Potsdam & the Future of Liberal Arts Education


The administration at the State University of New York (SUNY) Potsdam decided earlier this year to discontinue its philosophy major, and has now moved to cutting faculty.

The SUNY Potsdam Philosophy page has been updated with the following:

It is too late for philosophy, or the liberal arts in any meaningful sense, at SUNY Potsdam. Our Provost has finally admitted that they plan to retrench faculty in discontinued programs. We were told, and I quote, “with the discontinuation of the program, the plan is to decrease the number of faculty by 1.” (Interim Provost Alan Hersker, 12/05/2023). So no hope here at Potsdam. But the disease spreads.  SUNY Fredonia has released an eerily familiar plan to cut 13 programs. [see here]

Nonetheless, there is still hope for other public institutions of higher learning if we can spread the word.  What is happening at SUNY Potsdam (and WVU and SUNY Fredonia, among others) is just a sign of the times to come for public higher education. The sign is not a good one. A tide of forces threaten the future of liberal arts education in the U.S., but they go unacknowledged, and hence unaddressed.  

The creator of the page aims to develop it into a forum for the sharing of information about “the confluence of forces shaping public higher education.” Check it out here.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
GradStu
GradStu
1 month ago

As much as it pains me to say this, surely part of the issue is the inability of philosophers to clearly describe how philosophy differs meaningfully from counting blades of grass, such that devoting one’s life to pursuing it, providing public funding for it, and teaching it to students are not completely ludicrous activities. The best possible defense is an aesthetic defense: “philosophy produces beautiful works.” But who among those knee-deep in the pedantic, miserable “literatures” that constitute our field sincerely believes this?

Consider the debates over (i) what philosophy even is, (ii) whether philosophy answers any questions (and what it means to answer a question), (iii) whether philosophy makes progress, (iv) what the point of philosophy is, and (v) whether philosophy is in any sense beneficial to the public/lay individuals. We cannot settle any of these debates in a way that suggests that philosophy is a particularly worthwhile activity to engage in at all. (Simply look at the comments on past posts on this very blog regarding such questions for confirmation of this!)

It’s far from ridiculous for cash-strapped schools to look at the pessimistic/cynical/jaded and/or hopelessly naive/idealistic answers we ourselves provide to these difficult questions about what it is that we do and think “there’s no point in spending our precious resources propping this stuff up…”

Incidentally, this is why I’ve decided to leave the field after completing the PhD instead of seeking academic employment (as though I would have much of a chance of gaining such employment were I to seek it, anyways…).

grymes
grymes
Reply to  GradStu
1 month ago

“surely part of the issue is the inability of philosophers to clearly describe how philosophy differs meaningfully from counting blades of grass”

The only thing I’m sure of is that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Potsdam cut physics and chemistry too. David Curry, the senior philosopher at Potsdam, has won every teaching award available at SUNY, and ran an extremely vibrant and well-enrolled major until the administration started gutting the program by refusing to replace faculty lines. To date, the administration has provided no good reason to think that cutting philosophy (and philosophers) will save them any money–and that’s even given the current sorry state of the program. There is absolutely no doubt that, when it was well-staffed, the philosophy department was a moneymaker for the university.

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  grymes
1 month ago

Sure, you’re totally right. My comment wasn’t about the specific situation there, and I did not make that clear. My apologies. I intended my remark to concern the broader PR crisis philosophy if facing.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  GradStu
1 month ago

Thanks for this, and sorry for my rude first line.

On the broader issue: I think it’s less of a PR crisis and more of an administrative/business mindset crisis (as MPA aptly describes below). (Re: PR: it’s not like the American public had a deep appreciation for philosophy—nor were philosophy journals more optimistic about the value of philosophy (if anything less so!)—when departments were thriving post-WWII.) So, I’m inclined to think Potsdam is a microcosm; this is not something philosophers are doing to ourselves.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  grymes
1 month ago

“There is absolutely no doubt that, when it was well-staffed, the philosophy department was a moneymaker for the university.”

This is correct. Typically, the FTE/credit hours generated ratio for a philosophy department is much better than many more expensive departments (e.g., physics).

The “reasons” offered by admins (and promulgated by prominent consultancy groups, like RPK Group) are different from those in the past. In former times, admins would say that costs needed to be reduced. Philosophy could often survive under such conditions because it is so efficient (cheap).

However, the new mindset is called the “ROI lens” by Rick Staisloff of RPK Group (and others). This is what was behind WVU cuts and in Kansas.

The “ROI lens” (return on investment) says that ALL resources should be evaluated so that it can be determined if they MAXIMIZE investment. The goal is to view curricular offerings as akin to buying commercial real estate. The aim in the latter is to maximize profit returns… nothing else.

This “mindset”, as Staisloff calls it, is becoming very pervasive among academic admins. Just look at the clients for RPK listed on their website: https://rpkgroup.com/clients/

If Philosophy doesn’t counter this “mindset” it will not survive (mutatis mutandis for all other non-maximizing disciplines…).

grymes
grymes
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

100%