Philosophy Under Threat at SUNY Potsdam


“Our department is being threatened with elimination even though by all measures, except number of majors, we excel.”

That’s David Curry, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Potsdam. According to a website that members of the department created to share details of their situation:

We have been informed by upper administration, in the Academic Affairs Realignment Report they shared with Faculty Senate on February 17th, 2022, that the philosophy major program is included on a list of programs determined to go into “immediate provisionary status” (it appears we were spared “immediate discontinuation”).

The terms of those “provisions” make it abundantly clear that the termination of the program is imminent. That is, “provisionary status” is really a death sentence for the major. This is further confirmed by the “recommendation” that the department be dissolved and the faculty merged with some other department by the end of the semester. 

A petition has been launched to save the philosophy major program and the department. It calls for both the decision to place the philosophy major at SUNY Potsdam on “provisionary status” and the plan to dissolve the department to be rescinded. You can read and sign it here.

The Department of Philosophy says that it is “one of the, if not the most productive, efficient, and cost-effective department(s) in the School of Arts & Sciences, and hence at SUNY Potsdam, by all measures except current number of majors,” and argues that this shows that the “proffered justification for realignment in the first place, viz., financial stability,” does not speak in favor of eliminating the major or the department.

Among the points the department offers as part of their defense are the following:

  • “The philosophy department’s student/faculty ratio is consistently above the average for departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, which, it is worth noting, has FTE averages (effectively, faculty/student ratios) consistently well above that of the other two Schools.”
  • Philosophy’s “course fill rates are well above average for the School. Over the last five years the department has filled 81% of the seats it has offered and has approached 90% on numerous occasions.”
  • “The department is… integral to the college’s General Education and Pathways programs… No other department on campus serves general education as thoroughly as the philosophy department does.”
  • “As for the question of finances, the major is essentially cost free. Every course we teach, including even our Senior Seminar, is open to students of any major… We have no major-only courses.”

In general, the department says, “our high faculty to student ratio across a wide range of general education courses enhances the overall productivity of the institution, and our major offers substantial value-add at little to no extra cost. Cuts to the philosophy program would worsen, rather than improve, the financial standing of the college as a whole.”

Regarding the number of philosophy majors, the department says the recent decrease:

correlates perfectly with the collapse of faculty lines from 5 FT faculty in 2011 (and 32 majors) to 2 presently (and 3 majors). At the same time total enrollment in the college dropped from 4395 (3952 UG) in 2011 to 3084 (2842 UG) in 2020, so the number of fish in the pond has gotten smaller along with the number of fisher-folk. Nevertheless, we believe that answering our pleas for a replacement for even one of our two more recent retirements would have gone a long way towards beginning to ameliorate the decline in majors. But that was not to be. 

Intentionally or not, the department has been deprived of any sustenance for years, in spite of its having a long track record of being a model of productivity, efficiency, and low cost. Now that we are looking a bit ill from that lack of sustenance, we are dutifully informed that if we don’t get better soon, we’ll have to be put out of our misery. Were it not happening to us, we could perhaps better admire the Kafkaesque nature of the whole debacle.

Indeed, they make a compelling case that “provisionary status” designation is really a death sentence for the department, and that the “process” the adminstration is putting the department through is just there to provide an ex post rationale for killing philosophy.

We have recently revised our major, precisely in response to declining enrollments, in ways that we believed would preserve our FTEs and fill rates when they began dropping across the college. Those revisions have been largely successful as, again, the data show. But that means that two of the three options we are given to get out of probation are simply irrelevant to our program, leaving us with the only one they really mean to offer anyway: to discontinue the major.  That this is the intent is further indicated by the “recommendation” that the department be “dissolved”. 

To be utterly explicit: intentional or not, being put on “provisionary status” and slated for dissolution will inevitably result in the discontinuation of the philosophy major.  For no good reason, we have been directed to reach an arbitrary threshold of majors within a very short timeframe. Due to short staffing, this threshold would likely have been out of reach even if we were not further hindered by the almost immediate dissolution of the department. This process has been a sham from the beginning.

You can learn more here. I urge readers to sign the petition in support of the department here.

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Thomas Aquinas
4 months ago

The problem is that the administration does not think philosophy is important or essential to a student’s intellectual development. Unless you convince them of that, they’ll continue to think of philosophy as academically vital as astrology or palm reading. In other words, what is doing the work in the minds of administrators are their unspoken background beliefs about intellectual formation and what counts as an educated person. But that’s the result of decades of corporate managerial class capitalist indoctrination. You can’t undo that in a blog post and a few press releases. The jig is up. Philosophy is toast.

Think, for example, of all the new and expensive administrative offices put in place to advance the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s far more expensive than a philosophy department (at most institutions), but with the added advantage of getting increased funding and staffing NO MATTER THE OUTCOMES. If the school is not diverse enough, then we need more funding and staff to correct the systemic injustice. But if the school has the “correct” proportional representation, then we need more funding and staff to sustain the absence of systemic injustice. (You can’t be too careful). Because the corporate managerial class believes this to be an unassailable truth about academic formation–a position once held about philosophy’s necessity–its precious resource profligacy will be held up as a badge of honor rather a sad commentary on the intellectual decline of our institutions.

The culture is against philosophy. Right wingers like Marco Rubio think it can’t help you get a job, and thus it is impractical and detrimental to the “true” end of education: gainful employment. Left wingers think the proper place for philosophical inculcation is diversity training, since it gets everyone to believe the “right way” and does not have the disadvantage of getting people to think critically about diversity training. The Rubios of the world see their model as the business school. The progressives of the world see their model as the seminary.Report

Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
Reply to  Thomas Aquinas
4 months ago

I’m not sure we have evidence here of this diagnosis. The provisionary status is also extended to the BA/BS in Computer Science; the BA Physics; and the BA/MA Mathematics. I doubt they think Comp Sci is “palm reading.” Can we really interpret this as a direct assault on philosophy, because of some mistaken view about its value, as opposed to a result of an incredibly difficult situation–which has swept up philosophy along with several STEM fields?Report

Jeff
4 months ago

I feel for faculty at Potsdam articulating a case that is likely to be dismissed. This is a complete armchair observation, but three things strike me about Potsdam: the fact that it is a flagship art school in the SUNY system; its history as a normal school (teacher college); its location in the most impoverished county in NY State. When looking at the curriculum, I was a little surprised that these areas (poverty, aesthetics, philosophy of education) weren’t more emphasized. Even though these areas are outside the AOS of the faculty in the program, I wonder if one approach to convincing administrators to save this major would be to make it more responsive to one or more of these areas. Even as I write this, I know how terrible these suggestions are: (1) because it is wildly unfair to faculty who are doing their work well and still facing cuts; (2) because the administration will likely decide what they want to decide regardless.Report

potsdam townie
potsdam townie
Reply to  Jeff
4 months ago

This is an excellent suggestion. Unfortunately, the department hasn’t had an ethicist (much less a philosopher of education or aesthetician) on the permanent faculty for many years, despite repeated appeals to the administration to refill that obviously much-needed line.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by potsdam townie
potsdam townie
potsdam townie
Reply to  potsdam townie
4 months ago

I’ll also add (not that you implied otherwise, Jeff) that students in impoverished areas like St. Lawrence county deserve the opportunity to study metaphysics and epistemology and the history of philosophy (just as much as Ivy League students). And, over the years, many students at Potsdam have taken advantage of this opportunity, and many of them have then gone on to graduate school and the professoriate. (Check out this document, from sunypotsdamphilosophy.com: https://www.sunypotsdamphilosophy.com/_files/ugd/c4ca4f_5e2e830836074fe8be723c451c645a46.pdf .) The fact that few students are *currently* taking advantage of the opportunity (as majors, anyway–course enrollments still seem to be quite high!) just seems to be totally besides the point.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by potsdam townie
Jeff
Reply to  potsdam townie
4 months ago

I just want to stress that I agree that Potsdam students absolutely deserve to study philosophy. And I also completely agree with your *currently* point. One tragedy with so many of these administrative moves is that they fail to consider future student interest. Post-Covid, I think more students are going to wonder: What are we doing here? I believe they will turn to philosophy for answers. I guess my suggestion above is really: Are there are any short-term moves that are attractive enough to Potsdam-specific administrative needs/interests that might carry the department over until enrollment rebounds? Even saying this sounds insulting: the document Potsdam put together is convincing and no more should need to be said. And without an ethicist–for example–how could philosophical issues related to poverty even get off the ground? How could students initially drawn to teacher education be turned into majors? Artists turned into double majors? SUNY administrators make questions like this impossible given how they’ve cut off resources. The north country needs philosophy, if only to help its residents consider whether vaccine hesitancy is a marker of freedom or manipulation by forces that keep these areas under-informed and under-funded.Report

potsdam townie
potsdam townie
Reply to  Jeff
4 months ago

Totally agree.Report

Jeff
Reply to  potsdam townie
4 months ago

And so disappointing that NNY elected representatives went out of their ways to stop prison closures in order to save jobs. Where is this concern now? We’ve become so desensitized to just how bad American politics has become. We fight for a more draconian criminal justice systems because it creates jobs in NNY instead of fighting for the people improving the lives of students. You all are doing so much with so little, it is insulting that cutting an academic line is often applauded by the very people outraged at the prospect of prison closures.Report

Brian Huss
4 months ago

I plead with anyone reading this to at least sign the petition linked to above. I was once a professor in the department at Potsdam, and never before or since have I thought I was doing so much good for society by teaching philosophy. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are a lot of smart people coming out of high schools in the most impoverished county in NY State who have never had the opportunity to study philosophy or anything even remotely like it – people who have never been encouraged even to think a little harder about things. A lot of them attend SUNY Potsdam. I saw firsthand a great many students benefit greatly from philosophy at the college, whether or not they ultimately opted for a philosophy major. 

As for the lack of majors, the obvious reason (mentioned above) is that the administration has refused to replace retiring professors. There were five tenure-track people in the department when I was there and now there are two. The lack of staffing makes it exceedingly difficult to entice students the way we used to. Since almost nobody comes to Potsdam intending to major in philosophy, the number of majors is bound to be a function of how many students take a philosophy course. Two people can teach only so many classes with only so much breadth. 

Anyway, all of this and more is well explained at the website Justin linked to. I very much doubt that the administrators can have any coherent response to the points made there, even if all of their concerns are merely financial. Most (all?) attempts to close philosophy departments are misguided, to say the least. This one is truly perplexing, given how inexpensive Philosophy at Potsdam is. But the admin is planning to do away with the physics major too, while still claiming to have a school of arts and sciences, so I guess nothing is too ridiculous for them to try.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Brian Huss
Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
4 months ago

The argument here is that the philosophy major is in fact, if not costless, cost-reducing. But then many speculate this may not matter.

Is the thesis, then, that this is some personally motivated attack on a costless/revenue-generating department?

Perhaps it is much more likely that we don’t have the full story as to how costly a department with just two faculty and a handful of majors can actually be.

Anyway, as self-critical philosophers, we should be just as circumspect about our assumptions in those cases where our own field’s status is threatened. Indeed, we should perhaps be even more so.

There is so much disagreement on Daily Nous with the exception of those instances where we are called to defend particular programs at particular colleges. In those cases, of course philosophy should be preserved! Isn’t it obvious that epistemology is just as important to financial and professional mobility for students at a regional state school as accounting?

I love philosophy, but I try to harbor no utopian illusions about the potential of philosophy education when I chime in on what a state school with scarce resources, and students in need, should do. And, by the way, I myself teach at a regional state school, so this is not some snooty skepticism from on high.Report

potsdam townie
potsdam townie
Reply to  Junior Faculty
4 months ago

Perhaps, if we’re going to make a claim about what is much more likely, we should give some evidence or reason for thinking it is much more likely, rather than just being skeptical for skepticism’s sake.

In any case, I take it that the thesis—backed by lots of evidence and reasoning, not by blind faith as you suggest—is that the phil dept is being used as a scapegoat by an incompetent admin.Report

Another SUNY Chair
Another SUNY Chair
Reply to  Junior Faculty
4 months ago

as self-critical philosophers, we should be just as circumspect about our assumptions in those cases where our own field’s status is threatened. Indeed, we should perhaps be even more so.

And this is why Philosophy faces a severe marketing problem, which contributes to these kinds of existential threats. I can’t imagine any other discipline doing anything other than rallying the troops, so to speak, when one of its own is threatened. In times like this, we absolutely should use our skills to expose the problematic assumptions of those who seek to challenge our value, as our colleagues at Potsdam have done. And we should raise our voices in unison about the centrality of Philosophy to the education provided even at “a state school with scarce resources.”

We can, of course, challenge your assumption that the telos of education at a public comprehensive college is to provide financial and professional mobility. Note SUNY Potsdam’s own Mission statement:

The State University of New York at Potsdam prepares students to act as engaged global citizens and to lead lives enriched by critical thought, creativity and discovery. As an inclusive scholarly community, rooted in our historic role in providing exemplary teacher and music education and our leadership in the fine and performing arts, we are committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students. With an abiding sense of responsibility to our region and to the world beyond, SUNY Potsdam fosters an appreciation of and respect for the variety of human experience.

Now, perhaps the institution wishes to change its Mission; one would hope that any effort to do so would involve the broadest set of constituencies possible, and would be overseen by the institution’s shared governance bodies. Absent that, we should take the institution at its word–it is “committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students.” And that commitment requires a commitment to Philosophy.Report

David C.K. Curry
Reply to  Junior Faculty
4 months ago

Perhaps if you read the argument and examined the documentation, then you might have a substantial criticism to make about that argument. We would be quite pleased to entertain any questions one might have. Please, ask away. Our contact information is certainly public information.Report

Greg Littmann
4 months ago

I think that most faculty at any university couldn’t tell you why philosophy is important, or what we contribute to society. I think that that is even more true of those in administration. I think that if we don’t change this, the discipline will almost vanish.Report

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Greg Littmann
4 months ago

I think we need to (continue the) shift toward applied philosophy as the heart of the discpline: Bioethics, Political Philosophy (of the applied sort), Experimental Philosophy, Philosophy of Technology, Comparative Ethics, Business Ethics, etc etc.

Not only are these sorts of subdiscplines much easier for administrators to understand but, in my experience (being part of a department that has managed to grow its major over the last ten years), they’re also attractive to a broader (and more diverse) student pool. This doesn’t mean that LEM philosophy can’t be done but we really need to stop seeing it as the core of “real” philosophy.

Want to save philosophy? I think it needs to be much better at showing why it’s valuable *to* things and not just argue that it’s valuable in itself (though it surely is that too).Report

Neil Peart
4 months ago

The truth of the matter is SUNY Potsdam is in significant financial trouble. This has been going on for quite a few years, with SUNY Administration coming to the aid of Potsdam in the past. Now, whether or not the choice of the Department of Philosophy is the correct choice regard program closure, that is debatable. But somehow, SUNY Potsdam needs to cut their budget significantly. Especially with the upcoming accreditation visit coming from MSCHE. Given the current status of the finances, there is no way they will be given full accreditation. My guess would be probation with a 4 year report to see if the finances approve.

It really is a shame that Senior Administration has turned a blind eye to this ongoing situation. None of the VP’s for Business Affairs were able to convince the President of the problem. But it is significantly ironic that Esterberg takes a new job in Washington just before the accreditation visit. Coincidence, I think not.Report

Potsdam Faculty Member
Potsdam Faculty Member
Reply to  Neil Peart
4 months ago

 with SUNY Administration coming to the aid of Potsdam in the past.”

I have worked at SUNY Potsdam for over twenty years and I can count on no hands the humber of times that SUNY Administration has come to our aid financially. The fact of the matter is that they have actually scuttled many of the efforts that were intended to improve our financial situations (e.g., clawing back all of the local revenue generated by a $500 tuition increase that the chancellor at the time mandated of all the system’s campuses).Report

Kristin Andrews
4 months ago

I’ve been affiliated with a number of different philosophy departments over my career, and SUNY Potsdam Philosophy is a rare treasure. Nowhere else have I seen a department that is so unified, so dedicated to students, so good at creating a welcoming philosophy community and teaching students by example how to live. The weekly Philosophy Forum that David Curry has been running since forever is a vibrant example of what is special about the philosophy program. It’s always a joy giving talks at Potsdam and meeting the current group of undergraduates who are always so excited about philosophy. Not all of them are majors, but they take philosophy classes, spend their Thursday evenings doing philosophy at Forum, get driven to the SUNY Oneonta undergraduate philosophy conference in a SUNY Potsdam van once a year, and they take the skills and knowledge they gained through these experiences at Potsdam into whatever they do.

SUNY Potsdam may not have many majors, but their majors are *excellent*. I’ve met many current and soon to be Philosophy PhDs who got their start at Potsdam–graduate student colleagues, my own graduate students, and now my colleagues. These people are why I know about SUNY Potsdam–the majors are excellent advertisers of the SUNY Potsdam more generally. The idea that SUNY Potsdam would eliminate the possibility of creating more excellent philosophy majors to save a chair stipend is beyond shortsighted. Report

Scott
1 month ago

This is crushing news to me, as a Philosophy Department graduate (’00).Report