Some of you may remember me from prior Leiter Reports posts about marketing the philosophy major and reporting on a scam journal run by David Publishing. Continuing in this vein, I will share some thoughts on the philosophy profession, the philosophy major, being a philosopher in a small department at an isolated, state school with both declining state support and declining enrollment, and other topics along the way. Today I’ll be writing about university structure and what it means for philosophy programs and faculty.
The structure of the university and its curriculum is vitally important to the success of a philosophy program (majors and minors) and the philosophy profession. Most faculty members, including philosophers, don’t consider these issues when worrying about the future and health of their profession, department, or program, which means it falls to administrators. Given that I am the chair of my university’s faculty senate this year and given that I have been on several curriculum committees over the years, I want to share how university structure leads to inequity, fewer philosophy classes, and fewer jobs for philosophers. I should also point out that there is no simple solution to these problems, and for any solution to work, it will take a significant amount of sustained effort on the part of those philosophers who have jobs and influence.
(1) The general education curriculum
General Education is not something many of us think about very often. This seems reasonable given that general education requirements are already set when we begin working someplace—call this curricular luck. Add to this that changes to Gen Ed rarely occur, unless a college or university is undergoing some review of their general education curriculum, and you’ll see why this issue isn’t always on our radar. But, it should be because the structure of Gen Ed creates student demand. And student demand is leverage for resources like money, space, and faculty lines.
You might wonder about the consequences of NOT having philosophy as a Gen Ed graduation requirement. Here’s an example: a few years back, my department knew we were losing a faculty member. We asked the provost for permission to do a search to fill the soon to be vacant position, and we made the argument that all of the classes that this person taught were general education classes that filled to capacity each semester. Essentially, our argument was this faculty line makes money for the university in addition to being good for students and our program. Although the job wasn’t tenure track, it was full-time, had medical benefits, acceptable pay, and protection by a faculty union.
The provost told us that even though the classes filled and certainly would fill with a new faculty member, there were other departments on campus that were overstaffed and had general education classes that were not filling. Students would lose the opportunity to take humanities general education classes in philosophy, but they could easily take other humanities courses instead—history was his example. The provost’s past hiring decisions along with declining state support made it so that he would not support hiring a replacement philosopher, and, in the process, determined that all humanities general education classes are fungible.
In our case, not replacing this faculty member meant fewer students took philosophy, fewer students discovered philosophy, and, predictably, fewer students have majored in philosophy. Thus putting our program in jeopardy.
(2) Being a “Service Department” for Other Programs
Most departments and programs serve the university’s general education mission in one way or another, but there are other ways that a department can be shaped by broader university commitments. I’ll give two examples.
(i) Foreign language departments at major research universities often provide the foreign language education for graduate students in other departments as a kind of service. This demand determines the size and quality of their faculty. If the college or university has an undergraduate foreign language graduation requirement (sometimes within Gen Ed), then foreign language departments will tend to be larger. My university doesn’t have a university wide foreign language graduation requirement, and hence, we have a small foreign language department.
(ii) When I worked at the University of Tennessee, I was hired as an instructor with a three-year contract to teach business ethics as a service to the business school to meet their accreditation needs. (I’ll address accreditations in my next post.) A set up like this gives a philosophy department access to more faculty lines and more teaching resources, but the down side, however, is that a department loses some autonomy and becomes dependent on other departments for funding. When times get tough and money gets tight, departments may decide to teach their own ethics classes, and the need for philosophers disappears. I don’t believe this happened to UTK, but during my first year at WIU, the College of Business asked us to evaluate if the philosophers could teach ethics classes for their accreditation. We determined it would take an additional two to four faculty members to do the job. At which point, neither the business college dean nor the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences were willing to foot the bill, and thus we didn’t become a service department for the College of Business.
Because philosophy is overwhelmingly a discovery major, we must have students taking our classes to discover us. Over the last few years, my program suffered the loss of a few faculty and our major numbers have fallen. State budgets are down, faculty hires are essentially on hold, and there is no support to hire another philosopher or two even though the external reviewer for our seven-year review said that we needed two to four more faculty to support the philosophy program.
If we think we have an obligation to leave philosophy as a profession in a better place than we found it and to provide employment opportunities for young philosophers, then we need to do a better job making sure philosophy is defended in the curriculum of our colleges and universities by serving on committees that can make philosophy courses a graduation requirement or a more significant part of the Gen Ed curriculum. That’s going to require a huge effort by current philosophers, the APA, and every friend we have in and out of the academy. And we need to do this before some provost makes cuts, by attrition or by design, in our departments.
(3) University Missions
Sometimes a university’s mission, both academic and social, dictates the depth and quality of the philosophy offerings. For example, Caltech, Alabama A&M, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology are schools with missions that don’t, in practice, promote philosophy. My comments aren’t meant to rebuke these institutions, but rather to show how poor a job philosophy has done at promoting itself as a part of a standard college education whether B.A. or B.S. To illustrate, Caltech only had two philosophy majors in their options according to their registrar’s page; they’re not MIT rivals in philosophy. RHIT has one philosopher in their Humanities Department. Alabama A&M has a minor in philosophy housed in political science and appears to have no one with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching classes. Scientists and engineers need philosophy too (I’m talking about you Neil deGrasse Tyson), but seem to have limited access to it. Moreover, there may be future scientists and engineers who really want to study philosophy, but because they never get exposed to it in their college curriculum, they don’t discover philosophy.
But in addition to the primary academic mission of ITs and A&Ms, there are social constraints that hinder student access to philosophy. Whether it’s a HBCU, an all Women’s College, or a Community College, philosophy can be left out because it isn’t seen as relevant, practical, or is viewed as a mere luxury. Take for example, Lamar University. They have a philosophy minor, but it’s hard to find in the English and Foreign Languages Department. So of the nearly 10,000 undergraduates, none will have access to a full philosophy curriculum. As a profession we have to do a better job explaining how philosophy fits into the mission of every university, and I will be posting about this issue later during my time on the Leiter Reports.
If there are other structural problems that impede the success of philosophy at the university level that you want to discuss, comments are open.
Next I will be posting on Accreditation, Programs of Instruction, the APA and the Success and Failure of Philosophy.