UPDATE 12/22/2023 REPURPOSING
The end of the saga for now, but a new purpose
It is too late for philosophy, or the liberal arts in any meaningful sense, at SUNY Potsdam. Our Provost has finally admitted that they will retrench tenured 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.
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 it off the confluence of forces shaping public higher education, or we don't pay attention, or we simply don't put 2 and 2 together. Adding to the conspiracy theory vibe is the disturbing secrecy with which that 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 with us through the Forum or directly – 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.
UPDATE 10/25/2023 - PHILOSOPHY AND 9 OTHER PROGRAMS GET THE AXE
We won a couple of battles (see below) but, as predicted, it appears we have lost the war. Final decisions have been made by the President’s Council which clearly snub their nose at faculty governance, as they have consistently done throughout this process.
In an email dated 10/24/2023 Dr. Alan Hersker, our Interim Provost, announced to the campus community that “recommendations were brought to the President’s Council for final campus deliberation on Friday, Oct. 20. As a result, the College has recommended the following actions” Notably, this was the day after the Faculty Senate Executive Committee presented its report calling for maintaining 13 of the 14 programs to be discontinued and less than 24 hours after the Resolution calling for a freeze to implementation of the plan was approved by Faculty Senate.
Four programs were recommended to be retained with a one year reprieve: Biochemistry (BS); Chemistry (BA); Public Health (BS); Public Health (MS). One program was recommended to be deactivated: Arts Management (BA). And 9 were recommended to be discontinued and ‘phased out’ over the next three to four academic years: Art History (BA); Chemistry (BS); Dance (BA); French (BA); Music Performance (MM); Philosophy (BA); Physics (BA); Spanish (BA); Theatre (BA).
The decisions announced today make it clear that the administration will not bother to respond in any formal way to either the FSEC report or to the Resolution calling for a freeze to implementation of the plan.
In the end, then, nine liberal arts programs will be discontinued and one deactivated. The Chemistry BA, Biochemistry BS, Public Health MA & BA are being given a dubious reprieve of one year in which to satisfy the nebulous whims of the administration. Faculty in those programs will thus remain under the knife for at least another year. All that remains to be seen, since SUNY central has been complicit from the beginning, and hence system-level approval is guaranteed, is whether retrenchment is next – programs are gone, now they can come after people, the only place there was ever any money to be gained.
In an email to students in affected programs the administration asserts “This was a difficult decision, but necessary to ensure the financial health of the College.” As this website has more than demonstrated, and the administration has yet to even attempt to repudiate, this claim is at best misleading and perhaps an outright lie. To date in no way, shape, or form has the administration shown that any financial benefit at all will accrue to the college from these draconian cuts to the liberal arts. It is rpk GROUP ideology driving these cuts, not any financial necessity (as UUP has eloquently argued).
I said above, and elsewhere, that it has never been made clear what metrics are being used to evaluate programs. They call them “Key Performance Indicators” (or KPI’s, of course: they give us a nifty acronym but no details on the purported indicators it stands for). I have speculated that in our case it is purely numbers of majors (which turns out to be partly right). But that doesn’t explain all the programs faced with discontinuation. I am now more confident that I know what metrics they are using.
If you look at the data the SUNY Potsdam administration supplied to the programs to be discontinued and compare it to the template that the rpk GROUP used at the University of Virginia (as summarized by Aaron R. Hanlon), they are the same data – these are the only numbers that matter, in rpk’s little profit-centered world.
Hanlon says, “Rpk Group’s method involves analyzing academic departments and programs based on student application numbers to a given program (before students enroll, and regardless of whether they change their mind once they do) and counting how many students have been enrolled in majors and programs (for a 2018 presentation, the firm used average data from 2013 to 2015).”
He continues with a, to my mind, quite prescient but seriously understated warning,
“Making bets on this crude form of analysis is risky and shortsighted because predicting student interests and enrollment patterns, as well as economic needs that may impact enrollment, is notoriously fraught.”
Key here is the ‘making bets’ part. We might ask why should we believe these metrics are meaningful at all? Where are the successful institutions that have implemented this ideology? But we won’t receive any answer, though someone somewhere must at least think they have one.
The bottom line is that SUNY Potsdam is going to be completely remade in rpk’s image on a gamble. And a gamble on what is clearly at best an ideologically driven theory about the future of higher education (and on the face of it, one historically ignorant and quite silly). Further, it is a gamble grounded in a data set of two years? Is this a joke? Is rpk laughing all the way to the bank, or do they really believe this nonsense?
Rpk Group and other higher education consultants turn out to be the story behind the story, and it is a story that bodes ill for the future of liberal arts education in America. If this website achieves nothing else, I hope it will put these insidious forces at work in higher education into a more public eye. That they are not in the public eye is quite intentional. A faculty member at UVA had to FOIL for the rpk report there, and we will have to do the same here at SUNY Potsdam. One wonders why that might be – why are secret machinations with higher education consultants to develop plans to transform the very nature of a public institution best kept on the low-down?
Once upon a time, I hear tell, faculty – you know, the experts in education - controlled the curriculum. Now it is higher education consultants, whose qualifications are quite unclear, at best. Faculty have been deprived of arguably the last true bastion of faculty governance on college campuses. The curriculum is now being determined by ‘market forces’ (or so they blatantly assert without evidence), not the idea of a liberal education.
As Lisa M. Corrigan writes, the future promised by consultants like rpk GROUP, “looks bleak. Money will flow to elites in private schools, who will benefit from comprehensive language instruction, liberal arts, inclusive critical thinking skills, and a global curriculum, and thus have access to global careers in the arts, finance, diplomacy, national security, international business, international law, AI, and other fields. Students at state schools will receive the education that the oligarchs want them to, based on their largesse.”
That is, the future imagined by the rpk GROUP and their ilk appears to reserve the right to a genuine liberal arts education solely for those students who attend the most elite institutions; it serves to perpetuate the oligarchic and technocratic status quo that institutions like SUNY have as part of their mission to dismantle. If that is right, then it isn’t just the future of higher education that looks bleak. It gives us yet another reason to be concerned for the future of democracy itself.
In what is no doubt the quickest decision SUNY System has ever made, President Smith announced today that they have accepted the recommendations to discontinue and deactivate announced programs, as has NYSED.
Where we are now:
Last week (9/26/2023) the full department (i.e., both of us) met with our Provost and Dean to receive formal word of our pending discontinuation, this meeting being required by the Administrator Initiated Program Deactivation policy (see bullet #3). Five bits of data were shared with us roughly 24 hours before the meeting. I, in turn, share them with you:
admissions data (viz., number of incoming philosophy majors over the last 3 years and number of transfer students over the last 3 years (for the curious, 2 freshmen in 2021, 1 transfer in 2022);
We thought the data generally quite flattering: we are consistently in the top 5 departments in the College in S/F ratios (the only measure supplied that has any tie to costs), and only one of two SUNY schools with no change in the number of majors over 5 years (as if the last few years were supplying reliable data anyway).
Granted, our numbers are small, although also misleading, as they count only first majors; viz., the first major the student declared. Since few folks head off to college knowing they want to study philosophy, it is unsurprising that we have very few first majors. Recognizing this also makes it clear that one should not judge the value of a philosophy program by the number of folks who apply to the institution to study philosophy.
Going back to that pesky “Administrator Initiated Program Deactivation policy”, the first bullet in the deactivation/discontinuation process requires the administration to collect data regarding the program, “including enrollment trends, regional market needs, peer comparisons, faculty load, impact on other academic programs including General Education, program quality, etc.” Generously interpreted, the supplied documents listed above incompletely address three of those data categories. The others, all categories we believe would be advantageous to us, are unaddressed.
The policy also says that “It is recommended that the “Academic Affairs Program Prioritization Evaluation Criteria” rubric be used in this process, and that the mission of the College and all relevant strategic plans be considered in these deliberations.” The “Academic Affairs Program Prioritization Evaluation Criteria Rubric” (AAPPECR???) doesn’t exist. It never has existed, and never will, as the administration admits to not having used any rubric at all. Instead they have taken a ‘holistic approach’ (apparently, low majors is, at least for us, the whole). They pretty clearly also didn’t weigh the mission of the college, as “committed to the liberal arts and sciences as an academic foundation for all students” as too important. One would think that such a commitment included a commitment to disciplines such as philosophy, and chemistry, and French, and theater, and dance, and physics, and…
When explicitly asked what metric the department is wanting in, the only one the Provost could name was number of majors (yes, we find ourselves back there again). I suspect the columns in green in the spreadsheet might be revealing of real motivations (for the intrepid), but I hope the reader will see why those columns ought to be treated as irrelevant (e.g., what % of all FTEs we generate – there are only two of us).
In other news:
The SUNY Potsdam Faculty Senate met last Thursday (9-28-2023). In the New Business segment of that meeting I proposed a resolution to place an immediate freeze on the Financial Stability Plan, “until 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.”
In accordance with Faculty Senate rules, getting this resolution on the agenda required five other faculty signatures, which were easy to attain (the first 5 of 6 I sent it too). Speaking volumes for the level of trust in the administration, however, the signatories, all tenured faculty, preferred to remain and were properly allowed to remain anonymous. In addition, our Faculty Senate Chair, Dr. Gregory Gardner, endorsed the resolution when introducing it, for which we are grateful.
At this meeting, after the President (no doubt anticipating the resolution) claimed that the administration would be releasing all its data to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee next week (all its data appearing to mean the sum total of what had been handed out piecemeal to each department, the quality of which we have examined above – but we will see) a faculty member moved to postpone the Resolution until we see this data. His motion passed.
The good news is that the resolution will automatically come up for a vote at the next Faculty Senate meeting on October 19. Passing the resolution will, I anticipate, make no difference in the administration’s plans, but would at least signal the unacceptable nature of the process used to get to where we are.
On Thursday, October 5, another Q&A session with the Upper Administration is scheduled. The previous Q&A sessions have been rather impressive displays of stalling and stonewalling (along with demands that they not be recorded). Faculty across campus want to know why their program is slated for discontinuation. No answers are given.
Our chemists, who have been vocal in demanding financial justifications for their discontinuance, have crafted an argument that they believe shows that SUNY Potsdam will lose more than 150k a year if they discontinue the chemistry department. I have not carefully examined their argument, but the claim is certainly plausible. Personally, I don’t know what programs cost and what they bring in. But it isn’t my job to know. Those whose job it is to know, one would think, would surely know these things before decisions were made to so radically revision the institution. And that knowledge would be shared with their stakeholders.
The bottom line: we need some reason to believe that the proposed discontinuations will actually save money rather than simply drive potential students away. No reasons are given.
Please consider writing a letter calling for a immediate halt to implementing the SUNY Potsdam Financial Stability Plan until, as the 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Suzanne Smith, SUNY Potsdam President (email@example.com);
Alan L. Hersker, Interim Provost (firstname.lastname@example.org);
June F. O’Neill, Chair of SUNY Potsdam College Council (email@example.com);
Greg Gardner, Faculty Senate Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Kevin Smith, UUP President (email@example.com);
Timothy G. Murphy, Chair, Philosophy & Interdisciplinary Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks for your support!
The American Philosophical Association, and a coalition of 18 scholarly societies sent letters to the Chancellor, President, Provost and Faculty Senate Chair requesting that the administration rethink its decision to discontinue the philosophy program and all of the other vital liberal arts disciplines under threat. We are grateful for their support.
Dr. Murphy has submitted the philosophy program's response to the administration's intention to discontinue our program, along with its Appendix.
A couple of minor victories:
Our Faculty Senate Executive Committee (basically the governing body of our faculty governance) submitted a response to the Financial Stability Plan which was measured and diplomatic, but pretty scathing with a slight read between the lines. Personally, the at least semi-validation they offer to the arguments we have been making consistently the last few years, is comforting.
These are no more than recommendations, of course. Faculty Senate has no power other than that recommendatory one. The administration will respond to this response, perhaps as early as next week.
Further, the Faculty Senate also passed a resolution today calling for a freeze on the financial stability plan until “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”. We hope it sends a clear message, and we hope it will be heeded.