SUNY Fredonia President Recommends Eliminating Philosophy


In a presentation yesterday, Stephen Kolison, president of the State University of New York at Fredonia, proposed the elimination of 13 programs at the school, including philosophy.

Kolison cited financial problems based on population trends and competition:

In New York, while census data shows that the overall population of the state grew from 2010 to 2020, almost 95% of that growth was in the 65 and over demographic. Meanwhile, the “25 and younger” population fell by nearly 260,000. This competition over a smaller base of college-bound students has contributed to our enrollment being down around 40-percent since Fall 2015.  Because tuition is the single largest source of direct revenue for our campus, enrollment declines have contributed to financial challenges that have led to the structural deficit we have been grappling with for more than a decade. In short, our base expenditures simply far outweigh our revenues. 

Besides philosophy, the programs recommended for closure are in visual arts, sociology, French, Spanish, foreign language education, math education, early childhood education, and industrial management.  The full list and statement are here.

Readers may recall that SUNY Fredonia is the employer of philosopher Stephen Kershnar, who is still in litigation with the university over it currently banning him from campus because of a controversy concerning a philosophical discussion about adult-child sex he participated in on the podcast, Brain in a Vat.

Kershnar is in fact the only tenured/tenure-track faculty member in philosophy at Fredonia. (Neil Feit retired from the university this past summer.)

It is unclear how much money, if any, eliminating the philosophy program will save the university. But perhaps including the program for elimination is a way for the administration to jettison what it sees as a problematic faculty member.

Kolison’s announcement includes the now typical rationale that student demand for the targeted programs is low:

Low enrollment in these programs speaks volumes about what our students want and need from us in terms of academic majors. These 13 programs represent 15% of all majors at Fredonia, but yet currently have a combined enrollment of 74 students. That equals just over 2% of the undergraduate student population, with a third of those 74 students set to graduate this spring.

I’m not sure what “need” is doing in that first sentence, unless it’s just being used, disingenuously, as a synonym for “want.” For whatever educators might mean by students’ “needs,” we know they are certainly not identical to their revealed preferences. This kind of rhetoric is evidence of an administration that does not know how how or does not believe it can adequately lead its students. It can only follow them. And merely following students may take some universities down a path to their own obsolescence. Universities are increasingly outsourcing education to third parties, such as Google, a trend which will continue so long as universities operate as if educating students is primarily about job training. Unless universities offer something distinctive, more and more they’ll be thought of as a third wheel, and edged out.

Philosophy at Fredonia had been targeted previously, in 2017 and 2018. It survived then. Whether it will this time is unclear.

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Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
2 months ago

I have zero information about this, but wouldn’t banning Kershnar from campus predictably put a dent in how many students he could attract to his classes and the major?

Michel
2 months ago

I don’t really understand what it means to say that 2% of all students make up 15% of all majors. Shouldn’t that be good news for those majors, and bad news for the institution (since it suggests many students aren’t majoring at all)?

Last edited 2 months ago by Michel
Unknown Philosopher
Unknown Philosopher
Reply to  Michel
2 months ago

The 13 programs to be eliminated represent 15% of all of the major programs they offer (that n is 88, I think). The 74 students who major in those 13 programs represent approximately 2% of the total undergraduate student population.

Michel
Reply to  Unknown Philosopher
2 months ago

Oh, I see. So it’s not that enrollment in those programs equals 15% of all major enrollment.

That makes more sense, though it’s a weird way to have put it!

Trudy
Trudy
Reply to  Michel
2 months ago

Think about majors as programs for the 15% and majors as students for the 2%. So the number of students in each of the 13 major programs adds up to only 74, which in turn representable 2% of the undergraduate student body.

Joseph Duvernay
2 months ago

Well Students, read original texts!
Spend the several lifetimes it takes to cogitate and be informed, form Your thoughts on matters important to Life on Earth. Your teachers, on their shelves, in their piles discarded, dog-eared, bothered, nearly erased or just so, can in many cases still be bought and or found, and are waiting.
God speed!

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 months ago

We philosophers need to do a better job of persuading the presidents, boards, students, parents, legislators, of the value of what we teach. If they care about job training, we need to talk about how philosophy prepares students for jobs. If we think job training is the wrong focus, we need to persuade them of what they should be thinking about and why philosophy delivers on that goal, and why that goal is worth so much money. We’re in the argument business–let’s start making the arguments, and not just to ourselves, but to the people who make these sorts of decisions. Talking to ourselves, making snarky versions of university logos (sorry, Justin) might be fun and release some of our pent-up frustration at the slow, but steady diminishment of philosophy in particular and the humanities in general, but it’s not going to save anyone’s job or bring more students to philosophy. And the last thing we need out there is the sort of thing Agnes Callard recently published in the Times. Can you imagine what a Board member or state legislator would do with that?

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Andrew Mills
2 months ago

You gesture to what I’m about to say in your comment, Andrew, but I want to be starker. I tend to think that developing arguments and even metrics about the value of the humanities is a losing game. That doesn’t mean that I advocate for quietism in the face of the threats to the humanities, however. It means that what you say above about persuasion and arguments (I’d add stories/narratives) about “what they should be thinking about” are the crucial things here.

It’s my view that the humanities cannot been shown to have value through any of the following approaches, given contemporary state of things in the US: 1) Improving employment/personal financial stability (they don’t, or at least no more so than many other undergraduate majors and a great deal less than some), 2) problem-solving (engineers & scientists solve problems all the time with no real need of humanities training), 3) practical value in terms of writing, thinking, & analysis (chatbots solve the writing problem for a great deal of everyday uses, no one will argue in good faith that trading in STEM doesn’t provide the ability to think and analyze), 5) providing important content (the content we teach is important to what and how we teach, but in and of itself that specific content is not particularly socially or economically vital), 6) appeals to “the good life”/personal enrichment (In the US, we do not value “the good life” or if we do the vision of that we have is largely orthogonal to academic humanities. Further, personal enrichment can be just as easily achieved, perhaps more so, by those not trained in the humanities.), 7) we make good lawyers (even if true law is no longer a reliable career, we probably don’t need more lawyers, & generative AI may gut the field as we know it).

The problem here is one of what is meant by value. Simply put, I don’t think the current version of the US values much of anything about what is done and taught in the humanities and arts, broadly speaking. As such, to the degree that we focus on providing value when defending the humanities, we will always fall short. They are not buying what we are selling. Of course, saying we need a different or at least more capacious sense of value is a vastly different thing actually working for that sense (esp. when under career and financial stress).

In a very preparatory way, I’d say that the humanities are good at the following: providing context (not generally valued in the US), encouraging questioning (not generally valued in the US), enabling contemplation (not generally valued in the US), developing the ability to at least temporarily suspend or bracket prejudicial responses (again, this doesn’t seem to be valued right now), and opening up the possibility of a deep critique of ideologies, presentism, is/ought thinking, confirmation bias, dogma, and so forth (definitely not valued in the US). Not only is it unlikely that any of these will be embraced by neoliberal capitalist regimes as important, in fact we live in a world in which these skills are (rightly, I think) seen as liabilities or even threats to established order (such that we have order). If we can’t even have an NEA, how are we going to “sell” the academic humanities?

I don’t what the solution is here, but I don’t think what I want to call “accommodation” is a viable option. Perhaps we’d do better focusing on the very possibility of upsetting order as a way of building some popular support. Surely, at least in the political realm, both left and right feel that the present order is failing or failed which in turn enables the rise of populists and demagogues. I don’t see why humanists can’t benefit from this semi-apocalyptic “vibe” as well. If the current political climate rewards approaches that present themselves as going against the grain, as taking the piss out of established norms, humanists should find that climate comfortable indeed. Let us “lean into” satire, what Douglass called “scorching irony” not as bad actors (e.g. “trolls”) but with a self-aware righteousness that prides itself on calling out bullshit.

Alex H
2 months ago

Could anyone explain why if universities operate as if educating students is primarily about job training to then they’ll increasingly outsource their work to third parties, such as Google (when they wouldn’t otherwise)?

I am somewhat sympathetic to the view that one of the central tasks of a university education is job training (broadly understood, perhaps) but doubt that this entails that universities will increasingly outsource their work to third parties such as Google. The relationship between these is not logical necessitation.

So, I guess, the author must have some causal mechanism in mind. But what mechanism? Anyone care to speculate about plausible mechanisms here?

David Wallace
2 months ago

I share people’s concerns both about the general policy at SUNY Fredonia and the worrying interaction with the Kershnar case.

That said: if it really is true that a given university’s student enrollments have decreased by 40% (and that cannot be reversed), I don’t see much realistic prospect of avoiding a reduction in the size of its faculty. I think as a community our engagement with these cases needs to recognize the genuine pressure that enrollment reductions create. On demographic grounds we are going to see major pressures on less selective colleges in the US over the next decade and we need to work out an intelligent approach to it.

jim
jim
Reply to  David Wallace
2 months ago

I should mention that Medaille University in Buffalo is actually shutting its doors. The less prestigious colleges are in major trouble, as they expanded beyond their ability to attract students in the long term. It turns out that university administrators can be just as short-sighted as the most venal corporate CEO.

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  David Wallace
2 months ago

if it really is true that a given university’s student enrollments have decreased by 40% (and that cannot be reversed), I don’t see much realistic prospect of avoiding a reduction in the size of its faculty. I think as a community our engagement with these cases needs to recognize the genuine pressure that enrollment reductions create. On demographic grounds we are going to see major pressures on less selective colleges in the US over the next decade and we need to work out an intelligent approach to it.

Agreed. This has come up a couple of times in the last couple of years. It seems to me that tenured faculty, and especially those with PhD students, have some duty to be more proactive about this.

jim
jim
2 months ago

It’s sad to see a traditional subject disappear, but one key fact is missing: how many students were enrolled in the program?

Falling domestic enrollment means that this type of program is probably in deep trouble in the long run. Foreign students from China and India are not interested in taking philosophy degrees. They go for subjects that offer quick returns, such as engineering or economics. Who exactly is signing up for this program currently and how do they intend to attract more students?

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  jim
2 months ago

Many of the best undergrad students I have had the pleasure of having in my seminars are from China and India.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
2 months ago

Which is, of course, perfectly compatible with Jim’s comment (even when read uncharitably as applying to *literally all* Chinese and Indian students).

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
2 months ago

As undoubtedly with Spanish and French, philosophy will continue to be taught, albeit by low cost adjunct faculty. The unfortunate fact is that many university administrators see no downside whatsoever to eliminating departments and t-t faculty and replacing them with more easily controllable contingent faculty under the direct management of the administration. It will be interesting to see if the fact that Kershnar’s lawsuit predates this move by the administration will make it more difficult for them to eliminate the philosophy program since it looks very much like retaliation.

Eric Steinhart
2 months ago

Justin, your worry about “need” in the statement is misplaced. What students “need”, in this context, is defined, especially for state schools, by legislators, state departments of education, boards of trustees, and other authorities. And what they need is a degree which gives them a job which earns more than the jobs they might have gotten without the degree. In other words, students, and their families, need to get positive returns on investment, including costs of tuition and lost opportunity costs. What students need is the opportunity to enter a higher economic class.

I’m certainly not saying I agree with this concept of need; but I am saying that it’s pretty clearly defined, again, especially in the context of state schools.

Gorm
2 months ago

SUNY-Fredonia has been in free-fall for years. I worked at a SUNY college, and for at least 10 years it was widely known that the university was in deep trouble. They are geographically isolated, and cannot compete with the two nearby SUNYs in Buffalo (Univ of Buffalo, and SUNY-Buffalo). In addition, there are many other small colleges competing in the Buffalo area for students. I also think the senior admin. there has done a very poor job … (I know this first hand, from working “with” one of them, who has gone on to do a shitty job at other universities). So, the surprising thing is that it took this long to happen. The demographic problem in New York – outside NYC – has also been discussed by senior SUNY administrators for at least 15 years. The best of the SUNY college presidents were aggressively taking action long ago. Some now recruit aggressively from NYC, and the surrounding counties. It is hard (impossible) to get a young person from NYC to go to college in Fredonia (look on a map). Most of the Thanksgiving break would be spent commuting to get home to see their parents.

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Gorm
2 months ago

That’s a very difficult position for a state school to be in. Does NY State have an arrangement where relatively nearby students from Pennsylvania can get tuition more in line with in state prices?

Gorm
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
2 months ago

No they do not. Even if they did, I doubt it would have done much for Fredonia or Potsdam, given their locations. By the way, SUNY schools had quite low tuition relatives to state schools in the surrounding states.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
2 months ago

They do, but select SUNY schools participate in it (Fredonia does). https://www.suny.edu/go/tuition-match/

Regardless, SUNY Fredonia is unlikely to be competitive with “flagship” school pricing in other states.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
Reply to  Gorm
2 months ago

University at Buffalo and SUNY-Buffalo are the same, not two different schools. The point remains that SUNY Fredonia is geographically limited in its student recruitment.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  Louis Zapst
2 months ago

There are two SUNYs in Buffalo:

Buffalo State, SUNY
https://suny.buffalostate.edu/

And University at Buffalo, SUNY
https://www.buffalo.edu/

The latter is considered a University center.

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 months ago

Concerning a unified front in defense of the humanities, I’ll recommend something David Hoinski, a philosopher at WVU, said when the school was looking to cut a number of departments across the University. He points out that as a land-grant institution, WVU was funded by the Morrill Act, whose purpose was to ensure that people across the U.S., and not only the elites, could have access to what higher education offers its citizens. David hits all the right notes. In conversation, he’s said he thinks we should go on the attack.

This should begin at 1:18:47.

https://www.youtube.com/live/u78L_DFPZ20?si=IpcX9ccbOctaDadx&t=4727

David C.K. Curry
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 months ago

I am coming to believe that there are much deeper issues here (and slowly acquiring some evidence that it is so). SUNY Fredonia no doubt views being able to retrench Dr. Kershner as icing on the cake, but that isn’t driving these cuts. The same script (literally – read the press releases) is being used at WVU, Kansas, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Fredonia, among others. It is a consultant driven conception of the future of higher education. Indeed, rpk GROUP is behind each one of these plans. What I believe to be an insidious vision of the future of public higher education in the U.S. is being imposed on these institutions by a private consulting firm – they truly are being transformed. And the transformation doesn’t include philosophy, that is for sure – it doesn’t include any of the arts or humanities that are not minimally required to maintain a minimal general education program. The effect will be that a true liberal arts education will go back to being affordable only for the wealthy – not to imply that we had ever completely addressed that problem, but it was and is part of the mission of public higher education (land grant institutions or not) to do so. Public higher education will become a credential mill (insofar as it isn’t already) spitting out cogs for the machine. This is what we should be talking about.

https://www.thenation.com/article/society/wvu-cuts-higher-education/

https://newrepublic.com/article/176202/west-virginia-university-higher-education-enrollment-cliff-cuts
 
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/12/class-war-west-virignia-university/676152/

Gorm
Reply to  David C.K. Curry
2 months ago

My sense is that these consulting firms do not come up with solutions in the usual sense. They are hired to rationalize a decision made beforehand. So they are not “responsible” for this new vision of higher ed. Someone else is … perhaps the board of trustees?

David C.K. Curry
Reply to  Gorm
2 months ago

Certainly the Board of Trustees are complicit, but check out rpk’s website (or McKeney & Company, for that matter). They clearly have a vision for the future of higher education. Check out their board too. Gates and such aren’t in the business of rationalization (alone).

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  David C.K. Curry
2 months ago

You’ve touched on something important here, that we should all be much more aware of and alert to. It’s not just rpk GROUP, there’s also EAB, probably some others. But it’s the same playbook, same strategy.

If our profession doesn’t soon address these issues, we’re not going to have a profession any more.

V. Alan White
2 months ago

As access to liberal arts education diminishes for those in so-called “lower tier” higher ed institutions continues, any values those courses deliver will of course be increasingly restricted to the more prestigious (read “well-financially-endowed”) ones, and that in turn will diminish the overall effect of those values in society just in terms of the overall number of students exposed to consideration of them. The vacuum will be filled by more authoritarian forces that have pushed for this course of events–if anyone thinks that politics have nothing to do with this, then look to lots of red states for what lies ahead. Liberal arts are not merely being criticized for not contributing to gainful employment, they are being viciously demonized for what they purportedly do. That is a direct attack on them being valuable at all. And higher ed has no Fox News/X equivalent to counter that propaganda.

Last edited 2 months ago by V. Alan White