Philosophy Departments Under Threat: Information, Pro-Active Strategies, Defense


(Moving this to the top of the page to solicit more responses.)

Many philosophy departments and programs have been targeted for cuts or elimination over the past several years, and many currently are undergoing reviews by administrators looking to make budget cuts or other changes that may end up negatively affecting philosophy departments. 

Prompted by his own university initiating a “program analysis and alignment” process—the results of which will be that each program/department will be flagged for “enhancement,” “maintenance,” “reduction/reorganization,” or “sunsetting”—a philosopher contacted me with the idea of creating space at Daily Nous that could serve as a place for:

  • collecting information about the types of potential threats to philosophy departments, programs, and faculty,
  • identifying the institutions at which these potential threats are taking place,
  • strategizing about ways to survive threats and successfully make it through program reviews,
  • collaborating on the finding or creating of useful resources,
  • brainstorming about how to pro-actively position departments and programs so that they are relatively safe from threat,
    and
  • commiserating about these challenges.

I think this is a good idea.

We’ll start with this post, and if there is sufficient interest and activity, I may create a separate page at the site, perhaps supplemented with a publicly-accessible spreadsheet of information. For now, please use the comments on this post for discussion of the items bullet-pointed above, as well as related topics.

(Please note: I’m aware that some people believe that some philosophy departments, programs, courses, and jobs should be eliminated; this post is not the place to advance or discuss that view.)

Related links: APA Creates “Department Advocacy Toolkit”What Kinds of Universities Lack Philosophy Departments? Some DataProtecting Philosophy from Budget CutsA Philosophy Department’s Impressive Fight For Survival. Value of Philosophy Pages.

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tom Sparrow
Tom Sparrow
9 months ago

My friend at Bridgewater College in Virginia informs me that he and one of his colleagues in the philosophy and religion department will lose their tenured jobs at the end of this academic year because the college is dropping their philosophy major. This is the result of a year-long analysis for the purpose of restructuring the institution.Report

David Levy
9 months ago

Thank you, Justin, for your willingness to set up this space for this purpose. I’m the philosopher referred to in the original post, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to try to collaborate with peers across institutions where similar things might be happening. I’d like to begin by offering some context.

My institution, SUNY Geneseo, is one of twelve comprehensive colleges in the SUNY system, the vast majority of which still have free-standing Departments of Philosophy that continue to offer a major and a minor in Philosophy. Geneseo is a predominantly undergraduate Liberal Arts college; the only graduate programs offered at Geneseo are in Education and Accounting. Within the division of Academic Affairs, there is a “flat” administrative structure, with Department Chairs (and also the Deans of the Schools of Business and Education) reporting directly to the Provost, who reports directly to the President. We are New York State’s member of COPLAC, and for many years we marketed ourselves as the “honors college” of the SUNY system.

The college operates with a sizable structural budget gap, and total undergraduate enrollment is down rather significantly (from ~5600 two years ago to ~4900 today). There is no denying that the institution faces tremendous challenges.

In response to this, early in the Fall semester our President announced the launch of the “program analysis and alignment” process, which would involve every academic and non-academic department/program in the college. She let it be known that cuts would occur, though they would also be looking to identify potential “growth” (i.e., revenue enhancement) areas.

Just this week, a set of draft criteria was circulated, and we are currently in a comment period. Next, the criteria will be finalized, and a request for data/evidence will come. The announced timeline strongly suggests that we will have no more than three weeks to compile, contextualize, and report back, as the coordinating committee intends to hand things off to the President and her Cabinet prior to Thanksgiving.

At this time, we can’t even begin to anticipate what we will be asked to deliver. Enrollment trends (# of majors/minors, etc.), demand for courses, student persistence, and things of that sort can be pulled by anyone at the college through the various administrative reporting systems; they don’t need departments/faculty to waste their time with that kind of thing.

I’m hoping that others who have been through this sort of process in recent years might share the kinds of things they did–the kinds of evidence they pulled.

Again, I’m grateful to Justin for allowing us to use the forum of Daily Nous in this way. And I’m grateful in advance to anyone who engages in what I hope will be a bit of productive collaboration.

David LevyReport

Derek Lam
Derek Lam
9 months ago

The philosophy & religious studies department at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is facing potential cut in February. The context is, the UW system has been under financial crisis for many years now. A downward enrollment trend since 2016 and two Walker-era policies have been bleeding our financial reserves for a decade: a decade long tuition freeze & the requirement to give back state funding whenever the state experiences a drop in revenue. Financially, we are in such a tight spot that we are even asked to not print out syllabi for students. (Yet the department is required to pay for landline phones because the school has signed a contract with the company.) The school’s administrative level has been talking about “curriculum restructuring” for a while now — that includes program cuts. Before the pandemic, the school had let go of 1/3 of the non-TT teaching staffs at a moment’s notice. Now the pandemic of course only makes things worse. With the state being hit financially as well, we will be asked to “pay back” some of the state funding. Yesterday, out of nowhere, the Chancellor of the school affirmed that lay-offs will happen in Feb. But he has been vague about his criterion. So far, unlike the other Chancellors we have had before, he refuses to cooperate and communicate with the faculty on the decision making process. So other than the fact that lay offs are going to happen, it is unclear how he is going to make any of those decisions. One thing that has been mentioned is that he might be thinking about ranking programs according to their revenue generating capacity (class enrollment numbers). Although the philosophy and religious studies department is one of the cheapest department, it is definitely not one of those department that generate revenue. So if that is the chopping criterion, I fully expect our program will be cut in February. With the Chancellor going full authoritarian mode, I am not 100% sure what we can do about this. So, if anyone has any experience or suggestion, I’d appreciate if you can share it with us!

Derek LamReport

Bruce
9 months ago

I am a mature age student in Australia taking units in philosophy as part of an Arts degree. I think that the current emphasis on STEM subjects is retrogressive and flies in the face of a classical liberal education that I consider to be a fundamental foundation of a civilised society. When we stop thinking about what it is to be human and how and why we lead our lives, the checks and balances that exercise some restraint on our behaviour, already on very shaky ground, are weakened even further. When robotshe are programmedoing to feel as well as think, the end of the world as we know it is night. Philosophy must endure!Report

Matt Duncan
Matt Duncan
9 months ago

In response to our budget worries at Rhode Island College, our faculty organized and created an “action list” that included information gathering of various sorts, contacting local media and elected officials to raise awareness of our situation, and writing “white papers”–informative reports on specific topics that are relevant to any potential cuts/changes. The goal of these actions is to get out ahead, in whatever way possible, of potential changes that we don’t like.

For example, I (with the help of many other faculty) wrote a white paper on the costs and benefits of combining academic departments at RIC (an idea that seemed to be in the air). I started with the financial costs and benefits–based on what extra compensation chairs get, the savings from cutting administrative assistants, and other factors–and then discussed various non-financial costs. My goal in writing this paper was pretty modest–I wanted the administration to know that the faculty were in the know about this stuff and that they couldn’t pull a fast one based on false pretenses–not without a fight, at least. But it seems to have been more effective than that. Last week I submitted the white paper both to our college council and directly to our new provost (she was the admin I was most worried would want to combine departments). Our provost responded by saying that she was convinced–that, as long as my numbers check out, she agrees, combining departments at RIC is a bad idea. I didn’t think this result was likely, and in normal times it may never have happened. But I think during the pandemic our admins (at least) have felt overwhelmed and, as a result, they have been more open to ideas. Maybe that’s true elsewhere as well?

I’m happy to share more information if anyone would find it useful. I mentioned one example, but several of our faculty’s initiatives have been pretty successful so far.Report

Soazig Le Bihan
9 months ago

I am interested in participating in these conversations. We have recently faced serious cuts and may face more in the near future.
Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
9 months ago

I write as someone with administrative experience at a university with a budget that about 5-6 years ago became much more transparent (so we can see clearly how money flows through the system). I am not sure how the colleges and universities under duress work, but here are some basics to try to be mindful of. You might be doing this already:
1. bums in seats are revenue generators. (credentials awarded only generate revenue insofar as there are courses required for the credential).
1a. (1) means that if a unit’s courses are required for other credentials (ie a philosophy course is a disjunctive requirement for a business degree it can generate revenue for philosophy, even though business gets the credential).
1b. To support (1a) Collect data on how much service your unit provides to others (see if there are any patterns of majors/minors enrolling in your courses; build alliances with units that are likely to be protected, work with them to design courses to serve them
2. Track actual costs of the unit: Does your unit pay for itself? What are your salary and other costs? What is the revenue you generate? Is revenue greater than cost? This actually becomes very interesting when you look at premium fee programs who think they are money makers. More often than not they are money pits. Their operating costs, salary costs, etc still require an infusion of money in addition to revenue generated to pay for their programs.
2a. A good piece of data to track is students/faculty ratios. Does the university count the number of faculty in your unit correctly? Make sure any errors get corrected. How does your unit compare with others? Are you more like a language department or a psychology department?
3. Try to find out the percentage of the budget going to administration. For us, this is hard to calculate, even given transparency, but try to make the administration distinguish the academic side of the house (ie what is under the VPA) from other VP costs as well as the budget the President gets. Make sure admin is held accountable to the academic mission.
4. Are student services held accountable in some way? How much money goes to student services? Do they get performance reviews? Efficiency? Are units satisfied with the advising they provide?
David Levy noted there is a lot of data that can be collected by administrators. That does not mean that they will (a) have correct data and (b) interpret that data in a way that is advantageous to you. Units that are threatened need to do the work of accessing, checking, and interpreting the data themselves to frame the discussion. Become friends with the people in charge of Institutional Research and Planning (the data collectors). They are usually committed to providing good data, and are open to having conversations.Report

Dale E Miller
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
8 months ago

To build on what Lisa said: Often there is a rhetoric around the idea that the university/society should not subsidize students who pursue majors like philosophy that don’t have direct and obvious paths to well-paying careers. Yet virtually every university works on a model whereby students pay the same tuition per credit hour regardless of the subject matter (perhaps with a few dollars tacked on for classes that require special supplies). The costs of generating those credit hours varies widely, based on faculty salaries, class size, and teaching load. At my school, where faculty in the liberal arts not only get paid less than faculty in the other colleges (especially since we are less well staffed and so use more adjuncts) but teach more (my college is 3-3, other colleges are 2-2), the “production costs” of philosophy courses are so low that our dean recently said that he wished we could have two philosophy departments. We’re the revenue generators, and the fact that we charge the same tuition for philosophy and accounting or engineering courses effectively means that the university is massively subsidizing students who major in the latter fields. If the tuition students paid accurately reflected the costs of getting courses taught, then philosophy majors would pay far less than engineering majors and likely there would be many more of them. So this is the catch-22 that liberal arts departments like philosophy are placed in: universities use the revenue produced by their gen ed courses to subsidize vocational majors, which drives students to those majors, then the liberal arts departments are told that they’re unaffordable luxuries. If a university worried about finances and locked into the equal tuition model were prudent, it would pare back the number of courses required by business and engineering majors as far as possible, expanding the number of gen ed courses in the liberal arts.Report

Chris Surprenant
9 months ago

The responses that should be suggested at state institutions will be completely different than what will be suggested at private institutions.

The only move for people at private institutions is to either start doing lots of publicly-visible and relevant work or get involved in the administration in some way so someone who cares about philosophy has a seat at the table when these cuts are being discussed. All it takes is for one person at these meetings to express an interest in a program that they’re thinking about cutting for them to change their target relatively quickly.

Folks at state schools have more options. You should look into what rules are in place for terminating academic programs. In Louisiana, the only reason is exigency (which requires a specific set of criteria to be met, and I’m convinced that these requirements can’t be met legally as long as the school is fielding a competitive athletics program) and program elimination because of low completers (i.e., not graduating enough majors over some sort of period). Once you know what the rules are, play the game.

For example, we just started a “Public Policy, Ethics, and Law” program at UNO. It’s interdisciplinary and we were having all sorts of conversations about where the degree would be housed. Eventually, we just introduced it as a concentration in philosophy. Overnight we now have 18 new majors this year, we’ll be up between 30 and 35 next year, 50+ after that, and somewhere around 100 once the thing gets rolling. These numbers are in addition to numbers from our quite active online degree program and the “regular” philosophy majors on campus. Good luck getting rid of philosophy at UNO any time soon.

What will work on your campus? I’m not sure. I’ve helped some departments develop strategies here and I’d be happy to help more. But you have to know the rules of the game you’re playing. Until you know that, you’re just shooting blind.Report

Derek Lam
Derek Lam
9 months ago

Reading through all these advice is helpful! Though I’m wondering how much of the strategies recommended depends on the administrators’s willingness to communicate. In Whitewater, faculty from all departments have been working on data collection and counter-proposals over here. We have, e.g., people from the business school who go through the books to counter the claims that program cuts and lay-offs are even necessary at all. We have presented data to show that the administration is using inaccurate data and we have been raising objections to the criteria they are using (though they are very vague about the criteria they will use).

But all we get from the Chancellor after all this is that program cut and lay-offs are going to happen no matter what, if there is faculty resistance (yes, the Chancellor portrays all counter suggestions as faculty resistance to his authority), he would just go ahead and do things his way anyway in his own way. For example, faculty salary constitutes about 70% of the expenses, but he, out of no where, decided that the faculty should shoulder 90% of the revenue lost over enrollment and COVID impact. And despite the input from our own business school, he decided to spend millions on an external marketing consultant firm (again, that eat up a massive portion of our already bad budget and was in fact a part of our budget issue), the same firm that was used to drive program cuts at UW-Stevens Point a year or so ago.

We have state laws for faculty shared governance that requires the administration to let faculty in the decision process for things like this. But this Chancellor, at a meeting, interprets “shared governance” as him informing us of his decisions as they happen. With the administration imposing a hard deadline of lay-off decisions in February while being extremely not transparent in the decision making process, I’m not sure more of the things like whitepaper or more data can work… Departments have been invited to offer input — but our input is supposed to be in the form of “tell us what other programs should be cut instead of yours”. There is simply no good faith in collective deliberation here. And yeah, we have been trying to make these debates public too. I am wondering whether there is any experience or strategy against administration like this.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Derek Lam
9 months ago

Yes. It’s called a lawsuit.

Isn’t there a union at UW Whitewater? What good is a union if they don’t intervene in stuff like this, threaten legal action, etc.?Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
9 months ago

As I held my to-be-joining union card in hand about 10 years ago, I learned the newly-elected Rethugs in Wisconsin banned them for UW faculty.

Vote damn it–there are vast forces afoot that do not exactly like liberal arts if you didn’t know.Report

Alan White
Alan White
9 months ago

Oh and to Derek specifically–shared governance was essentially gutted when then governor and legislature “redefined” tenure and procedures several years ago. I know–I was a rep for the now-defunct UW Colleges at the UW Tenure Task “Farce” and saw first-hand the complete dissembled disassembling of it.Report

Joel Pust
Joel Pust
9 months ago

On Twitter I suggested that DailyNous, the APA, and Leiter Reports join forces in an ongoing effort to defend undergraduate philososophy departments from closure. The general thought was that we might be more successful preventing closures with an organized and unified effort. The two blogs are the most read in the profession and have, I would think, a large number of regular readers. However, Weinberg and Leiter have often been at odds and so many readers of one blog may not visit the other blog or wish to be seen supporting causes championed solely by the other. The APA is the professional organization which should be defending philosophers and philosophy departments. It has a large number of members who presumably have an interest in the continuing existence of undergraduate philosophy departments.

So, I wonder if it would be possible to have a central site (perhaps on the APA website) where departments threatened with closure (or “restructuring”) could send the details of their predicament and names and addresses of decision makers such as adminstration officials or members of boards of regents. This central site could send out email alerts to all APA members and provide information (with links) to DailyNous and LeiterReports for posting. Ideally, even short pre-written messages could be provided for philosophers to sign and send. In this way, any institution threatening its undergraduate philosophy program would receive, in short order, perhaps thousands of emails from all over the country opposing the action.

I fear for the profession and believe the financial strain induced by the pandemic will only increase the number of departments under threat. Perhaps something like this would help.

Report

harry b
9 months ago

My advice is to read very carefully what Lisa Shapiro said above, and take it very seriously. Our budget also became much more transparent a few years ago, and what she says is absolutely true: units and schools that think of themselves as revenue generators very often aren’t. Even at our, R1, university, undergraduate credit hours taught per instructor are the best proxy for whether a unit is a revenue generator or a net receiver of subsidy. And even many of our administrators did not understand that until we bought the right software, and (in the case of my college) hired a numbers person who really knew what he was doing (he was not a professional, in fact, but was plucked out of the faculty — I hope he’s paid well).

There’s a second lesson. If you are not yet under threat, but think you might be soon, find a way of teaching more undergraduate credits, and find a way of explaining what the educational value is for students who take just one of your classes (so, don’t just focus on majors and minors, but on ‘service’ teaching (I hate that term)). And get yourselves a reputation for high quality pedagogy. (It turns out that, among the students, my department has such a reputation, and I suspect that plays a big role in explaining why our credit hours have remained stable while the rest of the humanities have struggled on our campus).Report

Jeff
Jeff
8 months ago

I completely agree with Harry’s points. What follows–for me–is that philosophy programs spend more time focusing on teaching excellence and remaining educated about local threats to philosophy. The Chronicle ran an excellent paper on resisting corporate takeover, and this is a good starting point for discussions in departments. As Lisa Shapiro notes, knowing how administration measures value is important. It is easy for consultants to use incomplete or incorrect data to under-value departments. Departments can proactively couple their own measures of value with administration measures of value to make their case. At small private colleges (where I teach) it is also very important to have representation on university-level committees.

Like Harry, I also dislike the term “service” teaching, though it seems key that philosophy departments draw in students from across the campus. If a department is big enough, it is good to think about building a major that prepares students for graduate school while creating minors and certificates that are both intellectually rigorous and engaging and that don’t see graduate school as the sole goal of undergraduate study in philosophy. This doesn’t just mean partnering with professional schools to offer ethics courses (as important as this can be). In my experience first-year students come to college interested in thinking philosophically about contemporary issues, but their initial exposure to philosophy often leaves them feeling as if the subject is not for them. There is an opportunity here, but so much depends–as Harry notes–on excellent teaching, which certainly includes curriculum design. Report

John Collins
John Collins
8 months ago

Guilford College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, appears to be eliminating the philosophy major and many other liberal arts majors, as well as firing a lot of tenured faculty. Very sad. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2020/11/09/guilford-plans-layoffs-tenured-and-visiting-faculty
Report