SUNY Potsdam Cuts: Further Details / Update: What You Can Do to Help (updated)

Last month we saw that the Philosophy program at SUNY Potsdam is once again under threat.

In the meanwhile, an unofficial philosophy site has been updated with some further information about the cuts.

[This post was originally published on October 2nd; it has been republished and moved to the top today because of the Update 2: “higher education consultants turn out to be the story behind the story, and it is a story that bodes ill for the future of liberal arts education in America.”]

The attacks on philosophy and other programs has come in three phases:

First came the realignment plan… The decisions reached in that process have never once been publicly defended; there has been no data released, no case made, indeed no justification of any sort offered for why the targeted programs were targeted.

Second: Massive non-renewals (an accurate number the college refuses to release) in the Spring of 2023. Many of my junior colleagues will be unemployed come fall of 2024. 

Three:  the long threatened ‘Draconian’ programmatic cuts that will transform the institution are revealed in a meeting called for 10 a.m on Tuesday, September 19 2023, one of the most popular teaching hours on campus. No questions were entertained by the SUNY Chancellor, who blessed the plan, or by the President, who presented it

The website says that there has been little to no faculty input in these decisions:

There was no meaningful campus collaboration during any of these phases—each was simply imposed by the administration under the cover of a financial crisis. Fred Kowal, UUP President, argues that this crisis was largely created by a failure of the state of New York to adequately fund the SUNY and CUNY systems, along with a number of decisions taken by SUNY Central over the last decade which have severely disadvantaged the SUNY four year colleges and have favored the Research institutions and 2 year colleges. SUNY Potsdam also had years of financial mismanagement and neglect, though no one will either take or place any blame for that neglect. 

No one denies that the college is in desperate financial straits.  But this would seem all the more reason to take an evidence driven, cost-benefit analysis approach to righting the ship. Instead we have realignment, non-renewals, and now, Phase Three, the long threatened ‘Draconian’ programmatic cuts that will transform the institution.

It is worth noting, as one of the more scandalous parts of this sordid tale, is that administrators started telling faculty that big cuts were coming at least as early as December 2022, and were referring to the “Financial Stability Plan” at least as early as January 2023.  Phase Three has been at least 8 months in the coming, during which time no effort was made to communicate to faculty other than… threats something big was coming.  And it came.

Further details here.

UPDATE 1 (10/4/23): The department’s unofficial site has been updated with further details, including information about what you can do to help:

Please consider writing a letter calling for a immediate halt to implementing the SUNY Potsdam Financial Stability Plan until, as the Faculty Senate Resolution says, “such a time as data-driven justifications, including cost-benefit analyses, are presented to justify the claim that there is a financial benefit to be gained from discontinuing each of the programs slated for discontinuance.”

Please send it to all of the following:

John B. King Jr., Chancellor of the SUNY System ([email protected]);
Suzanne Smith, SUNY Potsdam President ([email protected]);
Alan L. Hersker, Interim Provost ([email protected]);
June F. O’Neill, Chair of SUNY Potsdam College Council ([email protected]);
Greg Gardner, Faculty Senate Chair ([email protected]);
Kevin Smith, UUP President ([email protected]);
Timothy G. Murphy, Philosophy Department Chair ([email protected]).

Here’s a list of those email addresses to copy and paste: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected] 

I recommend that readers check out the “Commentary” section on the page. Here’s an excerpt:

It cannot be reiterated enough that throughout this whole nearly three year realignment process no metrics have ever been offered, no rubrics to judge the academic or financial health of these programs.  No one has done a cost-benefit analysis on eliminating any of these programs. No data or evidence has yet been presented as to why these programs are targeted or how eliminating them will save any money. “Why these programs?”, has never been addressed, much less “why are we moving the college in this direction?”, towards the destruction of the liberal arts. The whole process has been completely opaque, without any attempt made to justify any decision made other than by crying out that we are in a financial crisis and that something needs to be done.

UPDATE 2 (10/26/2023): “We won a couple of battles… but, as predicted, it appears we have lost the war.” That’s the latest update from Potsdam’s Philosophy Department. They write:

In an email to students in affected programs the administration asserts “This was a difficult decision, but necessary to ensure the financial health of the College.” As this website has more than demonstrated, and the administration has yet to even attempt to repudiate, this claim is at best misleading and perhaps an outright lie. To date in no way, shape, or form has the administration shown that any financial benefit at all will accrue to the college from these draconian cuts to the liberal arts.

The cuts at SUNY Potsdam appear to have been made with assistance of educational consultants. Such educational consultants are “the story behind the story”:

It has never been made clear what metrics are being used to evaluate programs. They call them “Key Performance Indicators” (or KPI’s, of course: they give us a nifty acronym but no details on the purported indicators it stands for). I have speculated that in our case it is purely numbers of majors (which turns out to be partly right).  But that doesn’t explain all the programs faced with discontinuation. I am now more confident that I know what metrics they are using.

If you look at the data the SUNY Potsdam administration supplied to the programs to be discontinued and compare it to the template that the rpk GROUP used at the University of Virginia (as summarized by Aaron R. Hanlon), they are the same data – these are the only numbers that matter, in rpk’s little profit-centered world.

Hanlon says, “Rpk Group’s method involves analyzing academic departments and programs based on student application numbers to a given program (before students enroll, and regardless of whether they change their mind once they do) and counting how many students have been enrolled in majors and programs (for a 2018 presentation, the firm used average data from 2013 to 2015).”

He continues with a, to my mind, quite prescient but seriously understated warning,

“Making bets on this crude form of analysis is risky and shortsighted because predicting student interests and enrollment patterns, as well as economic needs that may impact enrollment, is notoriously fraught.” 

Key here is the ‘making bets’ part. We might ask why should we believe these metrics are meaningful at all? Where are the successful institutions that have implemented this ideology? But we won’t receive any answer, though someone somewhere must at least think they have one.

The bottom line is that SUNY Potsdam is going to be completely remade in rpk’s image on a gamble.  And a gamble on what is clearly at best an ideologically driven theory about the future of higher education (and on the face of it, one historically ignorant and quite silly).  Further, it is a gamble grounded in a data set of two years? Is this a joke? Is rpk laughing all the way to the bank, or do they really believe this nonsense? 

Rpk Group and other higher education consultants turn out to be the story behind the story, and it is a story that bodes ill for the future of liberal arts education in America.  If this website achieves nothing else, I hope it will put these insidious forces at work in higher education into a more public eye. That they are not in the public eye is quite intentional. A faculty member at UVA had to FOIL for the rpk report there, and we will have to do the same here at SUNY Potsdam. One wonders why that might be – why are secret machinations with higher education consultants to develop plans to transform the very nature of a public institution best kept on the low-down?

Once upon a time, I hear tell, faculty – you know, the experts in education – controlled the curriculum.  Now it is higher education consultants, whose qualifications are quite unclear, at best. Faculty have been deprived of arguably the last true bastion of faculty governance on college campuses. The curriculum is now being determined by ‘market forces’ (or so they blatantly assert without evidence), not the idea of a liberal education.

More here.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified rpk Group as an educational consultancy working with SUNY Potsdam. This was incorrect. rpk Group has not worked with SUNY Potsdam. My apologies for the error.

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7 months ago

Awful. I hope that there’s a way that people can help our colleagues in this terrible situation. I don’t know what levers can be pulled, but my sense is that academics are too quick to use things like petitions that don’t move anyone with any real power and that more targeted appeals are a better place to push. (Here, we thought that letters to the relevant government ministers might be a good idea because of the particulars of the case and the government’s role in funding universities so that might be an angle–trying to get politicians to intervene.)

Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

FWIW, The APA board chair and executive director have sent a letter to the Potsdam administration about this now, as they did in March of 2022. They are also working with other professional organizations to support the humanities there in the face of these cuts.

(There was some discussion of whether the APA was acting in an earlier thread in which I had stated that this was the sort of thing for which we need the APA.)

David Curry
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

Many thanks to the APA. Their support is appreciated.

Reply to  Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

Glad to see this. Thanks!