Nebraska at Kearney Philosophy Major May Be Eliminated (Updated)

The philosophy major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) “is being considered for discontinuation.”

According to a report in the student newspaper The Antelope, the UNK Philosophy Department was informed in 2019 that its enrollment and graduation numbers were too low.

Some efforts since then to increase these numbers appear to have been hindered by the pandemic. Others appear to have been thwarted by the administration. In The Antelope, Philosophy Department chair David Rozema is quoted as saying, “One thing I did last year, was I submitted two possible new tracks under the philosophy degree — one of them was a pre-law track and the other was a philosophy-literature track — but both of those things were not approved by the dean.”

Other factors contributing to low enrollment appear to be a change to the general studies requirement making it the case that students are required to take just one humanities course, and they have a choice of 40, just five of which are philosophy courses. Additionally, other units on campus appear to be poaching opportunities for philosophy courses by creating and staffing their own ethics courses. Philosophy professor Gene Fendt is quoted as saying that the university “has been purposefully narrowing and cutting out any possibilities for any student to come in and take philosophy just by accident or because it sounds interesting. That’s usually how people get started in philosophy. If you don’t try it, you don’t find out what it is, and you don’t find out how it works.”

Further information here.

UPDATE 1 (12/24/21): Things are not looking good for the philosophy major at UNK.

UPDATE 2 (1/5/22): Inside Higher Ed reports: “it appears that time has run out: UNK leadership has officially requested permission from the Nebraska Board of Regents to wind down the philosophy major and bar new enrollments.”

UPDATE 3 (2/14/22): The Nebraska Board of Regents eliminates the philosophy major.


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Warwick University MA in Philosophy
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CC Chair
2 years ago

This is probably a dumb question but how can Ethics be offered but not in the philosophy department. I don’t think I could just add Algebra to my department’s schedule. Don’t courses have to be taught by qualified faculty in that subject? I’m jumping through a gazillion hoops right now to come up with an assessment that keeps accreditors happy, then you hear that universities are letting departments poach courses like this and have them taught by unqualified faculty and you wonder wtf is going on. Shouldn’t “unqualified faculty teaching poached courses” be an accreditation problem as opposed to “not making underpaid adjuncts punch boxes on a meaningless rubric that they inevitably won’t take seriously”? Everything is broken and shitty. Sigh.

higher ground
higher ground
Reply to  CC Chair
2 years ago

CC Chair,
I have worked with a number of specialists in ethics over the years, trained philosophers, and many are quite ignorant of ethics or incapable of acting ethically, so I do not think philosophers should sit around thinking that their training in ethical theory will give them any insight into real life ethical problems. In fact, I suspect my old department may soon lose its major. The two ethicists made the work place unbearable, and the department has gone from six full time people to two – thankfully, only one of the ethicists is left, but he is a supreme asshole.

Reply to  higher ground
2 years ago

It sounds like from your anecdotal experience with specialists in philosophical ethics who were perhaps not very nice persons themselves, you have concluded that academic qualifications to teach ethics are somehow not relevant. However, unpleasant people are to be found in every academic department, including those that consider their faculty qualified to teach ethics despite having no or minimal academic training in the subject. I find many of the political views of political science professors disagreeable but that makes them no less qualified to teach about their academic subject, nor does it suggest that such qualifications are not important.

I cannot anticipate all the “real life ethical problems” students may face in their lives or careers, but I can equip them with an understanding of moral reasoning that hopefully serves as a rudder to steer by in resolving such real life problems. This is true whether or not I am doing a good job of solving those problems well in my own daily life, although I would agree that wisdom about moral dilemmas is quite helpful for teaching moral philosophy. Luckily, my anecdotal experience has been that ethics teachers offered wonderful insight into how to live well and choose the right things for the right reasons.

The essential point is that many Philosophy departments face this erosion of their subjects. Larger depts can “poach” things like ethics and critical thinking with impunity; after all, it is said to be important across the curriculum, so presumably anyone can teach it and no special training is required. Then we end up with students who have been taught confused or outright false things about logical reasoning and fallacies, who have taken an ethics courses that did not require them to do any writing or challenging reading.

Hey Nonnny Mouse
2 years ago

I don’t think that many people outside the discipline know what philosophy is or why philosophy is important. I think that we need to change that if we want the discipline to attract students and be supported by universities.

Reply to  Hey Nonnny Mouse
2 years ago

This is true and remains an ongoing project for anyone connected to the philosophical community or profession. However, many depts are also dealing with structural changes that affect their ability to attract students, as it seems the UNK program discussed above was confronting, and philosophy depts may be too small in numbers to successfully advocate for this type of change (a vicious cycle where the smaller enrollments grow, the less clout is available to push for fairness at the structural level). At many universities, philosophy is no longer required and no longer central to humanities requirements that would have filled classes. This is true even though employers consistently say they want critical thinking skills, and universities claim to emphasize ethical and critical reasoning in the curriculum. General education and humanities in turn are often reduced requirements now, likely fulfilled by courses or AP exams the student took as a 15 or 16 year old in high school (the same is true of my own kids, who are unusual in wanting to pursue literature, history, and philosophy courses despite no longer “needing” any of them for a science degree). Philosophy will never be known as an option for many students, as it is seldom taught in high schools beyond those who send most of their graduates to elite universities where philosophy is faring better. Finally, the constant (and empirically false) chorus about the supposed uselessness of the major makes recruiting majors an uphill battle even when students finally arrive and develop interests in the subject.

Louis F. Cooper
2 years ago

I don’t agree that faculty in philosophy depts are the only people qualified to teach ethics courses. Plenty of political theorists are qualified to teach ethics, just to take the most obvious example. Some philosophers might not like how they do that, but that’s a separate issue.

Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 years ago

Louis, I agree with you on that point and even have in mind a real-life person who teaches political theory in a Political Science department, who teaches and does terrific research in ethics. (Many such examples exist.) The troubling cases arise when faculty or grad students with little or no prior training or qualification in ethics are teaching it, often in disciplines quite distinct from the humanities or its adjacent friends, usually from a textbook of case studies where “theory” is presented in a small box on p. 189, in courses where no papers or written responses on exams will be required. Yet those courses may be considered as much Ethics or Humanities courses as a real ethics or applied ethics course when it comes meeting curricular requirements, or making decisions about that curriculum, or financial support for student and faculty research or endowed chairs in ethics.

This is a sad situation because I love to see ethics included across the curriculum, in as many departments as possible. The same is true of critical reasoning. The difference is when it is assumed that expertise in those areas is meaningless, and that a scientist or musician who took one undergrad ethics course is equally well qualified to teach it as a philosopher trained by multiple graduate seminars in the subject, who nevertheless feels unqualified to list Ethics as a specialty because he does not publish in the area. Philosophy faculty have been prevented from teaching writing and composition by regional university accreditation bodies, due to supposed lack of qualification, but I have yet to hear of unqualified persons barred from teaching critical thinking or ethics. On the contrary, I have often heard from those with decision-making power that *anyone* can teach those things, period.

When departments are encouraged to compete for student customers, they have many financial and other incentives to keep students in house by letting them take as many requirements as possible within the same major or college (sometimes with cosmetic changes of prefix to avoid limiting rules). Philosophy departments have little hope of competing with this, much less if they are trying to keep quality standards high for the sake of the students.

My own kids can earn every one of their required humanities credits for public state university degrees (and many other colleges or universities) through dual enrollment high school courses or AP tests taken when they are 15 or 16 years old, and after that they would be free to ignore the area entirely. This type of thing is not only a crisis for the philosophy discipline, but tragic if you believe that students grow and develop enormously between Sophomore year of high school and Sophomore year of college, such that they might benefit from continued attention to careful examination of the human condition. I believe in teaching ethics at any age, including very young ages, but there is also no good substitute for taking up ethics seriously during the college years. Opinions about these things may vary, and I understand if others disagree, but I hope colleagues in the discipline who agree even a little will keep it in mind, particularly when they find themselves before an audience who has the power to do something about it in a small corner of the world.

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Laura
2 years ago

Yes, I take all these points (or most of them), though since I don’t work in a university I’m not in a position to do much about it.