Philosophy at SUNY Potsdam Threatened (Again)


The president of SUNY Potsdam, Suzanne Smith, announced earlier this week a plan to eliminate 14 degree programs at the university, including philosophy, and cut an as-of-yet-unknown number of faculty.

According to several news outlets, the plan is an attempt to reduce the university’s $9 million operating deficit.

Enrollment at the university has dropped around 40% over the past 12 years.

The programs on the chopping block are:

• Art history (BA)
• Arts management (BA)
• Biochemistry (MS)
• Chemistry (BA and BS)
• Dance (BA)
• French (BA)
• Music performance (MM)
• Philosophy (BA)
• Physics (BA)
• Public health (BS and MS)
• Spanish (BA)
• Theater (BA)

Philosophy at Potsdam was previously targeted in early 2022, when, though spared “immediate discontinuation”, was put into “immediate provisional status.”

It is unclear how cutting the philosophy major will save the university much money. According to an independent website created by some members of the department during the initial attack on its major, if eliminating the major is combined with merging the department with other units, it might save around $6000 in administrative costs.

In light of the purported aim of the administration’s plan, that low figure suggests that philosophy faculty will be among those slated for cuts.

In its defense, the department argues 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.” For example: 

  • the philosophy department’s student/faculty ratio is consistently above the average for departments in the School of Arts and Sciences
  • while overall enrollments, and hence FTEs (full time enrollments), have dropped precipitously across the college over the last few years, the philosophy department has managed to maintain its healthy level of FTE production
  • the department has filled 81% of the seats it has offered and has approached 90% on numerous occasions, which is well above average for the School
  • no other department on campus serves general education as thoroughly as the philosophy department does.

As for its low number of majors, the department concedes that is true, but notes:

Philosophy departments rarely have large numbers of majors in comparison to other departments. There are many reasons for this, important ones being that most students are not introduced to the discipline until they are in college, and that more and more HS students are pushed to have an academic major in mind before they ever step foot on a college campus.

Further, the department argues that its decline in majors

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.

Last summer, the department’s defense appeared to have been accepted by the administration (see on this page “Update 7/28/2022“):

Before she left the college the Dean formally recommended that the philosophy program “be removed from provisional status once curricular work outlined in the alignment plan and a merger has been accomplished.”  The curricular revisions referred to are the creation of a Philosophy of Justice course to support the Criminal Justice program (once a regular offering, it has not been offered since the retirement of Dr. Tartaglia), and the creation of an Animal Minds course.  

She also acknowledged “Philosophy’s long record of strong faculty/student ratios, consistently well above the average across the College, and your steady contributions to WAYs and to Pathways more generally. I also acknowledge the challenges of expanding offerings likely to attract new students with current staffing levels.”

​What may also have played a role then, the department says, was feedback from the university’s accreditor, Middle States:

Potsdam was also warned by Middle States that its accreditation “may be in jeopardy”, in part because of a failure to demonstrate that administrative decisions were driven by data—in Middle States language, we supplied insufficient evidence of compliance with Standard VI, “Planning, Resources and Institutional Improvement”.  

It is unclear whether concerns about accreditation are a factor in the more recent developments.

According to North Country Public Radio,

Interim Provost Alan Hersker said the administration will be working with faculty to decide which programs to discontinue. “What we’ll be doing in the next two weeks is meeting with stakeholders for each of those programs to present the data that we used to make these decisions, but also to get their input,” Hersker said. “I think we’re really taking a holistic approach to this. A lot of these programs are interdependent.” The President’s Council will make the final campus decision. According to the tentative plan SUNY Potsdam has released, decisions on program cuts will be sent to SUNY System Administration for final approval on October 23. 

Meanwhile, reports Spectrum News 1,

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents SUNY’s faculty and staff, said Potsdam should immediately cease canceling programs and the announced slashing of positions as it could deter potential students from applying to SUNY campuses. Potsdam is expected to see a 3% enrollment increase this year, and the state’s projected $9 billion deficit could be less than expected, he said. “It’s irresponsible to make these cuts because I think what they’re doing through them is setting Potsdam on a path where enrollment will continue to spiral down,” Kowal said Wednesday. “Students will look upon the institution as something that is in danger of closing.”

This post will be updated with new information as it becomes available.

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Steve Finlay
Steve Finlay
8 months ago

Having been humbled and amazed by the support the Dianoia Institute has received from the international philosophical community, I hope that there will be a similar response in defense of SUNY Potsdam’s philosophers if and when they identify ways in which others can provide support.

David Curry
Reply to  Steve Finlay
8 months ago

Thanks Steve, and Justin for the OP – we too were overwhelmed by the support of the philosophical community last year when this was all previewed. We will be meeting with the admin next week at which time we have been promised some data. We still hold out hope for some argument/justification from the administration We will be reviving the website with updates, and requests for any support that can be offered, as soon as I get through this week’s grading and we learn, or don’t learn more next week.

Ozzer
Reply to  David Curry
8 months ago

Just echoing what Steve said. Please get the word out if you can think of ways people can help. We’ve been humbled and encouraged by the efforts of the academic community to help plead our case.

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
8 months ago

The threats are systematic. This is why we need professional organizations. It is not like our organizations are Goliaths. But it helps to have a professional organization able to marshal sister professional organizations on one’s side.

So I’m going to put in my plug for joining the APA before one’s own university is under the gun. In this environment, where public institutions are under attack but also where prestige matters to these institutions, it is paying a bit in for a kind of group insurance. You might not like every feature of the APA. You might think it is too worried about this or that. But when you need help, you need every bit of help you can get. And the APA will do its part to support philosophy departments whether you have joined or not. But if you and a bunch of people like you don’t join, it may not be there when you need it.

Hieronymus
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
8 months ago

Hi Mark,

Has the APA done something about Potsdam? I am a member of the APA, but I would strongly prefer they spend less time on diversifying syllabi and giving out grants for projects antithetic to academic freedom and WAY more time defending the existence of philosophy departments. Their “Department Advocacy Toolkit” is a great start but perhaps they could work on ways the profession could be mobilized every time something like this happens.

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Hieronymus
8 months ago

I’m not sure about the particular Potsdam situation, but in general the APA weighs in on most situations involving draconian cuts (not just to philosophy) when it figures out how to effectively do so. I think there is generally some behind the scenes consultation first, though. The ability to form coalitions with other humainities and liberal arts organizations matters here. Obviously, any organization of academics is but a small force. A coalition is better but even a coalition of academics is still a coalition of academics. But you’d rather have one than nothing at all.

My experience on the board a few years ago was that if I read something like this on here I would soon get an email about how we were going to respond.

I also think the dichotomy the comment presupposes is a red herring. You could be against diversifying syllabi on the merits, but these things don’t actually compete for attention or resources.

Hieronymus
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

Thanks for the reply, Mark.

I guess I think attention is limited and so, of necessity, attention on one thing always limits attention available for others. (Resources also).

I note, also, that the APA Twitter account has not mentioned Potsdam in the last seven days while it has twice tweeted about syllabus diversity or diversity institutes.

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Hieronymus
7 months ago

Just an update – the APA has sent a letter to the SUNY Potsdam admin and hand done so also in 2022. While letters are just letters they are probably more effective than blog posts for opposing this kind of thing. The APA is also working with other professional organizations.

So I just think that the syllabus discussion is not relevant to how effective the APA is and can be here. Relatedly, you too can volunteer if you have ideas about how the APA can be more effective. Self-nominations for leadership positions can be submitted at https://www.apaonline.org/mpage/nominationsystem

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

If I am not mistaken, as a matter of policy, the APA does not make these letters public, but leaves it up to the department to decide whether they want to publicize it or not.

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
7 months ago

By the way, the 2022 letter was made public by the department, and you can still see it below.

https://web.archive.org/web/20221127194256/https://www.sunypotsdamphilosophy.com/_files/ugd/c4ca4f_62e6af49e33a4f62a109000cce379f01.pdf

Jeff
Jeff
8 months ago

As a public school in a severely economically disadvantaged area of New York State, it has been heartening to see that Republican representatives have also come out in support of SUNY Potsdam. This support, I believe, is going to be essential. As politicians actively undermine support for higher education and the study of the humanities, I hope this is a wake-up call of sorts. While it is easy to score cheap political points going after colleges and universities, the anti-education discourse has real-world implications. If SUNY Potsdam loses all these jobs, it will have major implications for the entire area. Parents who hope their children will stay local will now be forced to send their kids away for college (which may mean that kids don’t go to college). Small businesses that rely on the economic engine that is SUNY Potsdam will go under. Again, I hope this is a call to conscience. Instead of attacking higher education, we need to realize that it is in the public interest–very broadly understood–to have strong state colleges and universities.