DOCUMENTING THE DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBERAL ARTS
A work in Progress. Please help by contributing what you know to The Forum (link below)
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.
UPDATE: On Friday, January 26, 2024 Dr. Murphy was unceremoniously summoned to HR to be formally told that his tenured position will be retrenched “as a result of a curtailment of function and reallocation of resources".
Our union, UUP, has informed us that they will not fight the decision. Apparently, even they agree that being tenured in the SUNY System signifies nothing. If SUNY can fire faculty at will regardless of tenure status, then, on any reasonable understanding of tenure, there is no such thing.
Dr. Suzanne Smith, President of SUNY Potsdam, tried to control the message by sending a campus wide email. It speaks of “difficult decisions” and of “continuing to adjust our workforce to serve our existing enrollment.”
Such appeals are empty. The more difficult the decisions the more care one should take to justify them, both to oneself and to the world. Difficult decisions cry out for consultation and collaboration, and when that is all done, for some sort of public justification, particularly at a public institution. One might think that Dr. Smith is professionally, and morally, obligated to attempt to show that the destruction of people’s careers will address rather than exacerbate the college’s financial difficulties. But astonishingly, to date, as evidenced over and over again in these pages, SUNY Potsdam has given no justification for discontinuing nine programs, which, in turn ‘justified’ destruction of an unknown number of careers. Those terminated, those to be terminated, those to be retained, indeed, the entire community need to hear more than platitudes. Merely crying out ‘fiscal crisis’ is simply unacceptable.
It is quite evident that this is just the beginning. As the discontinued programs get ‘taught out’ their surviving faculty make themselves obsolete by fulfilling their professional duties. Moreover, it is clear that these program discontinuances and resultant firings, devastating as they are, get SUNY Potsdam nowhere near to covering its deficit, though they certainly do undermine the academic integrity of what was once a respectable public institution of higher education. The college is already a shell of what it was. What it will become bodes ill for the educational, cultural, and economic health of the North Country and indeed of public higher education.
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.
Perhaps because it seems kinda conspiracy theory-like (I confess, it is) we perhaps too easily write off the confluence of forces shaping public higher education. Adding to the conspiracy theory vibe is the disturbing secrecy with which that rolling tide, some combination of politicians, technocrats, boards of trustees and higher education consultants, are imposing their vision, not only without resistance, but without acknowledgement.
Here are three credible sources:
The Atlantic article suggests, encouragingly, that some in the mainstream press are beginning to recognize what is going on. But there is much more journalism to be done. We hope to serve as a place to collect and disseminate information about this apparently secret plot to transform public higher education (see, told you it just sounds fucking nutty. That is, in part, because it is).
So please share what you know here in The Forum – especially any documenting evidence. Are there other media sources discussing this problem? Do you have a copy of an rpk Report? I have FOILED for any documents tying rpk to SUNY, and will share what I receive here.
JUST TO GET US STARTED
Here is the rpk GROUP’s solution to the problem that is higher education:
“From Mission to Market®: The rpk GROUP Solution
Higher education and work are being disrupted. Traditional methods for supporting higher education business models are no longer effective, and innovation disconnected from the business model is not sustainable. As a leading higher education consulting firm, we support clients across the country and internationally to design, build, and implement business models that last.”
The language here should send chills down the spine of anyone who still harbors a conception of the university as a community of scholars, and of education as education for life, not simply for a career.
Ray Gaita notes, “Like morality, a serious understanding of the university and of the obligations that are inseparable from it can get in the way of what one wants to do. For that reason it is not hysterical to ask: ‘Is the university finished?’” Gaita’s query would perhaps be better phrased , “Is public higher education finished?” The Princetons and Harvards and Oxfords of the world will survive (though they too are largely forgetting what a university is supposed to be about).
Gaita goes on to consider Callicles’ challenge to Socrates to defend the usefulness of philosophy. Callicles says,
“It is a good thing to engage in philosophy just so far as it is an aid to education, and no disgrace for a youth to study it, but when a man who is now growing older studies philosophy, it becomes ridiculous Socrates . . . When I see a youth engaged in it, I admire it and it seems to me to be natural and I consider such a man ingenious and the man who does not pursue it I regard as illiberal and one who will never aspire to any fine or noble deed. But when I see an older man studying philosophy and not deserting it, that man, Socrates, is actually asking for a whipping . . . Such a man, even if exceptionally gifted, is doomed to prove less than a man, shunning the city centre and market place, in which the poet said men win distinction. He will spend the rest of his life sunk in a corner and whispering with three or four boys and incapable of any utterance or deed that is free and lofty and brilliant.” (Gorgias 484c5)
The Callicles of the world are transforming public higher education into something that is hardly recognizable as a university at all. Gaita says, “So great is that transformation, so complete the success of managerial-newspeak, that…some of essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them.”
At SUNY Potsdam, and at a growing number of public institutions, they aren’t even mendicants – they aren’t even allowed to gather at the door for scraps.
Of course the quite practical, and political consequences of this failure to even attempt to be a university means that the kind of education one can only receive from a university will be reserved for the elites.
SUNY Chancellor John B. King, who earns 750,000 a year in his position (not counting 200k+ of perks) is a Harvard grad. Rick Staisloff, the Senior Partner at rpk GROUP is a product of the Jesuit Loyola University Maryland.
What is outrageous is that the majority of our citizens are paying for a public higher education system that increasingly deprives them of the benefits of a robust liberal arts education. I have no doubt that Dr. King and Mr. Staisloff are fully aware of the advantages they gained from attending the SLACs they did (from his online bio: “King's life story is an extraordinary testament to the transformative power of education.”). We know where these gentlemen will send their sons and daughters to go to school, don’t we?