SUNY POTSDAM PHILOSOPHY MAJOR TO BE DISCONTINUED
Phase Three of SUNY Potsdam's dramatic effort to undermine the liberal arts revealed.
SUNY Potsdam has finally given up on pretending to be an institution “committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students”, as expressed in its mission statement. After holding a sword over the head of faculty by threatening extensive cuts for going on 3 years, the next phase commences.
Phase the First: First came the realignment plan (more than you want to know about that plan on another page ion this website). The decisions reached in that process have never once been publicly defended; there has been no data released, no case made, indeed no justification of any sort offered for why the targeted programs were targeted.
Phase the Second: Massive non-renewals (an accurate number the college refuses to release) in the Spring of 2023. Many of my junior colleagues will be unemployed come fall of 2024. As only a small representative sample, 5 of 9 faculty, TT, Visiting and adjunct, were nonrenewed in the department of Theatre and Dance. These non-renewals, of course, set up
Phase Three: the long threatened ‘Draconian’ programmatic cuts that will transform the institution are revealed in a meeting called for 10 a.m on Tuesday, September 19 2023, one of the most popular teaching hours on campus. No questions were entertained by the SUNY Chancellor, who blessed the plan, or by the President, who presented it.
Fourteen more programs, on top of four cut this past summer will be discontinued. We agree that the propose plan will transform the institution and call on all who value the liberal arts to decry the Financial Stability Plan.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Please consider writing a letter calling for a immediate halt to implementing the SUNY Potsdam Financial Stability Plan until, as the Faculty Senate Resolution says, “such a time as data-driven justifications, including cost-benefit analyses, are presented to justify the claim that there is a financial benefit to be gained from discontinuing each of the programs slated for discontinuance.”
Address it to:
John B. King Jr., Chancellor of the SUNY System (email@example.com);
Suzanne Smith, SUNY Potsdam President (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Alan L. Hersker, Interim Provost (email@example.com);
June F. O’Neill, Chair of SUNY Potsdam College Council (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Greg Gardner, Faculty Senate Chair (email@example.com);
Kevin Smith, UUP President (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Timothy G. Murphy, Chair, Philosophy & Interdisciplinary Studies (email@example.com).
Thanks for your support!
Realignment Phase Two
On 7/8/2022 this website went dark with a final posting in which we reported that before she left the college the Dean formally recommended that the philosophy program “be removed from provisional status once curricular work outlined in the alignment plan and a merger has been accomplished.” (For the whole tedious story, go here). The curricular revisions referred to were the creation of a Philosophy of Justice course to support the Criminal Justice program (once a regular offering, it has not been offered since the retirement of Dr. Tartaglia) and the creation of an Animal Minds course. Both courses were offered in the spring of 2023. The Dean also recommended that we be merged with the Interdisciplinary Studies department and that Dr. Murphy serve as chair of the merged department (whose chair recently resigned). These recommendations were accepted by the Provost before she resigned.
On December 14, 2022, Dr. Murphy emailed the Dean with a report detailing the philosophy department's completion of the conditions for removal from provisional status. On February 7, we received the following response from the Provost:
“I appreciate the work that PHIL has done. But I don’t see evidence that substantial work has been done that will move the dial on the metrics we’ve been using. At this point, given our current enrollment and financial challenges, it would be unwise to remove the provisional status from the program.”
It seems the new Interim Provost had decided that our fulfilling the terms of the MOU wasn’t adequate. When this was explicitly pointed out to them and the relevant metrics requested, they backed off and grudgingly admitted, “Your department has, indeed, fulfilled the requirements that were negotiated with Dean Galbraith and approved by Provost Bergeron based on the 2022-2022 academic realignment exercise. Thank you for your work.” Note: this does not say whether or not we were actually removed from provisional status – a clear indication that we still had a target on our backs.
Spring 2023 brought massive non-renewals of untenured faculty. Many of my junior colleagues have no livelihood for next year (as one example, 5 of 9 faculty (TT, Visiting and adjunct) were nonrenewed in the department of Theatre and Dance). To this day the administration has been unwilling to say how many were non-renewed, a figure obscured in mystery.
Phase Three: The Financial Stability Plan
September 19, 2023 - SUNY Potsdam has finally given up on pretending to be an institution “committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students”, as expressed in its mission statement. After holding a sword over the heads of faculty by threatening extensive cuts for going on 3 years, the next phase, first round programmatic cuts, commences.
There was no meaningful campus collaboration during any of these phases – each was simply imposed by the administration under the cover of a financial crisis. Fred Kowal, UUP President, argues that this crisis was largely created by a failure of the state of New York to adequately fund the SUNY and CUNY systems, along with a number of decisions taken by SUNY Central over the last decade which have severely disadvantaged the SUNY four year colleges and have favored the Research institutions and 2 year colleges. SUNY Potsdam also had years of financial mismanagement and neglect, though no one will either take or place any blame for that neglect.
No one denies that the college is in desperate financial straits. But this would seem all the more reason to take an evidence driven, cost-benefit analysis approach to righting the ship. Instead we have realignment, non-renewals, and now, Phase Three, the long threatened ‘Draconian’ programmatic cuts that will transform the institution.
It is worth noting, as one of the more scandalous parts of this sordid tale, is that administrators started telling faculty that big cuts were coming at least as early as December 2022, and were referring to the "Financial Stability Plan" at least as early as January 2023. Phase Three has been at least 8 months in the coming, during which time no effort was made to communicate to faculty other than the threats something big was coming. And it came.
On September 19, 2023, fourteen programs, on top of the four discontinued this in August, are slated to be discontinued.
Art History (BA)
Arts Management (BA)
Music Performance (MM)
Public Health (BS)
Public Health (MS)
Discontinued last summer:
College Teaching (CAS)
Computer Science Education (BA)
Geographic Information Science (BS)
Speech Communication (BA)
What do all these programs have in common? Good question. No answer.
What does it mean to discontinue a program?
A discontinued program would be removed from the books, and no additional students would be allowed to major in the program. SUNY Potsdam would not be able to reinstate the program without going through the rigorous system-wide bureaucratic process of being approved by SUNY Central. It is important to note that we will be allowed to 'teach out' our current crop of majors – that grants some faculty in some departments a few years relief. Though please don’t miss the fact that the plan is clearly to fire those faculty once their usefulness is expended – that is, once their programs are void of students. We know this because that is the only possible way the Financial Stability Plan, as it is so cleverly named, yields any significant savings at all.
In a letter to the editor published in the Watertown Daily Times on September 27, 2023, Dr. Suzanne Smith, the new President of SUNY Potsdam states that “As part of our plan, 14 programs, representing 6.3 percent of our enrollment, are currently being reviewed for discontinuation over the next few years.” That is not how discontinuance works, as a quick read of the Administrator Initiated Program Deactivation policy shows. It says,
“Deactivation refers to a three-year period in which a program does not accept new students but remains as a registered program; discontinuance refers to those programs that are removed from [SUNY Central’s] Inventory of Registered Programs (IRP)”
Smith has conflated deactivation (where the decision to discontinue is kicked down the road a few years) and discontinuation, where the program will be immediately removed from the list of offerings. Discontinuation isn't the sort of thing that can be reviewed over the course of a few years - it is final (a program would need to reapply to SUNY for placement back on the IRP).
I will examine the 6.3% claim below.
The Administration claims that discontinuing these majors “would impact programs that collectively enroll 6.3 percent of our total student body.” The number is both highly misleading and a bit irrelevant. It is misleading in that it appears to be the percentage of students enrolled in one of these programs as their first major (meaning nothing more than that it is the first major they declare). Philosophy is rarely anyone’s first major – it is a discipline that is not taught in public schools so students are not exposed to it until after they are on campus.
But the percentage is also largely irrelevant. Many, many more than 6.3% of students will be affected by reduced course availability, lack of access to a full and meaningful liberal arts education, negative perceptions about value of a degree from this university, limited access to support as a result of the overworked faculty and staff who remain, larger class sizes and a higher student-to-faculty ratio, decimated campus morale, and more. At one time I would estimate that between a third and half of students who graduated from Potsdam came through one of my courses.
Further, we think it goes without saying that this plan represents a repudiation of the liberal arts mission of the College. As noted, the campus mission statement asserts that SUNY Potsdam is “committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students”. The Financial Stability Plan gives a lie to that statement.
There is little question that a new vision of SUNY Potsdam has been unilaterally imposed upon the institution by its upper administration in collaboration with SUNY Central (for the conspiracy theorists out there, a trivia question: “what do WVU and SUNY have in common?” Answer: “Rpk Group”).
It is then quite disingenuous to start a ‘collaborative’ strategic planning process, as the President has recently done. The administration should have been engaging in collaborative strategic planning for the last three years, or at least the last 8 months, rather than simply issuing threats of Draconian cuts to come.
It cannot be reiterated enough that throughout this whole nearly three year realignment process no metrics have ever been offered, no rubrics to judge the academic or financial health of these programs. No one has done a cost-benefit analysis on eliminating any of these programs. No data or evidence has yet been presented as to why these programs are targeted or how eliminating them will save any money. “Why these programs?”, has never been addressed, much less “why are we moving the college in this direction?”, towards the destruction of the liberal arts. The whole process has been completely opaque, without any attempt made to justify any decision made other than by crying out that we are in a financial crisis and that something needs to be done.
We most certainly do not deny that the college is in a serious financial crisis.
We might want to know why, however. Another question that has never been adequately addressed. It is true that demographics across the state are collapsing, that most SUNY schools have seen a declining enrollment over the last 5-10 years. Covid too has something to do with it, along with some rethinking about the value of a college education (plans like this spur such rethinking in part by eroding the value of a college education). But since these are factors all colleges and universities are facing, they don’t account for our extraordinary ~40% drop in enrollment. Nor does anyone ask why the previous two administrations didn’t address the growing crisis. Never once have I heard anyone admit to any financial mismanagement, or even financial negligence.
The campus cannot heal until there is some accountability and, more fundamentally, transparency. That means bringing faculty into the process of shaping the financial future of SUNY Potsdam, not imposing one without any consultation or justification.
No one denies that significant cuts will be necessary. It may be that, upon careful examination, it is financially advantageous to eliminate philosophy. Then let the chips fall as they may. On the other hand, such a careful examination may reveal that undermining the liberal arts mission of the institution would be a financial disaster. We don’t know.
What has been requested over and over again, and refused over and over again, is justification, financial or otherwise, for such a complete revisioning of SUNY Potsdam.
It isn’t clear how this will all shake out – perhaps some programs will be spared. Not philosophy, I foretell. However I like to believe that I would be writing this letter even if philosophy were not on the discontinuance list. While I am disappointed that Dr. Murphy and I will in all likelihood be the last philosophers employed by SUNY Potsdam, I am far more disappointed when I think of what is being done to what was once a distinctive public liberal arts college.