Students and faculty are scrambling to save the philosophy major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney after state and campus officials proposed axing the program because it is underenrolled.
The recommendation to eliminate the philosophy major at UNK was first handed down from Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education in 2019. At the time, UNK administration asked for the chance to build up the major and increase the number of graduates. The expectation from CCPE was for the program to graduate seven students a year among an undergraduate population that hovers around 5,000. CCPE numbers, however, show an average of fewer than two philosophy graduates a year at UNK since the major was first approved in 2004.
Now it appears that time has run out: UNK leadership has officially requested permission from the Nebraska Board of Regents to wind down the philosophy major and bar new enrollments.
Philosophy faculty are indignant. They say the university hasn’t done its part to grow the program, citing reduced humanities requirements in the general education curriculum, which have resulted in fewer students taking philosophy classes, and administrators dismissing proposed programs with an interdisciplinary focus.
Finding Philosophy Majors
Philosophy majors are typically students who take an introductory class and get hooked on the topic, said David Rozema, a UNK professor and the philosophy program director. Recently reduced requirements for humanities courses, he said, means students have less exposure to philosophy.
“I am convinced that a lot of the reasons those numbers are low is because our administration has not done what it should do to promote our program to try to get students to engage in philosophy,” Rozema said. “If they had done that, we wouldn’t be in this position.”
UNK administrators also shot down plans to introduce a pre-law track and philosophy and literature program that would have generated more exposure to philosophy, he said, ultimately undercutting the major.
“I feel like, on the one hand, our administration gives lip service to the value of philosophy and how it’s important for every student to have some exposure to philosophy, but on the other hand, in their actions, they’ve made it harder and harder for students to take philosophy classes,” Rozema said.
What Rozema refers to as “the failings of the administration” are more complex than they appear, said Charles Bicak, UNK senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. Bicak noted that the faculty council approved general education standards that reduced requirements for humanities. The new core curriculum, approved in 2020, dropped the minimum credit hours required for general education from 45 to a total of 30 to 31. Bicak also cited faculty governance for the reason proposals to create interdisciplinary philosophy programs were not approved.
“The changes within a general studies or general education program begin with and are developed with the faculty. Essentially, administration is at the end of the process,” he said. “This is a faculty consideration as opposed to an administrative decree in one direction or another.”
Another point of contention between administration and faculty is the actual number of philosophy majors. UNK administration counts three; Rozema counts eight, including double majors.
“My understanding is that there is a true distinction between a double major and an individual major,” Bicak said, a benchmark and distinction that the Coordinating Commission established.
COVID-19 has also hurt the recruiting process for the philosophy program, limiting direct contact with potential incoming students. Given the stagnant number of philosophy majors, UNK had tasked the program with recruiting more prospects from local high schools and introducing them to the discipline before they arrived on campus in order to drum up interest in the major. But as the coronavirus spread across the U.S. and schools closed en masse, those plans hit a snag.
Now this week the proposal to cut the philosophy major at UNK will go before the Nebraska Board of Regents Academic Affairs committee, which will review the matter and make a recommendation that the full board is expected to act on as early as February.
The National Trend
If the Board of Regents eliminates the philosophy major at UNK, it will essentially be following a national trend. The list of colleges that have dropped philosophy as a major in recent years includes Liberty University, Western Oregon University and Elizabethtown College.
The trend is one that the American Philosophy Association watches closely, sending letters of support to university administrators to advocate for departments facing cuts and closures, according to Amy Ferrer, executive director of the APA.
Ferrer said the organization wrote six such letters in 2020 and four in 2021.
“We do often hear that the main rationales for cuts to philosophy programs have to do with simple numerical metrics, particularly numbers of majors (often not counting double majors, which is quite common for students majoring in philosophy),” Ferrer wrote in an email. “Anecdotally, my sense is that departments are less likely to face cuts and more likely to be able to reverse threatened cuts when they have strong interdepartmental connections, such as interdisciplinary major and minor tracks. Those connections often help philosophy departments demonstrate to their administrations that the simple numerical metrics that are often used to justify cuts don’t accurately reflect the impact and importance of the philosophy department.”
What’s Lost Without Philosophy
Jonathan Drozda, a UNK senior who is double majoring in psychology and philosophy, said his interest in philosophy began in high school but wasn’t nurtured until college. In his second semester at UNK, he took a philosophy course, an experience that then led him into the major.
Now he’s circulating a petition to keep the philosophy major alive at UNK, concerned that the loss of the program will mean an education that lacks depth. He worries that pared-down humanities requirements will lead fewer students down the path he took and the elimination of the major will limit opportunities to think deeply and examine the purpose of life.
“I think if we lose the philosophy major, there would be much less emphasis in thought that relates to meaning in life,” Drozda said.
Rozema also has concerns about fewer students in philosophy and what it means for the development of those individuals who, he says, would benefit from philosophy over a lifetime.
“We try to teach students how to think well, try to instill in them ethical principles that they can live by, virtues,” he said. “And if you deprive students of those chances, then you perpetuate the problem we have in the world of people who can’t think well, can’t be critical, aren’t very logical.”
Though the major is in jeopardy, Bicak noted the philosophy minor will remain in place at UNK. And while faculty members are concerned about what cutting the major may mean for their job security, Bicak said that “any change of that nature is yet to be determined” at this point in time, noting there will still be courses to teach in the minor and for general studies classes.
Despite making the recommendation to eliminate the philosophy major, Bicak noted it was a decision he arrived at with difficulty, one that he sees as being good stewardship of taxpayer dollars at a public university where programs come and go based on head counts and benchmarks.
“A decision like this or recommendation like this deeply saddens me, because an area like philosophy is so central to the description and identity of any university, certainly one that has a liberal arts emphasis [as] we do,” Bicak said. “I think we need to examine ways to ensure that we retain that identity. But we are not inconsistent with the national trend.”