We have been informed by upper administration, in the Academic Affairs Realignment Report which was presented to the Faculty Senate on February 17, 2022, that the philosophy major program is included on a list of programs determined to go into “immediate provisionary status” (it appears we were spared “immediate discontinuation”). The terms of those “provisions” make it clear that the termination of the program is imminent. That is, “provisionary status” is really a death sentence. This is further confirmed by the “recommendation” that the department be dissolved, and the faculty merged with some other department by the end of the semester. As documented extensively below, the administration has no good reason for making these decisions, and plenty of good reasons to overturn them.
The recommendation reads as follows:
"It is recommended that the program be put on immediate provisionary status, and the faculty to consider whether to revise the program to eliminate major-only (low enrolled) courses, revise the program entirely, or discontinue the program. The minor is to be maintained"
Apparently, this means that we better find some majors really quickly or else our degree program will be terminated. This is made even more clear in the rather daunting timeline:
Immediate- provisional status
By the end of the Spring, 2022 semester- the faculty are to share a report with the Dean outlining specific action steps to meet established goals, including strategies for the faculty to engage in related to enhancing enrollment, broadening pathways into the program, redesigning the curriculum to limit low-enrolled courses, and increasing program visibility; or, plans for deactivation of the program
By Fall, 2022 or earlier- redesigned curriculum is submitted to the Faculty Senate for approval
By Fall, 2023 or earlier- implementation of the redesigned curriculum and demonstration that the program can maintain at least 10 students consistently in the program, or the program is to be discontinued
Annual- review of enrollment and plans for recruitment and retention in the program”
A not-so-close read implies that the reason why we aren't currently attracting majors has something to do with flaws in our curriculum or low enrollments in our courses. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. This will be amply demonstrated below and in the supporting documentation.) It also, even more significantly, appears to admit that current number of majors is the only metric that was used to evaluate the philosophy program, since that is the only metric which is noted as needing improvement. If current number of majors was not the only metric used, then we would respectfully ask what could possibly justify the decision.
Meanwhile, the recommendation to dissolve the Department of Philosophy reads as follows:
“By the end of the Spring, 2022 semester, the following departments are to be dissolved; faculty in the affected departments will join an existing department
o Department of Philosophy
o Department of Physics”
Unlike the plan to discontinue the major, this plan would at least save SUNY Potsdam a piddling amount of money—namely, Dr. Murphy’s $3000 stipend as chair, and a similar amount which covers his course release for being chair—by stripping the philosophy program of what few resources we have left at our disposal. But we get ahead of ourselves.
A little background: In October of 2021, at the order of then Officer-in-Charge, Dr. Graham, every academic program was directed to complete an “Academic Alignment Template”, which was effectively a directive to each individual academic department to justify its continued existence. This was clearly meant to be a step in some still mysterious process to ‘realign’ the college’s budget. The college’s current financial crisis needed (and still needs) to be addressed. To put an overly blunt point on it, SUNY Potsdam pays enough faculty to teach ~4,500 students, but has fewer than 3,000 students. Something has to give.
About all of this, Dr. Graham was spot on. Dire as things seemed, we hoped (albeit against all indicators) that the range of data requested about programs in the “Template” would be used to make determinations in good faith, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each program across a broad array of productivity and efficiency measures. Those hopes were dashed.
The Department of Philosophy’s Apologia, attached below, clearly demonstrates that the department is one of the, if not the most productive, efficient, and cost-effective department(s) in the School of Arts & Sciences, and hence at SUNY Potsdam, by all measures except current number of majors. This documented fact flies in the face of the proffered justification for realignment in the first place, viz., financial stability.
Dr. Murphy, who authored the report, shows therein that the philosophy department’s student/faculty ratio is consistently above the average for departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, which, it is worth noting, has FTE averages (effectively, faculty/student ratios) consistently well above that of the other two Schools. (The report contains data showing that this has held steady for the last 10 years, and we could go back 20 more.) It is also worth noting that as overall enrollments, and hence FTEs, have dropped precipitously across the college over the last few years, the philosophy department has managed to maintain its healthy level of FTE production.
Dr. Murphy also demonstrates that our course fill rates are well above average for the School. Over the last five years the department has filled 81% of the seats it has offered and has approached 90% on numerous occasions. Again, notably, the department has consistently maintained these high fill rates in spite of the continued enrollment decline in the college (our fill-rate was 88% in Fall 2021).
The department is also integral to the college’s General Education and Pathways programs. Dr. Curry was intimately involved in the design and implementation of Pathways, serving as its first director. The department’s exceptional support of general education has been consistent for decades. No other department on campus serves general education as thoroughly as the philosophy department does. For example, in fall of 2021 all seats (233 out of 233) offered by the department fulfilled a general education requirement. 173 out of 233 (75.2%) carried a First Year Designator, with department faculty members offering 4 sections of WAYS 101. In spring of 2021 405 out of 425 seats (95.3%) offered by the department fulfilled a general education requirement. 280 out of 425 (65.9%) carried a First Year Designator. This is nothing new—we could trace this story back over 30+ years.
In case you were wondering about other skeletons, let us note that the philosophy department is and has always been perfectly collegial and functional. Although we do sometimes ask difficult questions of administrators (which are rarely answered), we are not problem children. We do our jobs and, as a brief glance at the successful careers of our graduates will show, we do them well.
The philosophy department has also distinguished itself over the years in service to the college, a résumé too tedious to relate here. If you want proof, please examine our C.V.s (also available at the bottom of this page).
But, of course, we haven't yet addressed the elephant in the quad—how many majors do we have, and just how expensive is the philosophy major?
Philosophy departments rarely have large numbers of majors in comparison to other departments. There are many reasons for this, important ones being that most students are not introduced to the discipline until they are in college, and that more and more HS students are pushed to have an academic major in mind before they ever step foot on a college campus. (The department is in agreement in thinking this is a harmful thing, for students, faculty, and most certainly for the integrity of a liberal arts education).
That said, it is true that our major numbers have collapsed. From 1995–2011 the philosophy department had an average of 23.5 majors every year. Since 1992, as far back as records can be easily found, the department never had fewer than 10 majors until the Fall of 2018. The collapse of that consistent thirty-year track record of attracting many majors, unsurprisingly, correlates perfectly with the collapse of faculty lines from 5 FT faculty in 2011 (and 32 majors) to 2 presently (and 3 majors). At the same time total enrollment in the college dropped from 4395 (3952 UG) in 2011 to 3084 (2842 UG) in 2020, so the number of fish in the pond has gotten smaller along with the number of fisher-folk. Nevertheless, we believe that answering our pleas for a replacement for even one of our two more recent retirements would have gone a long way towards beginning to ameliorate the decline in majors. But that was not to be.
Intentionally or not, the department has been deprived of any sustenance for years, in spite of its having a long track record of being a model of productivity, efficiency, and low cost. Now that we are looking a bit ill from that lack of sustenance, we are dutifully informed that if we don’t get better soon, we’ll have to be put out of our misery. Were it not happening to us, we could perhaps better admire the Kafkaesque nature of the whole debacle.
As for the question of finances, the major is essentially cost free. Every course we teach, including even our Senior Seminar, is open to students of any major. So the directive to “revise the program to eliminate major-only (low enrolled) courses, revise the major entirely, or discontinue the major” is puzzling, to say the least. We have no major-only courses; our FTEs and fill rates demonstrate that there is not a problem with low-enrolled courses—an 81-90% fill rate speaks for itself. (This is not to deny that some upper division courses are sometimes low-enrolled, but those numbers are more than made up for in high enrollments elsewhere.)
Further, we have recently revised our major, precisely in response to declining enrollments, in ways that we believed would preserve our FTEs and fill rates when they began dropping across the college. Those revisions have been largely successful as, again, the data show. But that means that two of the three options we are given to get out of probation are simply irrelevant to our program, leaving us with the only one they really mean to offer anyway: to discontinue the major. That this is the intent is further indicted by the “recommendation” that the department be “dissolved”.
To be utterly explicit: intentional or not, being put on “provisionary status” and slated for dissolution will inevitably result in the discontinuation of the philosophy major. For no good reason, we have been directed to reach an arbitrary threshold of majors within a very short timeframe. Due to short staffing, this threshold would likely have been out of reach even if we were not further hindered by the almost immediate dissolution of the department. This process has been a sham from the beginning. We might have hoped that the sham would at least save SUNY Potsdam some money, but, at least in the case of the treatment of philosophy, it seems it will likely achieve the opposite.
As Dr. Murphy says in his report, “The contributions the philosophy program make to this institution can be put in very stark economic terms: the department offers exceptionally low-cost production of FTE and then adds further value to that production with an enriching and useful major. Our high faculty to student ratio across a wide range of general education courses enhances the overall productivity of the institution, and our major offers substantial value-add at little to no extra cost. Cuts to the philosophy program would worsen, rather than improve, the financial standing of the college as a whole."
"Beyond these financial considerations, the philosophy program is integral to the college's mission as a comprehensive liberal arts institution. Philosophy as a discipline has long had a central role in the liberal arts, due to its prioritizing of logic and critical thinking, its interplay with other disciplines, and the historical importance of the ideas of its major figures. Philosophy on this campus has expanded on that role through its devotion to serving general education and other interdisciplinary programs. We are proud of the large proportion of Potsdam graduates who have been introduced to philosophy through our classes, and confident that our work has enriched and enhanced those students' educations, regardless of their majors.”
One would think no more needs to be shown than has been shown, nor that there is more to say, but, evidently, one would be wrong. But what can one really say to someone who thinks that the sole metric of programmatic success is current number of majors? If that is, in fact, what they believe. It is hard to discern.
I invite all readers of this letter to read the department’s Academic Alignment Report, below, and judge our productivity and contributions to the college for themselves. Appendices are available at the bottom of this post. We have also attached our C.V.s, and the last two departmental self-studies, along with reviewer's reports from our last two external reviews. Both of those reviews offer telling outsiders’ perspectives on our program.
We call on the administration to overturn its poorly justified decision to eliminate the philosophy major and to provide the department with the resources required to return it to the flourishing status it enjoyed in 2011 (and for many years prior).
We have started a petition calling for this reversal and adequate support. It can be found here. Thank you for reading this missive.
It is also vital to note that the Academic Alignment Plan Report immediately discontinues the BA in Art History, and the MA in English and Communication, and places the following programs in provisionary status: the BFA Visual Art/BFA Graphic Design & New Media; BFA Creative Writing; BA/BS in Computer Science; BA French; BA Spanish; BA Philosophy; BA Physics; Women’s & Gender Studies; BA/MA Mathematics; MA Mathematics.
While we cannot speak to any of these programs directly, what seems quite evident is that the Academic Alignment Plan is a direct assault on the School of Arts & Sciences, and more generally puts the lie to the claim that SUNY Potsdam is, or aspires to be, a Liberal Arts college.
We are overwhelmed with gratitude for the outpouring of support for our department and program. It is truly humbling to read the names of current and former students, current and former colleagues, philosophers whose work we have admired, as well as those of hundreds of strangers who have supported our petition. Thank you!
A copy of the petition so far, with more than 1000 signatures after fewer than 72 hours, will be presented to Dr. Neisser shortly. We will then, of course, regularly update him and you as more signatures and comments roll in.
While our petition is focused on getting SUNY Potsdam’s Officer-in-Charge to overturn the decision to terminate our department and major program, we don’t want to lose sight of the broader threat to the liberal arts this travesty is symptomatic of. Much of society finds little value in philosophy, history, languages, literature, or the arts. But the times cry out for lessons only those disciplines can teach. We would not deny that technical and vocational programs play an important role in preparing our students for successful careers. What we seemingly forget is that those students also need to be prepared for successful living in a deeply confusing and bewildering world.
Thank you again for the support, and let’s keep the momentum going. Please continue to share!
We continue to be overwhelmed by your support and that of the philosophical community at a large. In particular, thanks to Profs Leiter and Weinberg for posting on their respective blogs, in each case with helpful context. We were also extremely pleased to receive the support of the APA, whose letter to our Chair of the College Council, Officer-in-Charge (OIC), and Provost is added to the documents, below.
While we have unquestionably gotten the attention of the administration, we do not believe that our efforts so far have caused our OIC to rethink the original decision. In light of that, we would like to request letters of support be sent to the above-referenced individuals, supplying them with even more reasons to rescind their decisions. Those letters might be from individual alums, friends, departments, organizations, clubs, or programs. Any testimony would be greatly appreciated. Some may have personal stories to tell; others may, we hope, stand with us on principle. Either way, you would be contributing to our effort.
We would be happy to supply some talking points to any who might request them. We also want to emphasize that it is important to keep one’s communications with the administration professional and to keep going through proper channels. Please, please, sign and comment upon our petition, write a letter to the appropriate authorities, but please don’t otherwise interrupt the normal business of the college we are trying to preserve.
I fear our momentum has stalled a bit on the petition, but all is well. We are profoundly grateful to all who signed our petition and for a number of quite buoying comments. We are continuing our campaign by barraging our Officer-In-Charge, our Provost and our College Council Chair with letters from other philosophy departments within and without SUNY and from many alums. We are confident that that flow will continue for a while and would certainly encourage you to send your thoughts their way as well. Please keep sharing the petition, as well. I am sure there are communities that we haven’t yet breached.
A formal request to rescind both the decision to dissolve the department and place the major into provisionary status has just gone to the above-named principals. We will see if anything productive comes of it, but we wanted to give them the opportunity to respond before pressing on. We will certainly press on if need be. Thanks again for your support.
We apologize for the long silence. As many of you know, college bureaucracies are slow moving creatures, when they move at all. Unfortunately, there has not been substantial movement and so there is only a bit of good news to share.
Our formal request to be removed from the realignment plan, or for a coherent justification for why we were included in the first place, submitted to OIC Neisser on March 15, 2022, has fallen on deaf ears. OIC Neisser has made a slight concession – the terms for being removed from provisional status for all affected programs are now open to negotiation with the Dean of Arts and Sciences who will, in theory, have the final say in what those terms look like.
Since we don’t understand why we were included in the plan to start with, other than magically conjuring new majors without a department (which is still slated for dissolution and merger by the end of the semester) it isn’t clear what we will be negotiating. Given our history over the last 7 years, as we have gone from 4 to 2 faculty, we are certain the dissolution and merger of the department clearly signals that we should not expect to be allowed to hire a desperately needed ethicist. While it will be exceedingly difficult for the two of us to deliver the major and our General Education obligations, perhaps the concessions made prolong our demise somewhat, even if they haven’t made that demise any less inevitable.
We requested permission from Dr. Neisser to publish his response to our formal request. He did not grant that permission, so you will have to take our word for it that in that response he failed to offer any justification for the philosophy departments being included in the realignment plan. In place of that response, we have included on our webpage (www.sunypotsdamphilosophy.com) an email OIC Neisser sent to the entire campus community in which he formally adopts the realignment plan, with some slight modifications, as indicated above.
Our petition will remain active, so please continue to spread the word and write letters. We thank you again for your support.
P.S. Some good news is that the Art History major has been moved from immediate dissolution to provisional status. Combined with the compromise noted above, this means that while our campaign has not done much to benefit our own position, it has made a difference for a number of other Arts and Sciences disciplines. While we have been disappointed by the lack of resistance from other departments, particularly other departments in the Arts & Sciences, please recognize that it is not just the philosophy faculty who owe thanks to each one of you for your support, but all of SUNY Potsdam. On their behalf, and our own, thank you for speaking out on behalf of philosophy and the liberal arts.
The semester has ended and we are yet to be informed about what department we will be merged with, though as far as we know we are still slated for dissolution and merger. In some good news, our Faculty Senate voted on 5/5/2022 to recommend to the OIC that the Department and Program dissolutions/mergers described in the realignment plan be cancelled, that future campus initiatives be reviewed by the Faculty Senate Academic Programs and Curriculum Committee (APCC) and Business Affairs Committee (BAC) to ensure the plans reflect complete operating costs, identify sources of funding, and verify reasonableness of projected revenue; and called on the administration to allocate sufficient funding to provide the necessary assistance to probationary Departments and Programs to reinvigorate themselves. The resolution passed by a 2/3 margin (given the number of administrators who count as ‘faculty’ on our campus, and hence who have a vote, that is a pretty healthy margin). Since the Faculty Senate is merely a recommendatory body, it is unlikely anything will come of the resolution, though it could potentially provide cover for the OIC to overturn the plan completely. We suspect that will not happen, but await his response.
We have requested permission to publish the resolution in full but have yet to receive that permission from the Faculty Senate Chair. If and when we do, we will post it on our website, www.sunypotsdamphilosophy.com.
Thanks again for all of your support.
Friends of Philosophy,
We have finally been informed of our fate, though details still need clarification and negotiation. Other events are also worth noting as they relate more or less directly to that fate.
First, our Dean of Arts and Sciences has resigned to take another position closer to her aging parents. Our Provost has also resigned, “due to personal circumstances”, and will take up a position as faculty in the School of Education. These resignations leave SUNY Potsdam with an Interim President (OIC), Provost and Dean of Arts & Sciences.
Potsdam was also warned by Middle States that its accreditation “may be in jeopardy”, in part because of a failure to demonstrate that administrative decisions were driven by data – in Middle States language, we supplied insufficient evidence of compliance with Standard VI, “Planning, Resources and Institutional Improvement”.
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.” The curricular revisions referred to are 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.
She 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). In her letter to the Provost and Dr. Murphy she recommends that “Details of this merger—including but not limited to the renaming of a shared department, bylaws, and allocation of service obligations—would need to be worked out between stakeholders from both departments and should be completed by October 15th, 2022.” These recommendations were accepted by the Provost.
We should note that we appreciate much included in the Dean’s clearly thoughtful response to a problem that was foisted upon her. For example, she begins her missive “by acknowledging Philosophy’s long record of strong faculty/student ratios, consistently well above the average across the College, and your steady contributions to WAYs and to Pathways more generally. I also acknowledge the challenges of expanding offerings likely to attract new students with current staffing levels.”
Similarly, the Dean “strongly recommend[s] that, when a line becomes available, campus leadership support the hybrid department in making a hiring request that could build on the strengths of all parties. For example, a feminist philosopher, a nonwestern philosopher, or a philosopher with expertise in gender, race, and sexuality, could contribute to Philosophy, Women’s & Gender Studies, INDS programming, and WAYs, expanding the diversity of the College’s offerings in valuable ways. Similarly, an investment in a philosopher with expertise in ethics would strengthen the curricula of professionally-oriented programs across the College and better prepare Potsdam’s graduates for the workplace and engagement in the civic sphere.”
We take these comments to essentially acknowledge the central points of our original argument. We can only hope that a new leadership team will similarly recognize the strength, contributions and potential of the philosophy department, as well as the value of the liberal arts in general.
While we expect that this marks the end of our campaign to change OIC Neisser’s mind about implementing the realignment plan, it is also clear that the campaign had a positive effect on the overall outcome. That is largely thanks to you all who supported the petition and engaged in letter-writing. We cannot thank you enough for your support.
E-MAIL TO THE CAMPUS COMMUNITY
E-mail to the Campus Community from OIC Neisser, accepting the recommendations of the realignment plan, dated 3/31/2022:
FORMAL REQUEST TO OIC NEISSER
This letter was sent to OIC Neisser on 3/17/2022 requesting that he remove the recommendation for provisionary status and threat of discontinuation of the Philosophy major from the realignment plan, and that he reverse the decision to immediately dissolve the Department of Philosophy
LETTER FROM THE APA
Letter of Support from the Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association
ACADEMIC ALIGNMENT TEMPLATE FOR PHILOSOPHY
This is the document that Dr. Murphy submitted to the upper administration in November of 2021
Faculty/Student Ratios (FTEs) for Philosophy, The School of Arts and Sciences and for the college as a whole since 2010
NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHY MAJORS 1992-2022
A semester by semester breakdown of numbers of majors, 1992-2022
2017 PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT PROGRAM REVIEW SELF-STUDY
This is the self-study Dr. Murphy compiled for our 2017 External Program Review
ASSESSMENT OF SUNY POTSDAM PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT
The external reviewers' report following their campus visit in 2017
2007 PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT REVIEW SELF-STUDY
This is the self-study Dr. Curry complied for our 2007 External Program Review
EXTERNAL REVIEWERS' REPORT 2007
The external reviewers' report from 2007
Dr. Curry's C.V.
Dr. Murphy's C.V.