Does Cutting Philosophy Help A University’s Budget?


“More than a year after its faculty cuts, enrollment at Emporia State has fallen 12.5 percent even though enrollment at other public institutions in the state rose 2 percent.”

That’s David C.K. Curry, professor of philosophy at SUNY Potsdam (where the philosophy major program was eliminated last year), writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Emporia State is another university that recently cut its philosophy department and laid off faculty across the humanities (previously).

Professor Curry recounts the problems with how philosophy and other programs were cut at Potsdam, and discusses the trend of making such cuts at various colleges and universities.

A look at institutions that have cut philosophy programs does not provide evidence that doing so helps with undergraduate enrollment. While some real research on this would be welcome (APA?), I looked at five US schools that cut philosophy in 2022 or earlier—Baker University, Cabrini University, Carthage College, University of Nebraska-Kearney, and Western Oregon University—and at all of them, undergraduate enrollment is lower now than it was before they cut philosophy. (Of course, it is possible be that the enrollment declines, while continuing, have slowed—I didn’t check that.)

Combined with the relatively low costs typical of philosophy departments and the service teaching they tend to do, it seems unlikely that cutting philosophy programs does much to benefit college and university budgets.

And all of this is leaving aside other problems with these kinds of cuts. As Professor Curry notes, they play into the misconceptions that “the only justifiable purpose for higher education is to get people jobs” and that “one can’t get a good-paying job with a degree in philosophy, art history, French, sculpture, or dance.”

He says:

The liberal-arts model promotes education, not just for career but also for citizenship and life…  Common sense says that gutted public institutions are probably not particularly attractive to prospective students and their parents. But perhaps these cuts will have the financial benefits the administrators, consultants, and legislators are gambling on. Maybe once the immediate outrage calms down, enrollments will rebound. But at what cost will that possibility of success come?

You can read Professor Curry’s essay here (ungated version here).


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Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
1 month ago

A first pass through this question would be to find the total revenue the philosophy classes generate (e.g., tuition dollars per credit hour x number of student credit hours enrolled – total cost of the philosophy department). Do we have that?

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

We have that for WVU (in a horribly formatted form) –https://provost.wvu.edu/files/d/bf3ef02f-e90a-4e43-a316-d295fa489067/academic-transformation-public-data-table_july-17-2023-100.pdf — where it was revealed via the method you propose that philosophy makes between 1 and 2 million dollars in net revenue annually. I suspect that philosophy makes a similar profit at many other universities, though I don’t know of other cases where the relevant data has been made public.

David Curry
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

At Potsdam we have been asking for such data, and comparisons with other programs, for two years now. As grymes, notes, WVU did, at least, release their metrics (highly questionable in some cases) and a cost-benefit analysis.

MPA
MPA
1 month ago

“Combined with the relatively low costs typical of philosophy departments and the service teaching they tend to do, it seems unlikely that cutting philosophy programs does much to benefit college and university budgets.”

I think that in the past Philosophy departments were able to say things like “we’re so cheap, and we teach gen eds” that we “pay for ourselves.” Such days are past.

I encourage everyone to read David Curry’s essay carefully. The consulting group (rpk Group) mentioned in the article advocates not for the “cost-paying” model of old for deciding which departments to keep, but instead provides ammo for administrators to cut departments because they are not the best return on investment. Staisloff (the founding of rpk) calls this the ROI model.

Here’s an example of this: https://rpkgroup.com/do-less-better/

The relevant description: “This is where using a return-on-investment lens comes in. That lens is about more than just cost (though understanding cost is an important component). Rather, ROI asks “What do we get for the people, time and money we use?

The ROI model, which will come to every university sooner or later, does the following: rather than thinking about which departments cost more, we should think about how much “return” we get on them. The greater return, the better. Put more money into greater returns. So, if the philosophy department is cheap but results in fewer new to university students, we should cut them. Then we can take that money and put it into hiring faculty for the “shiny new program that will result in tons of jobs” area (that makes the university “unique” and draws in new students from our competitors). What about gen eds, you say? At many universities, the shiny new programs are creating their own. So “ethics of blank” is now taught at shiny new department, or new school, or college, or whatever.

At different universities, there will be different buzz words that are used to describe this shift in thinking about financing higher ed. Some will say this is “strategic”. Others will say we are “building our signature strengths.” Or we are following “market/student demand.” In short, academic departments (and their faculty) = making an investment purchase no different from buying a piece of rental property.

This ROI move enabled SUNY Potsdam (and will like enable Fredonia, decisions pending as I understand it) to “retrench” (= break tenure and fire) faculty. This is in NYS, a blue (or at least pretty purple) state where SUNY faculty are represented by a massive union. It looks like the union can do nothing about it.

This is not about “being cheap” any longer.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

As a quick follow up: I should have added that in a state university context (and I suspect many other universities, too), this is why “majors” are being used as a proxy of department “health” rather than credits taught. Majors represent — to admins — how many students are being drawn to a university rather than some other university. Philosophy is cheap by providing “service”, but that’s the old game. What many admins (enabled by rpk) want is departments that bring students to their university rather than the one down the road. Philosophy fails to do this (along with many other disciplines). Yes, they will give the ratio of FTE to credit hours taught to calculate cost of a department (and this is every strategic plan), but the real numbers that matter are majors.

The model for higher ed here that rpk (and the admins who follow them) seem to be using is that the large menu, diner restaurant approach no longer works to draw students. A university needs fewer options that are all shiny… think the restaurant that serves only delicious chicken sandwiches and nothing else.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

This is also why admins only count “first majors” for these purposes: they claim (without evidence, in my experience) that it is only first majors that draw students to a university. So if your philosophy department has 80 majors, but 65 of them declared philosophy as a second major, your admin will likely only count you as having 15 majors when it comes time to make cuts.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  grymes
1 month ago

Ditto. The first pass version of reports by higher admins at my state u always focuses on first majors. Then departments push back and say second majors should count, too, and also that FTE/credit hours should count. This happens every time.

The fact that there even needs to be this push back on *every* *single* *report* by various depts with low first major numbers made it clear to me that admins were using a different game to try to push things by.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

Resist the 1/2 major distinction. When I was Dean (Hum, Soc Sci, and Arts) the Provost whipped out this distinction on me often, to denigrate the value of majors in my areas. The Provost’s point was that 1st majors are enrollment drivers, 2nd majors are not. There is something to this, but it should be pushed back on.

At my school (at the time) the difference at times came simply down to the order in which the student wrote their choices on the form. Which means nothing in terms of enrollment drivers.Often I think it *is* true that 1st majors track societal/parental pressures – at my college, when students arrived they were required to announce their major choice. Often this tracks what the student feels compelled to do. Which means that many 2nd majors are chosen because the student found something they *autonomously enjoy doing*. What I asked the provost was why, as a college, we would systemize the denigration of what students actually *wanted* to do, and elevated what they often felt *forced* to do.Basically, I got the “economics” of the distinction – adminstration sees first majors as enrollment drivers (when #1 is excluded above). But it’s a odd place for a college to be when, as a place of higher learning, they are forced to admit that they wish to create policies that denigrate the value of the love of learning itself (which is often reflected in the second major choice).

Some admins are so cynical that this doesn’t matter to them. But some will feel shame about this. So use it.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chris
grymes
grymes
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Indeed. There’s also an “economic” case to be made for passion-based-second-majors, since (as you allude to below) retention is a huge financial factor, especially at state schools. (There’s a case to be made in theory, anyway; in practice, I can’t claim that I’ve actually found cynical administrators willing to listen to genuine fiscal reasoning any more than they’re willing to listen to genuine mission-based reasoning.)

Chris
Chris
Reply to  grymes
1 month ago

Sadly, during my time as Dean, a time at which the Humanities at my institution was under fire, I found administrators above me to be open to very little, whether economic or mission driven. What I learned, I hate to say, is that ROI arguments are basically pretext for ideology. Many higher up administrators at institutions under financial stress feel a significant pressure to “DO SOMETHING!!”. So, they typically go for cuts to the Humanities, which allows them to kill two birds with one stone – (1) Be seen as “Doing Something” and (2) attacking an area that society and parents see as useless. As it turns out, as I argued below in my own post here, at many colleges (1) and (2) isn’t really contributing to the university’s financial solvency, and often it cuts against it.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

100%

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

That’s a really helpful clarification. I had never understood what internal motivation was behind the idea of evaluating departments in terms of number of majors.

I suspect that there could be reasonable counterarguments that could be made to this motivation, but one would need to pay attention to what factors are being considered.

At very least, I would expect that majors *plus* general-education-satisfying credit-hours taught would make sense as a metric even on this interpretation.

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

This is exactly what is happening across Australia as well. It seems that all the admins drank the same kool-aid a couple years ago and now are implementing exactly the same plans and changes.

Chris
Chris
1 month ago

Whether cutting philosophy helps or hurts overall enrollment is too difficult to assess – there are too many variables in play and the numbers are too small. I think the key claim to focus on is whether costs go up or down in terms of the university budget. Even there it is not easy to say for sure, but I think there are some clear major themes.

Let’s assume a philosophy program that has no majors-only courses (which is the case for many, my own program’s, and Potsdam’s), so the major (or the minor) is constructed out of gen-ed courses of one sort or another. So, removing philosophy faculty from the equation means that unless you reduce the size of gen ed (or the credits needed to graduate) students must take gen-ed courses taught by another faculty member in another field OR by adjuncts (shrinking gen-ed generally increases costs, btw, as high cost majors tend to increase their major requirements when this happens). If the aim is to replace the philosophy faculty with adjuncts to cover gen-ed, then there’s a cost savings likely, though it’s a drop in the bucket since philosophy faculty are not well paid at most colleges. So then the argument should focus on quality of student experience (you cannot expect adjuncts to be as invested in student experience). But if the plan is NOT to replace them with adjuncts, then it’s likely that the faculty picking up the courses are more highly paid, which means that unless those faculty are very underutilized, you’ll need a net increase in more costly faculty lines elsewhere to make up for demand. No cost saving there.

In short, under the “no major courses only” assumption, and also assuming that the program is very efficient (which they usually are if teaching gen-ed only), and further assuming that there is little appetite for hiring adjuncts to do the work, I’d suggest that (based on data at my own institution) removing philosophy faculty increases costs. Philosophy faculty working under these assumptions are cost subsidizers that lower the overall “cost to educate” a student, given that all students need the same # of courses to graduate, and almost all other disciplines have higher instructional/non-instructional costs.

David Wallace
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Can’t a university decrease the total number of gen ed courses and permit larger class sizes? (Obviously that has its own quality implications.)

Chris
Chris
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Yes, but that leads the quality issue you note. I’m assuming that the university is making a commitment to maintaining the same level quality student experience. It’s the same as the adjunct move – you can do that, but that means sacrificing student experience. I can’t make this claim at more institutions than my own, but at least here there is a belief that maintaining class sizes (keeping them small) is a key to maintaining enrollment and stabilizing retention.

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Idk about that, because small classes are “expensive” to staff. Which then has effects on, e.g., tuition, which has effects on enrollment. So small classes could lead to less retention and lower enrollments, right? Like if we’re just doing armchair economics, how do we adjudicate among those hypotheses?

In case my hypothetical is opaque, it goes like this: Tuition somewhere is $50k. Because they have small classes and need a lot of faculty, and faculty are expensive. If we made those classes twice as big, we’d need fewer faculty. So tuition would go down. Which would make enrollment go up (and retention, as basic supply and demand).

Set aside cynicism about the administration “recapturing” any gains for: more administrators, fancier buildings, a new Starbucks, or funding the ball coach. Assume any savings from larger class sizes went to lower student tuition.

It’s also not obvious to me that doubling class sizes (e.g., from 10 to 20) is worse in terms of “quality”. If 40% of my students don’t attend class, I’d certainly prefer 12 (=20*.6) to 6 (=10*.6), just to ensure a critical mass for robust discussion, viewpoint diversity, &c.

Last edited 1 month ago by Fritz Allhoff
Chris
Chris
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
1 month ago

It’s perfectly valid to argue that class sizes *should* be bigger. I’m not making any argument about this one way or the other. What I’m saying is that at my (and some other) SLAC colleges, the administration has already committed to maintaining small class sizes, because that’s their brand (it’s not an R1 or R2) and because they believe raising class sizes will adversely affect enrollment (whether true or false doesn’t matter – that’s their view). So, my claim here is that in those types of situations it’s not an argument to say “we will fire philosophy faculty and then increase gen-ed class size to make up for the missing staffing”, because small class size is a constraint the university already accepts.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chris
sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

I found MPA’s post above clarifying – and it makes sense if you are going to think about departments as investment decisions. The *opportunity* costs of a philosophy department matter, too, so the mere fact that philosophy is a ‘cost subsidiser’ in your sense does not mean it is the best thing to do with those funds. (From an ROI standpoint, mind.) While removing philosophy might increase costs, it might also free up those funds for even better ‘performing’ initiatives/departments/etc. – ones with higher costs, granted, but also meaningfully higher revenue.

I’m not saying the ROI model is right for a university. I’m just building on MPA’s point.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  sahpa
1 month ago

The problem is that if (under particular conditions, as I laid out) philosophy is a cost-subsidizer, and you remove it, and that requires replacing the faculty with staff who are more expensive, then you don’t actually have some pot of money that you are now able to “move somewhere with more ROI”.

Example: if a philosophy dept. covers X gen-ed courses at cost Y, you still have to cover the X gen-ed courses. If the university is not willing to go to adjuncts or increase gen-ed class size to make up for it (which is a position many colleges do take), then you must replace the staffing with other faculty who are more expensive than Y.

Perhaps a college can do this through better efficient use of their other faculty. But often at colleges that are at the point of retrenching faculty, there are not really any staffing inefficiencies left.

Again – I’m not saying there are no situations under which jettisoning philosophy wouldn’t save money. There are. And this would be the case for lots of fields, not just philosophy. What I’m saying is that we’re not arguing about “Abstract U”. Each department has to understand the unique situation at their college, like are you an R1, R2, a small private, an SLAC or LAC (this matters), and that college will have various commitments they want to keep (say, small classes, or no adjuncts). It may also be that the philosophy program has no major only courses (which are more expensive). The fight to keep philosophy as an economic argument is too context dependent for general “Abstract U” (“well, *they* could always say this or that”) arguments to be helpful. There are lots of ways to argue for the economics of philosophy programs. Let’s help people to understand and build those arguments.

By the way (speaking here as a former Dean who once had to deal with these issues), the economics of programs gets very, very complicated when you dig into context. For example: I remember discovering that (at my own college) that the business department (seen as the apex of ROI) was barely cost-neutral in terms of its student numbers + its instructional/non-instructional costs. However, when you built into the cost model that a very high percentage of business students were athletes at very high discount rates (much higher than for other programs), the business department quickly became a *cost center*. I don’t remember much concern about this at the higher levels. Still, what that shows is that a gen-ed staffing model that employs faculty with very low instructional and non-instructional costs is really essential to university budget viability. So sure, you can isolate philosophy, or religion, or whatever and say you’re fire them to contain costs. But in many contexts, you are not doing that. If anything, you’re making your financial situation worse.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Of course this is going to be very contextual. I’m just pointing out that, under the assumptions you gave, it would not follow that philosophy is a good investment by being a ‘cost subsidiser’. In the beginning of your reply, it seems to me that you’re again oversimplifying. Let’s grant that those gen-ed courses would then need to be staffed by faculty who are more expensive. It can still be that you ‘have’ a pot of money to invest somewhere with higher ROI: namely, those more-expensive faculty can themselves have a higher ROI. They could be – for example – faculty from the medical school or economics departments who bring in lots of money/students but can also teach, oh I don’t know, ‘business ethics’ or ‘medical ethics’ to fill out gen ed.

But yes, I agree that the actual cases will all be highly contextual and specific.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  sahpa
1 month ago

Let’s go with that case. Let’s say a philosophy professor teaches a 3/3 load (probably more, at a school ready for retrenchments) and it’s all medical ethics or business ethics courses. And you fire that person and replace them with someone in the medical sciences. One, that medical sciences person likely earns 2 – 3x what the philosophy person does. Second, they likely do not have a 3/3 load (same goes for business, btw). So, you’ll need to hire possibly 2 of those faculty at 2 – 3x cost to cover those courses, adding considerably to the bottom line. Now what that administrator (with that idea) needs to argue is how that program will now generate enough additional new students to make up for those costs and make it an ROI case. Given that the general NTR per student is not that high, that’s going to be a lot of students. At many schools like mine, that might mean you’ll need to add 30 students to that program for that move to be cost neutral. For it to be positive, more than that. At a school the size of mine, 30+ additional students for one program – even a popular one – is a seriously heavy lift. Of course, the program will say ‘oh, with those 2 faculty and their fill in the blank additional areas of this and that, we can do that!” (they want lines) but that’s bluster for which they have no actual data. And given the standard enrollment variables that tend to determine who does and doesn’t attend your college, it’s highly unlikely that such changes will affect enrollment enough for this to be a solid business decision.

BUT – that doesn’t mean they won’t do it. They likely will (I’ve been in those conversations). But typically, it’s not because of any data, or any actual empirical argument. It’s usually all based on a combination of pie-in-the-sky assumptions and the fact that ideologically no one is opposed to medical or business, and most think it’s a great idea and most are opposed to philosophy and think it’s a waste. So it gets no push back. As someone who has been in those convos, and then watched over the years to see if those assumptions played out – they rarely do. And one thing I’ve also noticed is that when a new programatic idea does work that brings in enrollment, that department (which is usually costly) always says that they can’t teach gen-ed, and those courses again get pushed down to whatever departments have no choice. And again, almost all of them are more expensive than philosophy.

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Thanks, that’s helpful. In your experience, how much does grant-getting affect the ‘ROI’? I work in a very different context, where a professor’s ability to get grants makes a huge difference. And I was thinking that biz/medicine, for example, are vastly more effective at getting grants in the US than philosophers. So that also will factor into the benefits of having those faculty – it is a source of revenue that isn’t just bringing in tuition-paying students.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  sahpa
1 month ago

Maybe at an R1 that might be a variable worth considering – I’m not sure. But even there, I’d assume that it gets complicated and you’d have to ask questions about how the grant $$ hits the bottom line. For example, a grant that buys a faculty member out of their courses so that they can do research doesn’t change the bottom line, since the university still needs to teach the classes. But there are probably other ways that grants can hit the bottom line that would matter – I’m just not experienced enough in the grant area. And there’d need to be a real non-pie-in-the-sky argument about how it would all work, obviously!

But at smaller schools (which is most of them), I’d argue that this is a non-factor. At my own school (1400 students) grant writing happens, but it occurs at the margins and doesn’t hit the bottom line in any serious way that would affect this conversation as a real variable.

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

Just about grants and the bottom line – it does do more than just buy out faculty. It typically comes with “overhead”, which might be a third of the value of the grant. For scientists this goes towards equipment, but for philosophers this is basically just free money for the university. That said, I agree that this is mostly viable for faculty at R1 universities, since they often have whole departments that are trained in how these grants work and can facilitate applying for them.

MPA
MPA
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

“And one thing I’ve also noticed is that when a new programatic idea does work that brings in enrollment, that department (which is usually costly) always says that they can’t teach gen-ed, and those courses again get pushed down to whatever departments have no choice. And again, almost all of them are more expensive than philosophy.”

Right, this makes sense, but context makes this highly variable. At my university (large state u), the shiny new program decided to list its own courses “ethics of this” and “ethics and leadership of that” and then hire cheap adjuncts to teach many of them. They run their intro classes at 400 person caps. It’s an admin’s dream. Their full time faculty make 50%+ more than those in Philosophy, but the adjuncts for the “ethics” classes are much cheaper than having a full time philosophy person do it. They also created their own math Gen Ed. This was able to push through curriculum committees easier because they are in a college different from typical depts that teach gen eds.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  MPA
1 month ago

Right, that’s what I’ve been saying above – the “is cutting philosophy economically a good idea?” question is far too context dependent for the kinds of arguments I’ve seen on this thread, which are more “well at Abstract U, blah blah” types of arguments. There are places and situations in which it will be hard to argue for philosophy, and other places where it’s much easier to do so.

At a large university that is willing to hire adjuncts and increase class sizes, it’s much harder to make an ROI argument for philosophy (or any of a number of fields that don’t drive enrollment). At a smaller university with other commitments, and other contextual variable in play, it’s far easier to do so.

I hope that philosophers don’t just give up on these arguments where they can be made. The vibe in this general post seems to be that philosophy is doomed, because there are no good arguments for it economically. This is simply not true. It depends on where you are. So where we can make the arguments let do that. But this requires really starting to drill down into what does and doesn’t constitute a good ROI argument. Administrations will always offer them, and some of them simply don’t hold water.

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
1 month ago

Hmm… there seem (to me) a bunch of red herrings here:

  1. Nobody ever said that cutting a philosophy department *improved* enrollment.
  2. By looking at five universities whose enrollment fell *after* cutting philosophy, that says *nothing* about what the enrollments would have been had philosophy *not* been cut–it could have been even worse, e.g.
  3. Rather, the best version of that argument is “we’re losing $x with a philosophy major, and we’ll lose fewer than $x without one.” (Or: “we’re making $x with a philosophy department and would make more than $x without one.). Nothing here touches that.
  4. As a test case, suppose there was an upper-division epistemology class, required for majors, which enrolled six people. Imagine that the major was canceled, and whomever taught epistemology now teaches critical thinking, which enrolls 25 people. *That*’s where some administrator is saying that cutting the major improves financial outcomes.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this argument framed in terms of enrollments, but we obviously don’t have adequate counterfactual data to assume that cutting philosophy either stems falling enrollments or else improves them. Right? Am I misreading anything?

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
1 month ago

Yes, you’re correct on all points.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
1 month ago

From an administrator’s standpoint, there is simply no downside to eliminating their philosophy department. Eliminating the philosophy department means that otherwise nearly invulnerable tenured faculty can be terminated. Ethics or other philosophy service courses can be taught by low wage adjuncts who have zero power and are often under the direct supervision of administrators who can simply choose not to rehire troublemakers. Few students will even notice the lack of a philosophy major and those that do care about this lacuna will just deal with it like students deal with the lack of a classical languages major or archaeology major at most schools. The reality is that anyone who wants to major in philosophy (or classics or archaeology, etc.) will need to attend an R1/R2 or an elite LAC. That, of course, is a shame for those students who need to remain local and cannot study what they want locally.

Grad Student #223
Grad Student #223
1 month ago

One small, possibly besides the point note: Cabrini University is closing after this semester (and it’s campus and some assets are being absorbed by Villanova). When they were cutting programs in 2021, even though they cut the philosophy major, they said they were moving philosophy (along with black studies and religious studies) to their core curriculum to maintain those disciplines at the school. I don’t know if they cut any philosophy faculty from then until they announced closing, but it does seem like Cabrini was committed to keeping philosophy at the school. They just couldn’t get out of their financial hole.

Ian
Ian
1 month ago

Having it be known that you’re closing down lots of departments and firing lots of faculty makes your school look like it’s foundering. Nobody wants to get on a sinking ship.