The proposal to create a Philosophy Department made it through the last of its various levels of official institutional approval in February.
The news is a welcome change from the various cuts to and eliminations of philosophy programs often reported on here.
In a letter to the UC System’s Chancellor, Juan Sánchez Muñoz, Vice Chancellor and Provost Gregg Camfield writes:
The formation of this department represents the ongoing evolution and maturation of our campus. Long part of the Cognitive Sciences department, the proposed Department of Philosophy has made a strong, evidence-based case for its shift to a standalone unit. This case includes its direct contributions, extant and planned, to the continued development of UC Merced’s education and research priorities as outlined in the strategic plan as well to education as measured through student credit hour generation. Examples of the department’s alignment to campus priorities include contributions to applied ethics education in the areas of data and technology ethics, medical ethics, and environmental ethics. Looking forward they intend to grow expertise in Latin American philosophy, philosophy ofrace,. medical ethics, and philosophy of law. Collectively, these foci resonate with long standing campus strengths and priorities and leave the proposed department well positioned to contribute to undergraduate and graduate education programs across the campus, in addition to the delivery of their own major.
An important thread in the proposal is the faculty’s intention to contribute significantly to the campus’s commitments to grow its education and research contributions in ways that support our objectives for diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence. For instance, the proportion of Hispanic, women, and first-generation students in the Philosophy major matches that of the campus more generally, reflecting intentional changes to the program initiated in 2014. This is unusual for a philosophy program, and I think speaks volumes about the likely future impacts of their ongoing commitment, which I hope will include ongoing diversification of their faculty as their department grows…
I support the formation of a Department of Philosophy. The faculty are pursuing a strongly campus-aligned teaching and research agenda that will add great value to our students’ educations and in tum the impact of our campus on the region, California, and the world.
The proposal to create a Philosophy Department was initiated in 2021 by members of UC Merced’s existing Cognitive Sciences Department. UC Merced itself opened its doors to students in 2005. Associate professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings provides some of the relevant history:
Jeff Yoshimi joined the new UC Merced campus at its founding as Assistant Professor, in 2004. Jeff joined others in developing the Cognitive and Information Sciences department, with philosophy playing a key role (thanks in part to an advisory committee that included Alva Noë and Pat Churchland). He next worked to bring in Peter Vanderschraaf as Associate Professor and Rolf Johansson as Lecturer, all of whom helped to create the Philosophy Minor in 2011. Three new faculty joined as Assistant Professors around this time: Nigel Hatton, Carolyn Jennings, and David Jennings (Assistant Teaching Professor). David Jennings and Jeff Yoshimi worked to create the Philosophy Major, which was approved in 2019. That same year Hanna Gunn and Dan Hicks both joined as Assistant Professors, and Toby Napoletano joined as Lecturer, while Peter Vanderschraaf took a new position at University of Arizona. These 8 faculty members (6 Senate, 2 non-Senate) will be joining the new Philosophy Department in 2023.
Over this nearly 20 year period, this faculty offered undergraduates at UC Merced courses across a variety of philosophical areas, hosted dozens of guest speakers, and put on philosophy conference and other events.
Now established as a Department, the faculty will be working to plan and get approval for a graduate program in philosophy, with an emphasis on non-academic careers.
To help celebrate the creation of the department, some of the university’s first philosophy majors (who graduated in 2022), answered some questions about their philosophy education. The students were asked, “What do you think a philosophy department will bring to the campus?” Below are their answers:
“A philosophy department will bring another sector of research to expand the explorative ideas. Having this department will establish thought-provoking and question-driven conversations. I, like others, experience daily problems and either create or face questions. Philosophy is a space to search and search with those in proximity to us. A final note on what this philosophy department will bring to UC Merced: another perspective on the contemporary events going on now.”
“A philosophy department will greatly expand the resources that will be available to students, not just in the program, but for the campus as a whole. The professors I had did already do fantastic work, and I cannot wait to see what more there is to come with the resources and backing of a formal department. I am thrilled at the idea of UC Merced having a thriving philosophy program with even more resources to serve students. The professors that helped me along the way into a graduate program have worked very hard to provide a top-notch philosophy education that not only aims to meet general expectations of philosophy students, but inspires further pursuit and engagement of the whole student. I see now on occasion small updates of speakers and events being put on for students by the philosophy faculty and I am elated to see students receiving such wonderful opportunities and I am very grateful to have been perhaps some part of setting the stage for those to come after.”
“I firmly believe that the department—and being instituted as such—will attract more students to the field, ideally fostering critical, self-reflective minds in this epoch of placidity and desensitization. There is a serious need to consider the implications of being in the age of technology and post-coloniality we have inherited. What institution is better situated to do such a thing than UC Merced, a predominantly minority serving institution?”
“I think a philosophy department will allow philosophy at UCM to branch out further from Western philosophical traditions and Cognitive Science while still keeping a close relationship to both, of course! Hopefully we will see historical traditions like Indian, Native American, and Middle Eastern philosophy and also bring aesthetics, political philosophy, and other branches into the program.”
They were also asked, “What has your philosophy experience meant to you?” They replied:
“My philosophy experience and in particular my experience with this program has been vital to lead me to where I am now in a PhD program with the intent to further pursue teaching and research afterwards. Were it not for the help of these wonderful professors, my trajectory with academia would likely look very different, perhaps even being in a different field. My experience with my professors and in the classroom solidified for me that philosophy is something I intend to further pursue and that it was possible for me to succeed in doing so. I will always be grateful for the experience I’ve had here. Thank you.”
“My philosophy experience broadened my reading and writing skills, and I want to emphasize that my experience was not only in-class. The curiosity that philosophy students have about their reading extends outside of class and becomes a part of their personalities. I think I’m always going to miss those discussions myself, my peers, and my professors had in-class and outside of class.”
“My philosophy experience has meant liberation. Visceral liberation. It has forcefully pulled me up from the muck of the prescribed, into the airs of self-aware agency, responsibility, and freedom, imbued with the confidence to doubt.”
“My philosophy experience meant a lot to me. Through this field of study, I found a desire to learn more from it. Having come into UC Merced undeclared, I got to explore and expand my academic journey with topics that provoked questions and critical thinking. Philosophy equipped with diverse ways to start understanding the world, life, and existence. Frankly, I do not think I would have grown as a student and an individual in at the point of life I was at without philosophy.”
(Here’s some information from the department about the students who answered these questions: Sukhpal Bhullar was a dual major in Philosophy and Psychology. His current philosophical position places emphases on postcolonial theory, existentialism, non-dual/diunital metaphysics and cognition, and non-western/Sikh philosophy. His favorite classes at UC Merced were African Philosophy, Existentialism, Philosophy of Mind, and Nietzsche and Mill. He plans to apply for graduate programs in philosophy in 2023, with his first prospect being a PhD in Sikh Philosophy at UMichigan. Kaeda Sabrewing was a dual major in Philosophy and Sociology with interests in Indigenous ontology, applied ethics, decolonial philosophy, social philosophy, and epistemic justice. Her favorite courses were Philosophy of Science, Consciousness, Technology Ethics, and Metaphysics. She is now enrolled in the philosophy PhD program at University of Minnesota. Kim Ta was a dual major in Philosophy and Cognitive Science with interests in personal identity, existentialism, phenomenology, metaphysics, and logic. Her favorite course was Metaphysics and she hopes to work for a non-profit education organization. Bee Yeffet majored in Philosophy with interests in philosophy of religion and applied ethics. Her favorite course was Bioethics and she is now in the Master’s in Library and Information Sciences program at San Jose State University.)
Discussing the department and its plans for the future, Professor Jennings writes:
As is visible in the above, our brand of philosophy is interdisciplinary and applied. We aim to be both socially relevant and socially engaged. Current faculty have projects on “cognitive science and the common good,” data ethics, the epistemic crisis, environmental ethics, philosophy in prisons, and other topics of relevance to our geographic region. We hope that future hires will continue to contribute to this aim. In the medium to long-term our goal is to develop a graduate program. We envision a mid-size master’s or PhD program, admitting between 2 and 4 students a year, with a focus on nonacademic careers. As part of this focus we would aim for a shorter than usual time to degree (i.e. 5 years for a PhD) and opportunities for internships. We think our specialization in applied philosophy and in particular applied ethics puts us in a good position to develop this type of program and over the next year we intend to form an advisory committee to get it started.
We are grateful to the philosophy community for supporting us over the past 20 years, and we look forward to many more years of philosophy at UC Merced to come with the approval of this new department. Fiat Lux!
You can learn more about the UC Merced Philosophy Department here.