to see how and why others might disagree with them on these issues. For our ethics classes I also push the idea that having some practice thinking about novel and even bizarre situations can do a lot for people to face them. Other faculty and a lot of my students seem very receptive to that.
Unfortunately, I think that the way philosophy is practiced in tends to undermine those selling points. For one, there’s the philosophy as bloodsport idea that analytic philosophers encourage. (Not only do we not try to understand why others disagree with us, but if you’re a big enough name admitting the fact you don’t understand is apparently reason enough to reject a position and not an admission that you personally need to try harder!) There’s also the prejudice against applied ethics that’s so common in philosophy. It’s not too hard to sell the public on the benefits of say bioethics, business ethics, or the like, but it’s much harder to sell them on the importance of long arguments about whether tables and chairs really exist or whether barn shaped facades mean that no one ever really knows anything. The problem is that we stupidly think the latter is real philosophy and the former not and then infer from the public’s lack of interest in the latter that they’re not interested in philosophy.Report