Philosophy Department and Others Targeted by Cuts at Canisius College


John J. Hurley, the president of Canisius College, a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, has announced that the school plans on laying off faculty, many tenured, including members of the Department of Philosophy

According to the Buffalo News, the philosophy department faculty will be halved, with three faculty positions being eliminated and one philosopher moving into administration.

The reason for the cuts, according to the Buffalo News, is financial: “enrollment is falling and a projected $20 million hole has opened in a $75 million budget.” In a letter to the college’s employees, Lee C. Wortham, president of its Board of Trustees, wrote:

Even before the Covid-19 shutdown, the college was addressing enrollment and financial challenges. Those challenges have only been exacerbated by Covid-19. Shortfalls in enrollment, room and board revenue and auxiliary revenue because of the extended shutdown and the new social distancing requirements, coupled with new expenses associated with reopening the campus in a safe manner has created a significant budget gap.

A petition has been launched objecting to the cuts, which it says signal “the beginning of the end of liberal arts tradition at Canisius—the very core of its existence,” and to the way the administration has gone about pushing for them. It begins:

Amidst the worst health crisis in our lifetime, the administration of Canisius College has mounted a duplicitous public campaign, ostensibly siding with protests for justice and equality while at the same time leading a secret push for the unjust firing of its own faculty members.

You can read the rest of the petition and sign it here. It currently has over 5,000 signatories.

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John
John
1 year ago

Why is it unjust to relieve an employee an employer cannot afford?Report

Benjamin S. Yost
Benjamin S. Yost
1 year ago

Because the board is not following the policies stated in the Canisius Faculty Handbook.. And while it might fall outside the realm of justice, Canisius has twice as many administrators now as in 2008. That’s just a ludicrous waste of money.Report

John
John
Reply to  Benjamin S. Yost
1 year ago

Hi Benjamin, thanks for chiming in.

I didn’t see this information above. Would you mind clarifying the policies in question? As I’d be interested to know whether they state that the university cannot relieve employees due to financial exigency.Report

Postdoc10
Postdoc10
Reply to  John
1 year ago

John, honestly your line of questioning makes you seem like a troll. But assuming you are not: the article in the Buffalo newspaper, linked above, makes it plain that the university has not declared financial exigency, which is at the root of the AAUP chapter’s public complaints and threatened lawsuit. The policies in question are clearly about the procedure for the laying off tenured faculty. Violating agreed upon procedures in this way is quite often taken to be unjust.Report

John
John
Reply to  Postdoc10
1 year ago

Postdoc10,

No, I’m not trolling. But I am driving to a more general point: that too often we faculty act as if we believe our jobs should be immune to economic vagaries. That being said, though I cannot read the newspaper article because it’s paywalled, I took my question about financial exigencies from the following excerpt in the post above:

“The reason for the cuts, according to the Buffalo News, is financial: “enrollment is falling and a projected $20 million hole has opened in a $75 million budget.” In a letter to the college’s employees, Lee C. Wortham, president of its Board of Trustees, wrote:

Even before the Covid-19 shutdown, the college was addressing enrollment and financial challenges. Those challenges have only been exacerbated by Covid-19. Shortfalls in enrollment, room and board revenue and auxiliary revenue because of the extended shutdown and the new social distancing requirements, coupled with new expenses associated with reopening the campus in a safe manner has created a significant budget gap.”

I’m not sure how else to read this: that sounds like financial exigency to me. If that’s right, then what is the correct procedure for laying off tenured faculty when you cannot afford to pay them?Report

Benjamin S. Yost
Benjamin S. Yost
Reply to  John
1 year ago

But why are you ignoring the other general point – the highest paid people at Canisius are admins and coaches? I know it’s a popular view among some on here that admins and coaches are just as integral to the mission of a university as faculty, but even if that’s the case – which it manifestly is not – cuts should surely fall equally on admins and coaches no? Or do you believe that a college with more (or better paid) admins and coaches than faculty is a better college than a college with more faculty than admins and coaches?

And, as I noted above, Canisius has not even *declared* financial exigency, much less engaged in program review, which is why it is at odds with nat’l standards and the FH (per the AAUP).Report

John
John
Reply to  Benjamin S. Yost
1 year ago

Hi Benjamin,
“But why are you ignoring the other general point – the highest paid people at Canisius are admins and coaches?”
–I do not see this point anywhere above, nor on the non-paywalled site you linked me. You said that the university has twice as money administrators as it did a few years ago. But I did not see anything about their relative rate of pay, nor about how many coaches there are or what their salaries are. So I’m not ignoring this information, as this information has not been provided.

“cuts should surely fall equally on admins and coaches no?”
–Well, I think that’s a really complicated issue. At bottom, it comes down to money. Contrary to their branding and reputation, universities are businesses. By ‘businesses’ I do not mean all universities are for-profit. I mean something more basic: there are revenues, there are expenses, and the two must balance. Sure, a university can dip into the red for some time, but not for very long. Otherwise, people like me and you will not see those nice bi-weekly deposits into our bank accounts.

“Or do you believe that a college with more (or better paid) admins and coaches than faculty is a better college than a college with more faculty than admins and coaches?”
–I believe that a university that has a balanced budget is a better university, because a university that does not have a balanced budget cannot exist.

The real question floating around here, I think, is this: What is the best route to balancing a budget?

Let’s assume that this university is not undergoing a hostile takeover, where rogue administrators and trustees are secretly plotting to tank the institution and cash out (somehow?) on the proceeds. Let’s instead assume that people in charge are making decisions that they sincerely believe, with justification, will make the university sustainable over the longer term, which at bottom means financially stable. With those assumptions in hand, the question now becomes: are faculty layoffs the best way to balance revenues and expenses?

I do not think any of us have in hand the information needed to answer that question. Instead, I think many of us (myself included, at times) reflexively believe that tenured faculty should be the last on the chopping block. But in 15 years in higher-ed, I’ve never come across a persuasive argument why this is always the case. Sometimes it’s the case; other times it’s not. The reflexive assumption that it should /never/ be the case, I conjecture, is rooted in the (false) belief that tenure is an economic protection, not an intellectual one.Report

Benjamin S. Yost
Benjamin S. Yost
Reply to  John
1 year ago

This type of claim just blows my mind, I have to admit. On what possible grounds do you think doubling the adminstration at the cost of cutting faculty makes a university a better place? I have never once seen a shred of evidence that bloating the administrative sector (and paying the outsized salaries that come with it) puts a college on better financial or educational footing. Do you have any? Do you think all the administrative crap we do now actually makes a positive difference, much less a positive difference worth the cost of paying the admins and the opportunity costs of doing the work? If there isn’t any such evidence, it seems fairly easy to conclude that you should prioritize faculty–who do actual teaching and research central to the mission of the university–over administrators.

To say that administrators should not be prioritized is *not* to accuse them of plotting to tank the college and make off with the proceeds. What a strawman! And whether admins are are sincere is beside the point. It’s easy to be sincere and wrong at the same time. If they sincerely believe that the best way of balancing a budget is to undermine the mission of the university by cutting faulty and retaining at full pay all of the administrators, then they are sincerely wrong.Report

Benjamin S. Yost
Benjamin S. Yost
Reply to  John
1 year ago

All of what I said is compatible with agreeing that a university needs to stay in the black, so value of balancing the books provides no argument against it.Report

John
John
Reply to  John
1 year ago

Hi Benjamin–I’m responding to your 1:42pm post here, as it appears that I cannot nest my response directly underneath yours.

“On what possible grounds do you think doubling the administration at the cost of cutting faculty makes a university a better place? ”
–I never said doubling the administration at the cost of cutting faculty improves the university. I just said that I can imagine scenarios in which faculty cuts are the best way for a university to balance its budget. My claim is even weaker than this, really: it’s not obvious that faculty cuts are /never/ the best way to balance a budget. That’s it. This will sound controversial, I think, only if my larger point is true: there is an unfounded, reflexive assumption that tenure is a robust economic protection. But it’s not. It’s a protection of intellectual autonomy.

The rest of your first paragraph, as I understand it, turns on your assumption that I’m committed to this very strong view about ‘doubling’ administrators. Since I’m not, I’ll pick up on your final paragraph.

“To say that administrators should not be prioritized is *not* to accuse them of plotting to tank the college and make off with the proceeds. What a strawman! And whether admins are are sincere is beside the point. It’s easy to be sincere and wrong at the same time. If they sincerely believe that the best way of balancing a budget is to undermine the mission of the university by cutting faulty and retaining at full pay all of the administrators, then they are sincerely wrong.”
–I think you might have misinterpreted the point I was making about well-intentioned administrators. I was just trying to shave off the ‘logical’ possibility that the people in charge are knowingly looking out for their own interests, at the cost of the best interests of the institution. I’m sure this happens–it’s corruption. But we’ve no reason to believe it’s happening here. Much more plausible is that the people in charge believe, with justification, that they are doing what’s in the best interests of the institution.

If you allow that possibility, then doesn’t this just mean that reasonable, intelligent people can disagree about how to achieve what’s best for a university? And doesn’t this really just bring us back to the substance of my earlier question?–are faculty layoffs the best way to balance revenues and expenses?

I think the burden of the argument really lies on the side of those who want to defend a much stronger claim: that tenure is an economic protection. I think too many of us reflexively assume this, and it’s false.Report

Benjamin S. Yost
Benjamin S. Yost
Reply to  John
1 year ago

Canisius has not declared financial exigency, per the AAUP. Nor has admin engaged in program review, which is part of the national standard for firing TT faculty.

https://www.wkbw.com/news/local-news/canisius-college-considering-cuts

Also, I haven’t read the Canisius FH, but the AAUP reports that Canisius is not following the policies laid out therein, and faculty are reporting the same, and the Senate is voting no confidence. I take that as sufficient evidence.Report

John
John
Reply to  Benjamin S. Yost
1 year ago

Thanks for this link. I now see that there are well-founded procedural objections to the university’s announcement. Though I will note these objections are strictly procedural, and I am going after bigger fish, I must admit: that procedural squabbles aside, too often we faculty believe our tenure should protect us from economic vagaries. But this is not the case. It is supposed to protect us from institutional and social retaliation to our research. The economic interpretation of tenure i believe leads firmly to the conclusion that it’s an entrenched and unjustifiable privilege. If that’s the hill we’re going to die on, it’s a bad one.Report

Fac
Fac
Reply to  John
1 year ago

The college has not declared financial exigency, cut departments, or followed the Faculty Handbook and related AAUP guidelines.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
1 year ago

Idk if that’s sarcastic or not, but there tend to be four popular answers in the philosophy blogosphere:

1. There’s really no such thing as financial exigency–there’s always plenty of money laying around. And even if that weren’t true (but it is!), you can just go gut the endowment. Except when you can’t, but then someone’s lying about something.

2. Administrators! What do they even do, anyway? Let’s downsize university administration–surely the Provost would just reroute the administrative bloat into tenure-track jobs for the humanities.

3. College sports! Wtf are college sports even *for*? Just fire the ball coach and that’s like a bunch more tenure-track philosophy faculty.

4. You can’t have a university without a philosophy department; otherwise it’s a “university” or a university [sic]. It’s mostly easier just to say that when nobody other than us thinks it’s true, than to do the hard work selling the value of our discipline.Report

More Dialogue
More Dialogue
Reply to  Jon Light
1 year ago

Seconding this comment and others here, re: the knee-jerk reaction that administrators and athletics should be getting cuts in equal proportion to faculty cuts – or that schools continue to practice administrative bloat at the expense of faculty lines – it is unfortunate but the case that faculty lines are not sacred cows in the eyes of college presidents and governing boards, and are quickly becoming even less so when you think about the long-term financial commitment posed by a permanent, tenured faculty salary. Whereas administrative arms and sports teams often are more indispensable in today’s climate. You have to think about it in terms of the product a school is selling and who the consumer is. The parent spending boatloads of money to send their child to your institution probably doesn’t give a squat about whether philosophy belongs in the traditional liberal arts or whether academic programs are sufficiently staffed. They are looking at the wraparound services that are provided by administrators and non-instructional staff, ex. mental health services, dining options, tutoring, study abroad, and yes, sports, given the well-known fact that flagship institutions with prominent sports programs are seen to have prestige and to give marketability to graduates. Ditto for the students. Heck, your philosopher major may only have attended your school because they also have the chance to play football. The writing is on the wall that students are less interested in attending college for academics these days, and more for the a la carte, non-academic items that come with college life.

It is a loser to point the finger at administrative bloat. I can tell you as someone who has been on both sides of the wall, college presidents and CFO’s look at every unit when they are considering who to cut. Again it is unfortunate but the case that administrative units are increasingly seen as providing essential services, whereas saving majors that have annual enrollment of 10-12 students and perhaps 1-2 graduates often just doesn’t make sense on paper. This trend will likely continue as institutions are going to be relying on maintaining enrollment streams in the near-term, and will likely need to increase staffing in key areas that are enrollment-focused: advising, financial aid, admissions and recruiting.Report

DS
DS
1 year ago

Canisius doesn’t need full time faculty. They have an unlimited stream of cheap adjunct labor from the SUNY Buffalo philosophy grad program.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
1 year ago

Is there someone in the profession, maybe an APA committee, keeping track of all these cuts and firings? It’s something we might like to have data and testimonials about.

It’s an important philosophical question what philosophy is for. I respect the cynical arguments that get made, including the one above by John suggesting that philosophers shouldn’t view ourselves as immune to financial ups and downs. But there’s a full-blown epidemic on our hands. We need strategies not only for “selling the value of our discipline” (Jon Light), but possibly for refashioning our discipline for the changing environment. (Changes in philosophy generally along these lines – as responses to massive shifts in the role of higher ed in a society – happened after 1848 in Europe, then again in the 1880’s in America, and arguably after WWII. Let’s not instinctively let the discipline in the ways we learned it become a series of hills to die on.)

I’d like to see some concrete proposals that aren’t just about saying that a university without a philosophy department is not a university. That’s not only self-serving, but maybe also results from a too narrow view of what universities are and can be.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
1 year ago

The next 20 years will probably see literally hundreds of small private colleges and universities close. Many of those were already having financial problems (stemming from enrollment problems, stemming from the high cost of tuition, stemming from the neoliberal gutting of state funded educational monies). I’m not sure that there’s anything that can ultimately be done to stop this short of a massive social shift in government spending. Trump, and really the Republican oligarchs who run the country, have spend the last twenty years dismantling these programs. I’m not sure that we can rebuild them any faster.

Those of you who were lucky enough to get tenure track jobs and are now near retirement, consider yourselves among the blessed as it’s unlikely that anyone who received a PhD since 2008 (and who is not tenured at an elite private university or an R1) will ever enjoy the kind of economic security that you got to enjoy. Canisius is one small part of this much larger story. I sincerely hope that those of you are are currently non-tenure track and even younger faculty here on the tenure-track or recently tenured are at least considering backup options. The 2020s and 2030s are probably going to be a bad time to be a humanities college instructor.Report

Alan White
Alan White
1 year ago

Part of this is a function of long-standing (largely right-wing) efforts to undermine tenure so that exigency standards largely no longer apply in many states. I know from first-hand experience as a representative of 13 campuses on the 2015-16 University of Wisconsin Task Force (I now say Farce) on tenure. That body was assembled only because the legislature and governor unilaterally moved to remove the strong protections of UW tenure from state statute, and to substitute ones that were substantially weaker, and that did not require financial emergency in order to act to eliminate programs and fire tenured faculty. Mind you that these changes in state statute were not in reaction to any substantial enrollment emergency at the time (though UW budgets were continually slashed year after year from the 2010 elections that put Republicans completely in power)–they were enacted without any previous announcement or public hearings at all. Though in the beginning of the meetings I actually thought that faculty voices would be heard–as the proceedings went on clearly the end result was a foregone conclusion largely pushed by the Governor-appointed Regents who guided them. So the “tenure-lite” I publicly warned against on the record during the opening remarks I made to the committee, tenure that does not protect economically disadvantaged but educationally important programs and departments, fake-tenure that would inevitably result in gutting the liberal arts tradition of the university, is the reality for all of UW, Madison included (yeah I think they thought they would get a pass on this–nope). It’s already happened here of course, and in widespread fashion, but without the fanfare of the OP here. My campus along with the 12 others I represented have been absorbed by larger ones, dissolving all the statewide departments for the 13 campuses like mine and resulting in many of them offering little or even no philosophy on-site. My campus, which had till the end the best enrolled academic program on campus (and by far over many others), currently offers only one class after I retired. Some university, huh? But again, my overall point is that here, and in many other states, there are powerful forces at work that see the liberal arts as an arm of so-called liberal politics, and are actively working to see that they are destroyed.Report

Jay
Jay
1 year ago

The common reaction to the announcement of cuts at institutions X, Y and Z is that they are unjustified.
But there is no outrage about the continued non-expansion (or non-creation) of philosophy faculty at institutions A, B and C. The status quo does not give rise to an announcement that can be linked to and then deplored.
The profession should proactively identify the appropriate minimum size of a philosophy faculty for institutions with different missions and sizes. It can then identify those that are now poorly served because philosophy’s presence there is too small (or non-existent), and it can then also differentially react to proposed cuts. That would be more effective, I think, than just shouting “This is a travesty!” at each and every announcement of cuts, regardless of the underlying situation, while ignoring the situation at schools that are not cutting because they never hired in the first place.Report

Charlie Lassiter
Charlie Lassiter
1 year ago

Also worrisome is that Canisius is a Jesuit university, where philosophy is typically baked into the core requirements. (I say that as someone who went to undergrad and grad school at Jesuit universities and currently works at one, though I don’t know anything about Canisius’s core requirements, if any.) Often, for Jesuit schools, the decline of the philosophy dept is the canary in the coalmine.Report