Philosophy Departments Under Threat: Information, Pro-Active Strategies, Defense
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,
- 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 Data. Protecting Philosophy from Budget Cuts. A Philosophy Department’s Impressive Fight For Survival. Value of Philosophy Pages.
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
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.
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!
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
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
I am interested in participating in these conversations. We have recently faced serious cuts and may face more in the near future.Report
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-facultyReport
At my institution, the philosophy major narrowly survived program prioritization. The Business School is the largest academic unit, accounting for 36% of all majors. At struggling smaller institutions, where cuts are a clear and present danger, one option might be aligning philosophy with other schools or divisions, such as business. Philosophy faculty can teach business and professional ethics, and there are a number of Philosophy and Business programs at institutions such as York College, East Tennessee State University, etc. It might seem odd, or even offensive to some, to house a philosophy program in a school or division of business, but such a strategy might be adaptive in these times.Report
Notably absent in this thread is the advice for people in threatened departments to publish more. Or the advice that people in unthreatened departments to publish more, so as to give philosophy a higher academic reputation, and such prestige will then trickle down to threatened departments, making them more valuable. Could it be that the primary metric for professional advancement is not at all aligned with the goal of sustaining the study and teaching of philosophy? (rhetorical question, rhetorical post.)Report
I was actually getting ready to type such a post!Report
You have no idea what you’re talking about. These decisions are driven by enrollments and budgets.Report
Wow you all missed the point about publication by a mile.Report
Then what, exactly, was your point? It looks like you’re making an argument:
(1) If people in unthreatened departments publish more, then the prestige of philosophy will increase.
(2) This prestige will “trickle down” to threatened departments, “making them more valuable”.
(3) Likewise if people in threatened departments publish more, their prestige will increase.
(4) Administrators use prestige (that is, “value”) in deciding whether or not to close departments.
(5) Therefore, if philosophers publish more, then fewer departments will close.
If that’s your argument, every premise is false.Report
That’s not his argument at all, Eric. Barry is making a point about the divergence between what the philosophy profession tends to emphasize (publishing, academic reputation) and what helps philosophy departments at many schools survive (quality teaching, enrollments).
(edited to add) Or, to put it another way, Barry would not disagree with your assessment of the argument you laid out in your comment.Report
Then it seems many of us have missed his point (see the comments below). And you’re adding claims which aren’t in his post. I mean, if what you’re saying was his point, he could have just said that. After all, one answer to the rhetorical question is “No”. I’m happy to be corrected, but I’m happier if posts on important topics are clear.Report
A lot of the strategies seem “external”–how to push back on administration, e.g. Very few of the discussions here are “internal”–what philosophers could be doing better to make themselves more relevant and increase the support for philosophy departments.
One big thing to focus on is *enrollments*. Philosophy units wouldn’t be under (as much) pressure if they generated more money. At the end of the day, philosophy classes are either well-enrolled or they aren’t. At my university, they’re really well-enrolled (largely because we teach applied ethics to pre-professional majors), and we’re not under any threat. How could philosophy courses attract more students? More majors? The *stuff we offer* is often not popular, and it’s not useful to bemoan the “loss of the liberal arts education” when that just rings hollow to everyone but us (and mostly to students). We have to take some responsibility for designing and presenting an attractive model for philosophy’s relevance.
Another thing is *extramural grants*. Many philosophers have started to do well in these areas, but many others just ignore them. *Publish* better stuff, in better journals. Make it *interdisciplinary* so that more people read it. Do *op-eds* and *public outreach* that administrators love to see. Start a *podcast*. Run a *prison program* and an *ethics bowl*. Don’t get distracted by “wokeness” stuff that ultimately erodes confidence from (many) stakeholders and consumes unlimited amounts of energy and angst. Spend less time on blogs and social media, and go do *real stuff*.
I realize all this won’t be popular. But my view–submitted respectfully–is that we should start by fixing our units and professional postures, then a lot of this other stuff will take care of itself.Report
Popular or not, I’ll say what I said above: You have no idea what you’re talking about. You should educate yourself on how administrators make decisions about programs. Look at an EAB report, for instance.Report
Not to be too nit-picky but “teach[ing] applied ethics to pre-professional majors” is also external. I’ve created and offered Business Ethics, BioEthics (for pre-med and nursing), Environmental Ethics, and Criminal Justice Ethics. The only one that has a significant number of non-majors taking it is the Criminal Justice Ethics course and that is because the Criminal Justice Department allows it as an elective. Every single conversation I have with Business ends with that department telling me that they cover ethics themselves and, thus, don’t really need a course taught by someone like me. Pre-Med likes the idea of the Bioethics when I talk to them about it but then they fail to encourage their students to take it. And Environmental Studies likes the bioethics course but then the counter-schedule courses required for the major. My point is that making our classes attractive to folks external to philosophy is still external because it requires the buy-in of those other groups.
Now, maybe I’m just bad at designing attractive courses and students just don’t want to take )me_. Is so, then that is on me. But even the most interesting and exciting course aimed at non-majors requires something external to our control: other departments and other majors.Report
No, it’s not on you. Your situation played out at my school, and has played out at many others.Report
First of all, are people insinuating that people working at under threat institutions don’t publish as much as people whose institutions aren’t under threat? I feel a little insulted. Though I don’t have data to say whether that is true or not. Just wonder where that comes from. I can only speak for myself: I won’t say I publish a lot but I publish as much as most people.
Second, if you wonder why no one suggested people to publish more and better, yeah, why didn’t someone say that? Something so obvious, right? Well…, because that is irrelevant. My hypothesis is that folks who suggest that may not have worked in an institution that is truly under threat. For those who do, they would know that all these program cuts initiatives are totally tied to student credit hours. Research plays no role at all. In fact, not only is it implied, we are EXPLICITLY told in my place that we should not put time in our research. Research is a possible way out, not a way to sustain the department. (And if there is data to support that people in these institutions publish less, this might be an explanation.)
Third, one thing that happens in my institution is that once funding becomes a hunger game, inter-departmental competition happens. For example, business ethics would be popular. Why don’t we teach it? Well, business school claims monopoly. Same for engineering ethics. Why don’t we teach political stuff and something related to pre-law? That would be popular. Political science department claimed monopoly for all courses related to politics and forbids other department to touch it. I don’t know whether this kind of thing happens in other schools. All I’m saying is things like this happen.
Fourth, outreach stuff helps and, as far as I can tell, most under threat programs already do something like this. But it’s rarely making significant enough difference in moving the department’s student credit hours towards where the school wants it to be. (And, in my case, the admin keeps the student credit hours data and the standard they use a secret — only to be discovered that their data is significantly distorted. And even worse, they refused to fix it — “we’ll look into it”, they say. So many of these “internal solutions” only works if you are working with an administration that is playing in good faith. And I doubt that is true in many cases where programs are in immediate threat. That’s why external pressure is the main thing. We ended up being able to fend off a program cut temporarily by a relentless PR campaign in the press and community.)Report
Wow you missed the point about publication by a mile.Report
In defense of those who missed your point, Jon Light seems to be actually suggesting the thing you implied it would be absurd to suggest, somewhat muddying the rhetorical waters.Report
OK, I apologize, I admit I was mostly triggered by Jon Light comment above (stressful time, stressful time) and interpreted your comment along the same line (I read the comments backward from the newest to oldest). That’s why I also mentioned all the other stuff Jon Light appeared to be suggesting that people are not doing. Now I see what you meant.Report
It seems to me that few academics from outside Philosophy could tell you what the value of our work is or why it should be paid for. I think that’s even more true of the general public. I think that needs to change if Philosophy is going to survive as a discipline in the long term.Report
Philosophy is a topic of debate and posts should always include true information. I believe all areas of philosophy should still stand. There is a true threat to philosophy in the fact that many people think it isn’t necessary. I am trying to get more people to join my philosophy club, but no one wants to. They don’t want the answers. I do though.
(BTW, I am a 7th grader, I don’t know everything about philosophy.)Report
I love this.Report
Good luck, Emily! I hope that you eventually get people to join your club.Report
Thanks so much for the work you’re doing trying to get other kids excited about philosophy– good for you!! Let us know if we can help.Report
Hi Emily. Thanks for your comment. I’ve put up a separate post here for readers to offer suggestions for your club.Report
If I went to your school I’d join your club right now Emily. The search for truth will always need smart young women like you and I am very happy you are attracted to this wonderful discipline. Take care and good luck!Report
Emily, maybe your teachers would let you present something on your club in their class if you ask. What are you interested in specifically? What questions? And why?Report
First the bad news.
Many schools have been hit very hard by the pandemic. This especially true of minority serving and Hispanic serving schools. Enrollments are suddenly down on the order of 15%. Many philosophy departments have seen rapid and radical collapses of enrollments. Classes don’t run and students cannot proceed through the major to graduation.
Administrators look a metrics like: current enrollment; enrollment trends over five years; graduation trends over five years; cost effectiveness of the department; professor efficiency measures (such as how many students a professor teaches per year divided by salary). Sometimes metrics involving general education or service courses are taken into account as well. Other cost effectiveness metrics are sometimes used too.
Outside agents like EAB are often called in to compile reports about the effectiveness of a department and its programs. These are always exclusively market-based. They are correlated with current and future job openings and market demand. Once you see an EAB report for philosophy, you know you are doomed.
Many places under threat are already resource poor. They have high teaching loads (now often made higher by the pandemic). They have no support for research and very little support for curriculum innovation. Since there are always start-up costs with new programs, there are no opportunities to start new minor or major programs. There certainly aren’t going to be new lines to add energetic new faculty. So it is impossible for these departments to invest resources in innovation.
Philosophy departments are threatened not merely by low enrollments, but also by faculty attrition. They are often relatively small to begin with. Many places under threat have already seen pandemic-induced losses. Or they have aging faculty who will retire and will not be replaced. Administrators look several years ahead. They can see that retirements will kill a department. A department can go from nine to four in a couple of years, at which point it ceases to function as a department. Thus administrators can allow philosophy departments to simply die from attrition. They will be folded into “humanities” departments or just closed altogether.
Graduate programs in philosophy generally do not train their students to produce entirely new philosophy programs aimed directly at producing jobs for philosophy undergrads. National organizations like the APA have not proposed new models of economically viable philosophy programs. We have no idea what an economically successful philosophy program would look like. Nor how to answer questions like: How exactly are you training your majors for the job market? Which job openings do you target? The numbers show that the strategy of listing “soft skills” is a failure. The recent posts here about advising software recommending only two jobs for philosophy majors is the future.
Philosophy lacks the basic infrastructure of many other disciplines. We don’t have databases of syllabi or databases of programs. If you want to find innovative philosophy programs, you’ll have to do extensive and usually fruitless research.
The bad news is that an enormous percentage of undergraduate philosophy programs are going to close. And with that, the job market for philosophy PhDs will get worse. And so there will be downward pressure on graduate programs.
The good news:
The good news is that there are already a few innovative philosophy programs. There are people who are thinking about these problems and they will solve them. And perhaps it’s also good news that an old model for doing philosophy is going to be swept away. Perhaps in a generation, philosophy will be revived.
It would be even better news if we could collaborate on solving these problems.
The situation is gloomy, but not just for philosophy. English is in freefall. According to the report linked below, English saw a 10% decline in enrolled majors between 2020 and 2021. Philosophy over the same one-year period had a decline of 1.6%. Foreign languages are being decimated everywhere. I actually think philosophy has some advantage over other humanities disciplines, and I’m hopeful that our numbers can remain steady. We may also be able to gain as other disciplines lose–at least, that was my experience at a troubled institution, where English disappeared as a major (yes–completely gone!) almost overnight. It also helps that high school philosophy classes are now offered more commonly–it was one of the most popular social science electives at my kid’s suburban high school. Young people still enjoy philosophy, which cannot be said for a number of other disciplines.
The key at the institutions I’ve been is to fight for a prominent role in general education. A business ethics course is great, but it can be taken away at any time with only your department’s paltry one vote in the curriculum committee (after the 2008 crash, the Business Department at my former institution was all about courses in our department, citing accreditation requirements; six or so years later, the program was revised, eliminating our course). We need to refine the language and data we use in arguing for the centrality of our courses in general education.
We also need to defend the humanities as a part of the vibrant life of a university. Tell the business department that the humanities may go down first, but the whole university will go down later. Many foolish university leaders believe they can save an institution with flagging enrollments by replacing accessible, nontechnical majors with low costs with difficult, highly technical majors with high costs, but this is silliness. As your institution begins to fail, the students who attend are less likely to be able to complete highly technical majors, and you need a bigger geographic draw than you likely have to find the people who want a narrow, highly specific major. My former institution, at that point with less than 1000 students, tried geographic information systems, graphic design, etc., none of which graduated more than a few students. As someone who left an institution that was on its last legs, I cannot stress enough how students–including the vast majority who do not major in philosophy or the humanities–want an institution that feels like a real university. They want their institution to feel like a successful place, not a place that is cutting everything down to 10 majors. They want the theater, even if they never attend. They want the talks, even if they don’t go to many. Students will steer away from the place that feels threadbare and solely careerist, because as much as everyone says students go to college to merely find a career, that is simply not true. As anyone whose kids play the sims knows, it is a stage of life.Report
The point about highly technical majors is a good one. I think that bears much repeating to senior admins.
My greatest fear is that what happened to English is beginning to happen to us. (And, as you probably know, what happened to them is far far worse than the recent 10% drop. English collapsed, it fell fast.)Report
I am simply a philosophy undergrad, so I know nothing of the administrative side of a university. I am also in Canada and I believe our schools operate differently but I would like to add something. I have read, throughout this discussion, talk about partnering with other departments to strengthen your philosophy departments. When I first went back to university (I am a mature student), I went back as a sociology major, philosophy was my fun – but I have found that both programs have been very impactful on each other and am now doing a major in Phil/Minor in Socio. Now of course, that is a perspective based on my interests, but once a student can see how the courses that interest them feed into each other it could help foster interdisciplinary education. Politics, sociology, history, law – philosophy was part of the foundation for all of these. The ideologies were interwoven. So, IF student interest is part of the problem, then maybe finding a way to connect these seemingly different ideas (different from a student’s perspective) will help generate student interest. In regards to research, and of course, you all would probably know better than I, but, my understanding is, well done research that becomes acclaimed, brings in money, and schools like any other business, want money. Philosophy was not taught, as such, in my high school. If yours are teaching philosophy, there may be a change in enrollment in philosophy programs coming. All in all, I hope that philosophy does not disappear from your universities. It’s important. It teaches critical thinking, expression and logic and those areas are fundamental for so many other programs.Report
Well IMHO this battle certainly cannot be won with the master’s tools. And it also can’t be done dept by dept. And it certainly won’t be won by trying to be more trendy and ass-kissy to the current administrations. But David Levy doesn’t need to hear this from me, since we’re already familiar with one another. And are aware of our disagreements about how to deal with the issue. If you can’t beat em join em is not my motto. Is it David? Good luck with it though. You might enjoy Lenin’s work David. I believe he was a means justify the ends type too. Have you been appointed interim Provost yet?Report
So pro-active then: What at core do we do? THINK. THEORIZE. REASON. We need to separate ourselves from the university and yet make our essentiality to them known at the same time. The School of Cognitive Enhancement and Critical Engagement. Everyone will want one.Report
IOW, a complete trojan horse strategy. For more deets, reach out.Report