I agree with Brian that there may be too many PhD programs, but as Chair of the Tulane Philosophy Department, I want to defend our program, as a couple of our graduate students have done above. Our goal is to be a relatively specialized program. We lost five members after Hurricane Katrina and are in the final stages of rebuilding. Even after the loss, we retained Oliver Sensen, who works on Kant and ethical theory, Jonathan Riley, who writes on Mill and political philosophy, and Eric Mack, who writes on political philosophy, Locke, and ethical theory. To that group we have added Alison Denham, who works in moral psychology and metaethics, Dave Shoemaker, who works on agency and responsibility along with personal identity and ethics, and most recently, Chad Van Schoelandt, fresh from University of Arizona, who works on political philosophy and the foundations of moral thought. These philosophers work in other areas within ethics and political, so at present six people work full time in those areas. I myself spend about half of my time on metaethics and contemporary contractualism, and our historians do much work in the history of ethics/political. So we have a very, very strong concentration in ethics and political thought, and will continue building on what we have.
In addition, we have a tie to the Murphy Institute's Center for Ethics and Public Affairs, an extremely well endowed program that does many things of benefit to our PhD students: (1) In any given year, two or three of our graduate students have research positions at the Center. (2) The center brings in, for the full academic year, three full time faculty fellows (on leave from tenure track or tenured positions elsewhere), many of whom teach at other graduate institutions, and all of whom are available for consultation with our graduate students. (3) For the majority of weeks during the academic year, the center brings in speakers in ethics and political philosophy, or sponsors a conference in these areas. (4) Ten of the speakers lead intimate, read-ahead seminars, in which our graduate students participate along with faculty. (5) The three or four conferences put on every year offer further opportunities for interaction, and they include Dave Shoemaker's New Orleans Workshop on Agency and Responsibility, an excellent conference that leads to Shoemaker's Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility, now in its third volume.
These are fair points, and there have been other "niche" PhD programs that have worked fairly well (e.g., Bowling Green). I think Prof. Brower makes a good case that Tulane is in that category, given the faculty and institutional resources.
I also mentioned three programs that used to have excellent terminal MA programs that subsequently added PhD programs without a very clear justification: Arizona State, South Carolina, and Texas A&M University. Philosopher Douglas Portmore (Arizona State), in response, made the fair point that,
I and many (I suspect, most) others on the philosophy faculty at ASU would prefer a funded MA program to a funded PhD program. But alas that was not a choice that we had. Indeed, I'm told that when ASU went from a funded MA program to a funded PhD program it was a the behest of the administration, and, from what I hear, it sounds like the philosophy faculty didn't have much of a choice at the time. But that was all before my arrival to ASU. Also, it's important to realize that a philosophy faculty can, as we often do, encourage their funded PhD students to apply to other PhD programs after getting an experience that is quite comparable to what they would get in a terminal MA program. So I think that whether it is shameful to recruit PhD students to such a program as ours depends on whether they encourage those of their students who have the prospect of getting into a better program to try to do so, on whether they give those that they are recruiting the relevant information about their prospects, and on whether they intend to help increase diversity in the profession by giving a chance to some of those that no other more prestigious institution will give a chance to.
I've heard from faculty at other PhD programs whose rationale for existing isn't obvious that they also encourage their students to transfer to stronger programs. Perhaps if departments posted information about that, it would help distinguish those programs that, like ASU's, are doing what their administration requires, but are still, as Prof. Portmore reports, looking after the interests of the students, and those that are not.
Several faculty from South Carolina also "responded", mostly to record their indignation that anyone might wonder why they have a PhD program. When South Carolina was last surveyed in the PGR, the program scored a 1.8 out of 5, placing it outside the top 55. Since then, the philosopher of physics R.I.G. Hughes passed away, but other junior faculty have joined. The department has a number of well-regarded senior faculty, like Anne Bezuidenhout in philosophy of language (though she is now mainly in administration) and Michael Dickson in philosophy of physics. When the program had only a terminal MA, it was ranked among the top terminal MA programs, and it would be so ranked again if they stopped offering the PhD, precisely because of the quality of the faculty. In defending the PhD program, it was asserted by Prof. Dickson that many of their PhD graduates are happily employed outside academia. No evidence was adduced of what the aspirations of these students were upon entering the program, and indeed, the department's homepage is conspicuously devoid of any placement information. Other commenters were a bit incredulous, needless to say.
Predictably, I was denounced elsewhere on social media by various people affiliated with programs mentioned by name. The fact is that prospective graduate students are being misled by PhD programs whose existence is hard to explain, except in terms of institutional and faculty self-interest. Since I rate the interests of prospective students ahead of the vanity of faculty, I intend to continue to comment on this issue in future posts, and with additional examples. As before, I will invite faculty and students from those programs to respond, as Profs. Brower and Portmore usefully did last week.