Future of University's Philosophy Major in Danger, Professors Say

By Holly McClellan

Academic Council's vote to cut the major awaits approval by the board of trustees

16
Jan
`13
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David Mills

Rumors are swirling about the proposed cut of Cedarville’s philosophy major. David Mills and Shawn Graves, the program’s two primary professors, have sought to clear up the controversy, though much of the truth of the situation remains unknown even to them.

The two professors confirmed that the university’s Academic Council has voted to end the program, pending a decision from the board of trustees. Graves said Wednesday that the philosophy program has until Jan. 23, the day before the board’s next meeting, to form a defense for why their program should not be cut.

Mills said that he, Graves, and professors Aaron James and Dan Ebert received a letter on Sept. 13 from Bible department chair Chris Miller that stated that the philosophy program would be under review. Mills said the letter specified that Miller had received this information from Steve Winteregg, the associate academic vice president of the college of arts and sciences.

The letter said the review process was to be “largely a data-collecting chore,” with some information gathered by the professors and others from institutional records.

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Shawn Graves

Mills said the professors then planned to meet the next week, but by the time they were all able to gather on Sept. 20, they learned that they had to have their report completed by Sept. 21 – the next day.

“We were extremely rushed at the front end,” Mills said. “Where the explanation for that lies, I don’t know.”

Nevertheless, Graves said the task was then divided up among the professors who teach classes in the major. Each was tasked with answering questions about the philosophy major, from simply naming the faculty involved to future developments for the program and post-graduation outcomes for students who majored in philosophy.

“We did the best we could given the short time frame we were operating on to go back five to seven years and beyond, just in recent memory, to identify the graduates as best we could and what they were doing,” Graves said.

Mills, who has been with the university since 1994, said that to his knowledge the philosophy program has never been under this kind of review since it was added to the catalogue in 1992. Winteregg said that the process follows a mandate by the board of trustees for academic programs to be reviewed every five years, but that the mandate was a relatively recent one.

“We were told that there were certain factors that they look at, like number of students in the program, number of students graduating, the size of various classes, whether you had a trend of declining or growing enrollment,” Mills said.

“We had to give the data for each of those and then a plan of action for addressing those because we were told that we were sort of ‘in trouble’ on three of the five indicators: class sizes, number of majors and number of graduates.”

Mills said that the professors submitted an action plan in the short amount of time they were given and were then notified that the plan was not sufficient and required more “robust attention.” Mills said the faculty then did just that.

“We showed, for instance, that Dr. Graves and I as philosophy professors sell an average of 433 credit hours per faculty member,” Mills said. “That’s more than the hours sold by business administration, engineering, nursing, social work, art, theater and design professors. [Philosophy] is second only to psychology in terms of a program that doesn’t have a gen ed requirement.”

Mills continued to say that the more “robust” action plan addressed structural issues in the program and elaborated on philosophy students’ performance while at Cedarville as well as their post-graduate successes.

Mills said that this fuller report was submitted in the first week of October. The philosophy program then received word that the philosophy major, along with three other majors (keyboard pedagogy, sociology and physics) had been submitted for levels of higher scrutiny. On Nov. 28, Cedarville’s Academic Council – a body which includes many of Cedarville’s deans – met to review these programs.

At this meeting, Mills said, the council voted to end the philosophy major. Winteregg, who is on the council, declined to comment on the proceedings until after the trustees’ decision.

Mills said that Thomas Cornman, the university’s academic vice president, informed department chair Miller of this decision on Dec. 10, and the information reached Mills and Graves themselves on Dec. 17. Mills was not able to see the letter from Cornman until the 26th.

“The letter doesn’t explain any of the reasons, it just says, ‘Here’s the decision’ and tells us we have till Jan. 10 to respond again,” Mills said when interviewed on Jan. 14. “I didn’t get the details of the rationale until Jan. 8, a week ago tomorrow, which was also the first occasion Dr. Graves and I had to speak face-to-face, since it was over break.”

Simultaneously dealing with the first week of a new semester, Mills and Graves appealed for an extension of the response window. At the time of the interview on Jan. 14, they had not received a reply. By the next day, Graves said he and Mills received word that they had been granted an extension until Jan. 23.

Graves said that at this point he’s not sure how philosophy faculty can rebut a decision of which they are not fully informed.

“It would be difficult to do so at this point insofar as we are responding out of ignorance as to the rationale,” Graves said.

Mills continued that discussion of a proposed curtailed philosophy program was likewise vague.

“The letter from Dr. Cornman does specify eliminating a faculty position, but then it also says something about a ‘teach out’ plan required to service existing majors,” Mills said. “The catalogue is a legal contract, basically. If you’ve declared a philosophy major, you have a legal right to finish that major. So they have to provide an option to do that. Now, what that looks like is anybody’s guess.”

Several possibilities include keeping both the professors for the next two years, replacing one or both with adjuncts, eliminating all upper-division philosophy classes, and a wealth of other possibilities, Mills said. Only time will tell.

Graves said that while financial reasons have been alluded to, concrete details for the dissolving of the philosophy major have not been provided to them up to that point.

“The budgetary situation is not good,” Mills added. “They’re looking to find $4 million out of this year’s budget, and that’s taking the form of deep cuts in a lot of places. We’ve made the argument that if one student decides to leave Cedarville or not come to Cedarville because of the lack of a philosophy program, that will actually cost the university more money than they would save by eliminating one of us. And we’ve done the math on the tuition hours we sell, but those arguments have not been persuasive to this point for whatever reason.”

Talks of financial difficulties come at the same time the university is expanding other programs, particularly the health sciences. Though this has led some students to conjecture that the university is favoring some programs to the detriment of others, Mills and Graves said that this was never communicated to them.

“I certainly don’t recall it ever being communicated as we were deliberating on adopting various professional programs that it would very likely come at the cost of some of the core liberal arts,” Graves said.

“In fact, the opposite was communicated before,” Mills added. “Dr. Brown has spoken for years about not only continuing the investments in excellence in engineering and now the health sciences but also bringing up the level of the liberal arts side of the curriculum to an equal level of investment in excellence and attention and respect.”

An article appended to the Biblical and Ministry Studies department’s section of the university website on Jan. 14, the day Cedars spoke to Mills and Graves, attempts to clear up the confusion but seems to be at odds with the professors’ testimonies. The article states that the reason for the Academic Council’s recommendation to remove the major was due to the fact that there are currently only nine students majoring in philosophy, and due to the “downward trend” of philosophy majors, “the major is not financially viable.”

“The Department of Biblical and Ministry Studies was notified of the recommendation related to Philosophy, had the opportunity to respond, but did not,” the article said.

However, as Mills and Graves noted, the philosophy faculty did respond to the recommendation, asking for an extension – a request to which they had not received a response. Graves said the department finally received a response on Jan. 15, granting them an extension until the 23rd.

The article has since been removed from the university’s website. Mills said that Cornman wrote the article and had been sending it to various students and alumni who have asked questions about the philosophy major, but that Cornman had not authorized the article for mass distribution via the website. Mills has since requested Cornman follow up with those who were sent the inaccurate information, and he has not yet received a response.

Since the philosophy faculty shared this information with its students last week, response has been overwhelming. Blogs have been created by students and alumni to protest the proposed cut, saying that to eliminate the program would severely curtail critical thinking at the university.

“To be clear, it’s nothing we asked for, nothing we initiated, nothing we expected or prompted in any way,” Mills said of the student response. “But it’s heartwarming to see the affections and loyalties of students to the program and faculty that have been a meaningful part of their experience here.”

“The personal stories have been beautiful and encouraging, and we appreciate them a great deal,” Graves added.

Graves said that even in the short time since the announcement of the possible end of the major, three students have declared philosophy as their major, bringing the total to 12, with the possibility of more. But Mills added that with philosophy’s future unstable, many students are looking outside of the university.

“They’re raising the question, ‘Do I want a diploma in philosophy from a school that doesn’t offer philosophy anymore, or would it be best to cut my losses at this point and transfer to Calvin or Wheaton or a school like that with a well-established, highly respected, well-supported, well-funded, growing and vibrant program?’”

The professors say that the increased response has only furthered the consensus that the philosophy major is a vital part of Cedarville, one that the university cannot afford to lose.

“It seems hard to maintain the claim that we are a liberal arts university if we are actively pursuing the elimination of one of the core liberal arts,” Graves said.

“Philosophy asks questions that creep into every area of inquiry, like it or not,” he continued. “And so we find every major at this university bumping up against philosophy.” He noted that this is why some students decide to add a philosophy major to their other course of studies.

“If we’re going to do many of these other disciplines well,” Graves said, “it seems like we need a robust philosophical presence here on campus.”

UPDATE as of 6:00 p.m. Jan. 16


Mills informed Cedars that Cornman has begun contacting those who received erroneous information about the philosophy major and is setting the record straight.

Cedars has also been in contact with Cedarville faculty such as Thomas Mach, chair of the history and government department; Beth Cram Porter, chair of the music and worship department; and Dennis Flentge, chair of the department of science and mathematics.

These professors have confirmed that the sociology and keyboard pedagogy majors, as well as the physics B.A. and/or B.S. programs, are likewise under review. Many faculty members declined further comment until after the meeting of the board of trustees next week. Cedars will continue updates as the story develops.


Read Cedars .PDF