Save Philosophy at Northampton

David Wall writes:

as has happened at a number of universities in the UK, the Executive Dean of
the School of Social Sciences at the University of Northampton has decided
to phase out the teaching of philosophy and close the department here. This
is planned to take effect from next year with no new intake of students for
philosophy from 2012/13. We think this decision is unjustified, for the
reasons described in the template letter below and others, and hope to get
the decision reversed so that philosophy can continue to be taught here. We
would be very grateful for your help and support with this. If you agree
and are willing to help please sign the template letter and copy it into, or
attach to an email to the Vice Chancellor of the University at
Nick.Petford AT or send a hard copy by mail to Professor Nick
Petford, The Vice Chancellor, The University of Northampton, Directorate,
Boughton Green Road, Northampton, NN2 7AL, UK.

The Vice Chancellor
Professor Nicholas Petford
The University of Northampton,
Boughton Green Road, Northampton, NN2 7AL

Dear Professor Petford,

I am writing to express my concern about the recent decision by the
Executive Dean of Social Sciences to phase out the teaching of philosophy
and close the department at the University of Northampton. This decision
seems unreasonable both financially and academically.

As a category D subject (according to the classification system of
the UK government’s recent white paper on competition in higher education)
philosophy has low running costs for the university, currently employing
only 2.3 members of staff. These costs are more than funded by the student
fees it earns as it attracts good numbers of students. In addition to the
existing students this year’s first year intake will be 13 single honours
and 11 joint honours students. These numbers compare well with those of
departments of similar size both within the University of Northampton and
against other universities and would be greater were they not limited by the
current caps on student intakes. Moreover, there is evidence that these
good numbers will continue with numbers of applications and offers
increasing year-on-year from 2010/11 to 2011/12 (the two years in which a
single honours programme has been offered and for which final intakes have
been determined by the caps rather than the interest from prospective
students) in contrast with many other subjects in the university, and the
government white paper suggests that category D subjects such as philosophy
will be least at risk from competition from the private sector in the near
future. So there are good financial reasons to continue to teach philosophy
at Northampton.

Similarly, the department justifies itself academically, achieving
excellent results and providing students with a very good overall experience
of being at university. In 2010/11 80% of completing students in philosophy
achieved ‘good’ degrees (level 2:1 and above) which again compares well with
philosophy departments of similar size in other universities and with
similar sized subjects at Northampton. It is anticipated that this will be
maintained or improve as a greater proportion of students are single honours
who will spend more time dedicated to studying philosophy and receive a more
complete and thorough philosophical education, and end of year exam results
and progression rates support this optimism. In addition, philosophy is
integrated with a number of other subjects in the university. The
department offers modules that are relevant to, and popular with students
taking courses in politics, law, sociology, business, etc, as well as
modules that are popular generally as electives, such as the modules in
moral theory and in philosophy of religion. This contribution to the
broader educational experience would be lost if philosophy were to close.

In addition to these financial and academic considerations there are
important reasons related to the ethos and standing of the university not to
close the department. Philosophy is among the traditional, core subjects of
higher education and we believe that any university worth of the status
should offer it for study. As well as the training that philosophy provides
for a broad range of careers, something frequently acknowledged by employers
in fields such as journalism, business marketing, analysis and consultancy,
civil service, education, etc, it reflects the fact that attending
university is about more than merely gaining vocational training. Students
recognise this and it is likely to be an even more important consideration
for them when they are potentially paying more to attend university from
2012/13 with the introduction of higher tuition fees.

So, there are good ideological, academic, and financial reasons to
continue to teach philosophy at the University of Northampton. I urge you
to reconsider and reverse the decision to close the department there and to
do so as soon as possible so that it can be properly advertised in the UCAS
entry system for 2012/13.

7 thoughts on “Save Philosophy at Northampton

  1. I am against closing philosophy departments, mainly because I think a few philosophical subjects do no harm to students of other degrees and in fact enrich their lives

    But I am not sure if it is very wise to try to change Northampton’s mind with financial or capacity arguments. Do we want to sink so low?
    Also, it’s a slippery slope. Philosophy departments might get cut exactly BECAUSE they are cheap to teach. Universities in England want to charge the new maximum tuition fees allowed, 9,000 £ per year, from as many students as possible. Students who have to take on that much debt are more likely to opt for courses that yield some financial return, like law or economics (which are also not much more expensive to teach).

  2. I have mixed feelings about this.

    This is the second time we have been asked to write in support of closing a philosophy department consisting entirely of men. (The UNLV consisted of about ten men).

    I feel as though I don’t know enough. I do agree that philosophy courses ought to continue to be available for the sake of the students — absolutely. However, there have been other ways to do that (Annette Baier taught philosophy for years at Carnegie-Mellon University before it had a philosophy department, until the philosophy department at U Pittsburgh was finally willing to let her be on its faculty. CalTech, which has excellent philosophers, does not have a separate philosophy department).

    Do we know whether, when cuts are made, a preference for eliminating all-male departments might not lead to the teaching/learning of philosophy in departments that do not conceive of themselves as “philosophy” departments, in a staid sense of “philosophy” that carries along objectionable biases?

  3. Andreas– I think we must “sink so low” as to make financial arguments, since it is financial concerns that are behind these moves.

    Anonymous– I have seen no indications that gender is a factor when decisions to cut philosophy departments are made. And while it does seem legitimate to criticise a 10 person department for being all-male, I don’t think it’s legitimate for a 2.3 person department.

    Whatever sort of philosophy we ourselves do, and whatever our social justice goals, it is surely a bad thing for philosophy to be viewed as dispensable. That’s why I think we have to join in these fights.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree it is a bad thing for philosophy to be viewed as dispensable. I also think it is a bad thing for undergraduate women’s only option for studying philosophy is from departments consisting of and run almost entirely by men.

    I wanted to separate the teaching of philosophy at the university level from the existence of philosophy departments. It allows us to ask some additional questions that cannot be asked if the two are equated. It is relevant to gender, I guess, if standalone philosophy departments tend to be more segregated wrt gender than other departments in which the teaching of philosophy has sometimes been housed.

    I hope that makes sense.

  5. Why is it “surely a bad thing for philosophy to be viewed as dispensable”? This is not a rhetorical question–as philosophy departments threatened with closure are learning the hard way.

    It’s not obvious, even to some of us in philosophy departments, that much of the philosophical research being done might be intellectually valuable enough to warrant ongoing sponsorship. Maybe the time has come for the philosophy profession to begin taking such challenges seriously, instead of assuming or reciting answers that non-philosophers in the university increasingly find unconvincing.

  6. But Anonymous 5:04, there’s so much more to a department, especially a small philosophy department, than its research value. Bare employment as an instructor (usually of the ‘majors’ of other departments who perhaps will be better in their chosen fields for having taken philosophy) and recognition of one’s service to one’s students, college and community are choiceworthy in themselves (heh, I’ve been reading a lot of Aristotle lately).

    And having said all that… you’re right. You’re totally right, the time has come for the profession to take such challenges to our reasons for continuing as we were, very very seriously. I truly see myself as a professor who could make our nursing majors better nurses, our biz admin students better administrators of businesses, and our future lawyers and legislators — well, they already take my classes! They report very happy expansion of their abilities as a result of philosophy. This is an argument worth making, and not necessarily in the ways we’ve made them in the past.

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