Starting a PPE Program on a Shoestring: Why & How (guest post)


“I logged into our learning management program to see what my advising load looked like this year, and was sure that the software had a bug in it. Among the class of 2027, there were more students already intending to major in PPE before setting foot on campus than our philosophy department actually graduates in any given year.”

That’ s Rosa Terlazzo (University of Rochester), discussing one of the reasons why philosophy departments might be interested in launching a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) major.

As she notes, there are other reasons, and in the following guest post, she offers some advice for departments on how to get such programs started.


sculpture made from laser-cut dollar-bills depicting a skull peeking out from behind curtains

[ScottCampbell, sculpture made from laser-cut dollar-bills]

Starting a PPE Program on a Shoestring: Why & How
by Rosa Terlazzo 

Here are some things that most of us are probably all too used to at this point: being constantly asked to do more with less; being incessantly asked to justify—and often fight for—the existence of our departments and discipline; and finding ourselves always in competition with other departments for majors and resources. In this post, I’m going to say a bit about starting an undergraduate PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) major as a way of doing all of these things. Be warned, though, that this post is based entirely on my own experience of starting a PPE major with my colleagues at the University of Rochester. We started the process of developing the major in the fall of 2019, and we’re now beginning the second year in which students can declare a PPE major. I’m not claiming that this is the best way to structure a PPE program—it almost certainly isn’t, because we started ours with effectively no new resources to put towards it. And this post isn’t full of links to helpful information or hard data—because let’s face it, I have 47 other ways of doing more with less currently on my to-do list. But I’m proud of our PPE major, and I’m excited about what I think it will be able to do. And if you’re trying to do more with less, justifying your existence to administrators, or fighting for majors, maybe there is something here that your philosophy department can use. 

Why Start a PPE program?

Let’s start with the most cynical reason to start a PPE program: majors. A few days before the semester began in September, I logged into our learning management program to see what my advising load looked like this year, and was sure that the software had a bug in it. Among the class of 2027, there were more students already intending to major in PPE before setting foot on campus than our philosophy department actually graduates in any given year. And since so many students come to campus undecided, I only expect this number to grow between now and 2027 graduation. Anecdotally, this seems to be true across PPE programs. Among the people I know at institutions with both a PPE and a philosophy major, the PPE program has more majors than (the rest of) the philosophy program in the very large majority of cases.

But less cynically—indeed, so much less cynically that it risks sounding cheesy—I think that PPE is a genuinely wonderful way of showing both our students and our institutions one way in which philosophy really matters in the world. For idealistic students who want to make change in the world, combining philosophy with politics and economics lets them see what an important role philosophy can play in critiquing and reforming the very institutions they want to change. And for administrators who love buzzwords like “interdisciplinary” and “socially-engaged learning”, it’s hard to do better than a PPE program. (Ok, maybe there’s still a bit of cynicism left.)

How to do it on a shoestring budget

So if I’m right, and starting a PPE program is worth doing, how do you make it happen—especially if, as in so many of our cases, you don’t have endowment money or new faculty lines to put towards it? Here are three things that we did when starting our PPE major with approximately zero new resources available to us:

  • Borrow heavily. Our PPE major requires 12 courses, 11 of which were already on the books and regularly taught. Other departments were generally happy to let their courses count towards our major requirements, since having our students in them counted towards their course enrollments. And this meant that in terms of faculty hours, starting the major was no more demanding than adding a new elective course.
  • Focus on bringing students together in just a few high impact ways. The one new course we added was a PPE seminar, to be taught every year. Since this is the only new course we were able to design for the major, we decided to focus it not on methods (since students will get methods from each discipline in the other courses in the major anyway), but on how to ask questions in interdisciplinary ways, and on how to use the perspective of each discipline to be alive to short-comings in the proposals offered by the other two. The hope is that they will then use this framework in other single-disciplinary courses in their major. The other way in which PPE majors are brought together is in a final paper presentation, in which graduating seniors share their work with the rest of the PPE program. Originally we planned to do this by having every graduating student give a traditional talk with Q&A period, but upon seeing how many intended majors we have, we realized that this was going to be logistically impossible. We’re now going to use one session of the PPE seminar as a poster session in which graduating seniors share their work, and current seminar students can circulate and engage in depth with the papers and projects that they are most interested in. We think that this format will serve lots of functions: to give our students practice with presenting their ideas in a variety of formats (including visually, interactively in discussion, and via a clear and accessible “elevator pitch”), to help all of our students see the broad range of ways in which the tools of PPE might be applied, and to inspire and attract new majors among those enrolled in the seminar but not yet majoring. With very little to work with in terms of new courses offered, we hope that we’ve nonetheless created some high-impact ways of unifying and animating the program.
  • Thematic concentration to personalize the major. Since many of our majors are motivated to pursue PPE because they want to contribute to social change in areas they care about, we have included a 5 course thematic concentration in the major. Here, students work with a faculty advisor to propose a set of five courses that together approach some social issue from a variety of angles and disciplinary perspectives. These themes can vary widely, from climate justice, to democracy and wealth, to women’s education in Latin America. This feature of the major allows students to take the multi- and interdisciplinary tools they have developed in the rest of the major, and apply them in sustained ways to a problem that they care strongly about. (The paper for their final presentation will come out of this concentration.) And from the perspective of faculty starting a new program with few resources, it lets you take advantage of the range of relevant courses already available at your university.

Admitted drawbacks of our program

I’m proud of our program, but it’s also very far from perfect. In particular, I wish that we could do at least three more things for our students. First, I wish we had more opportunities to help them think interdisciplinarily. While the seminar is explicitly focused on developing this skill, it’s only one semester—and having a variety of individual courses that adopted an interdisciplinary PPE perspective could only help them. Second, I wish that we could create more of a sense of community and cohort among our majors. Given the thematic concentration and the different departments they take core courses in, our students may not frequently be together in class, and so won’t have the opportunities that many of our more traditional philosophy majors have to be in conversation with the same set of peers over the course of several years. We are trying to find the resources for more extracurricular opportunities here, by doing things like bringing in PPE speakers, or holding reading groups—but again, this takes resources in short supply, and it would be better if we could include elements within the major itself to do the same thing. And finally, it’s hard to staff even the very basic new elements we’ve added. While the PPE seminar is being taught in-load, we don’t currently have any formal way of helping graduating seniors to develop the papers and posters they will present. While this is manageable in the first year or two, as the numbers of majors quickly rises this will very soon become unmanageable, and we’ll very soon need to find more faculty hours somewhere.

There are some other wonderful, much better resourced and more fully-developed undergraduate PPE programs out there. See, for instance, the programs at Northeastern University and the University at Buffalo. For those who are interested in developing a PPE program and who have funds and lines to do it, I highly recommend looking at what they have done. But for the rest of us, know that the perfect doesn’t need to be the enemy of the good—there’s a lot you can do even with just a shoe-string.

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Ryan Muldoon
7 months ago

Great post!

I think it is definitely feasible for most places to put a PPE program together, and make something valuable for students. One thing I would suggest is to design the major around categories of courses, at least some of which can be satisfied in a couple different ways. This allows you to use what you have and then grow with more courses as you have more capacity.

While PPE programs are often introduced as a way of boosting enrollments, I do think it is a good idea to think about developing it as a research program as well. In my view these things build off of one another.

UB’s program, like most, was started on a shoestring. It was designed to only require extra effort of me and no one else, so buy-in was not too hard to achieve. We have been able to add a number of faculty to support the program, but that all came after the program was up and running. We have been able to steadily improve the program, alongside graduate training and our research capacity by showing how we can do cool stuff with not much.

I am excited that we now have a pretty darn excellent program, and broad support for it within the university. And for anyone who is thinking about graduate training in PPE, I think we are tough to beat.

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
7 months ago

Great post, thank you!

The biggest challenge with PPE programs is dealing with the success, especially at places were departments are competing for majors and resources. We started a program 5 years ago at the University of New Orleans. By the second year, we were the fasting growing program at the university and had doubled the size of the philosophy program. This caused a number of unanticipated problems:

  1. Some of my colleagues in the department were upset that they might be asked to teach more courses on campus. We were coming out of covid and had a significant amount of online teaching / courses. We designed the PPE program to be in person (so as not to tax the online offerings and because the students we were attracting wanted that), but now our colleagues were worried that more students demanding in-person classes would mean that they would need to teach their classes in-person.
  2. Colleagues from other departments — in some cases departments we had worked closely with to get the program off the ground — saw us (incorrectly) as “stealing” their majors. (I saw incorrectly because our PPE program was set up explicitly as a double major and all of our students had two majors.) Even after we pointed out the double major situation, they worried that, in the future, most of our students would not double major and we would be taking majors from their programs.
  3. Colleagues from other departments worried that our success would mean fewer resources for their programs, especially when it came to who go to hire new faculty. Our program was growing, their programs were shrinking (not a direct connection, but we were picking up students while the number of students in the college overall was shrinking), and they worried that as a result we would get to dictate future college hires.

There were other similar issues along the lines of success breeds resentment, but the end of the story was that a bunch of them who were on the Faculty Senate got together, made some sort of threat to the president connected to the program (who, at the time, seemed to be looking to leave our university for a higher-paying university president position — which he ended up getting), and the administration found a way to kill it. Our major numbers are now down into the low 30s or high 20s and philosophy is likely to be eliminated as a major in the next 5 years.

I say this as a cautionary tale. If one of the reasons to start a PPE program is to pick up majors (and, if done well, it certainly will), then you’re likely at a college or university where many departments are looking to pick up majors and where resources are tight. If you’re at one of those places, you should think in advance of how to manage the various political issues, especially when it comes to how resources are distributed, how majors are counted, etc. In our case, we (especially me) made the strategic error of having the PPE program become a concentration within the philosophy major, instead of as its own, standalone program. We did it to increase the number of philosophy majors, but that had the consequence of alienating a bunch of people in somewhat unexpected ways.

It’s also important to get clear on what sort of administrative support you have and how likely that support is to remain if success does, in fact, breed resentment. I made a serious miscalculation when it came to our support, but it was a miscalculation that was hard to avoid given that we had signed agreements that ended up being violated, the program was set up with the support of the president of the university (yes, it went that far, not just our chair, dean, and provost, all of whom were on board as well), and we were bringing in a bunch of money for student scholarships and campus programming.

It’s really weird to talk about planning for success, but I have yet to see one of these programs not do incredibly well. Right now, students are very much interested in this intersection of ideas, especially when (as most PPE programs do) the program incorporates a significant amount of real, experiential learning; substantive real-world research projects or internships; or otherwise gets students out of the traditional classroom environment and exposes them to issues they see as being meaningful in the world outside of the university.

I’m happy to talk with anyone who is interested in starting a PPE program, share our materials with you, and otherwise be a resource, even if I serve the function similar to that despair.com poster with the ship: “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” 🙂

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
7 months ago

If your colleagues complain about having to go on campus to teach and want to do everything online, your department is doomed regardless.

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Mark Wilson
7 months ago

Yes, but to a point. Almost everyone in our college wanted to do everything online after covid — it wasn’t just our department.

We were able to hire five new faculty when we started the PPEL program, with three of those people being in philosophy. All five taught on campus. We could have run (and were running) our program without help from my colleagues.

The problem was that administrators pointed to the success of our program as evidence that our college (liberal arts) should be doing more stuff on campus (no joke, right). That upset a lot of these people who didn’t want to come in.

This issue in and of itself didn’t kill us, but it was one of a handful.

Graham Hubbs
7 months ago

Thanks Rosa–great post!

Another thought/possibility: start first with a PPE minor, and then build up to a major. The advice in “Borrow Heavily” is spot-on, so the only new class that has to be created to get the minor off the ground is the dedicated PPE course. At most institutions, that should be easy to get over all of the bureaucratic hurdles. The minor can then generate interest, and in a few years it can be ratcheted up to a major.

Or: you can just stop at the minor. This was the advice I got from Geoff Sayre-McCord when I started our program at Idaho: start with the minor, and that might be enough. That’s worked for us.

Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

I haven’t been present for the founding of a program quite like this, but at my two previous institutions, USC and Texas A&M, both had recently created a similar program that had similar success, attracting more majors than philosophy, with no loss of philosophy majors. At USC there was a program in Philosophy, Politics, and Law, and at A&M there was a program called Society, Ethics, and Law. These likely appealed to many of the same students that PPE programs at other universities do, but programs like these may be more viable for departments that don’t have a connection to their university’s economics department but do have some sort of connection to the law school.

Andrew M. Bailey
7 months ago

At Yale-NUS College, PPE has consistently been among our top three most popular majors. Students consistently report that they want to do serious normative work, but also engage the real world. PPE is where they find they can do this best.

FWIW: after some years as Head of the PPE major, and informed by hundreds of conversations with students, I wrote up some advice to those considering the major or charting a path through it: https://andrewmbailey.com/ppe/

Piers Turner
Piers Turner
7 months ago

Thanks for the post. At Ohio State, our PPE major was also started on a shoestring, but is a collaboration of the 3 departments, with support from our interdisciplinary Center for Ethics and Human Values. Having two main coordinators of the program — Eric MacGilvray (Political Science) and myself in Philosophy — immediately conveys the interdisciplinarity of the program to students and deans alike. (Also it is more fun to work together.) Our two core PPE courses just for majors are also co-taught by faculty from the collaborating departments for the same reason. We’ve also made a big effort to welcome ideological diversity and to have syllabi reflecting a wide range of social and political issues. Started in 2019, we have 210 majors and are growing. All these students have helped sustain enrollments in our Philosophy Department courses. And they spurred the deans to allow us recently to hire Sahar Heydari Fard in Philosophy. Happy to talk about our effort with anyone interested.

Ryan Muldoon
7 months ago

A further benefit of starting a PPE major is that you would have an excellent reason to start attending the PPE society conferences, which are held in New Orleans every year. (the 7th meeting is at the beginning of November) There are often sessions on starting/running/growing PPE programs. It is also a good way of getting a sense of what PPE research looks like. The Society also maintains a list of programs on its website, which may be a resource for getting examples of what has worked elsewhere.
(https://ppesociety.org/ – you can sign up as a member for free)

If you have grad students, encourage them to submit an essay to the Gaus Memorial Essay Prize! Fame and fortune await.