Facebook may save philosophy… this time

At Greenwich University in the UK, the honors BA in philosophy is on the chopping block. The Times Higher Education (UK equivalent of the Chronicle of Higher Education) describes the backlash from philosophical faculty and department heads that are members of the British Philosophical Association from around the UK, as well as a Facebook group (“Save Philosophy at Greenwich”) totaling 541 members – as of this morning.

But a statement from the University and College Union of Greenwich emphasizes that the philosophy program as a whole has been successful, even in the past few years:

The philosophy degree has been popular among students, received excellent reports at its last validation, and recruitment on the programme has tripled last year, while applications for this year are higher still… Management has not presented any objective argument for this decision, and staff were not involved in the discussions at all.

They call this a “questionable” style of management – a critique with which I would agree. These kinds of reactionary responses are necessary for challenging administrative judgments that appear to have no solid foundation, either fiscal or ideological. Accountability is not a one-way street, nor should it be. Even the Facebook crowd recognizes how arbitrary and unnecessary the decision seems, and in mobilizing the online community, perhaps they can affect a reversal in the same way petitioners did at Keele University. It seems an unlikely source of support for such a traditional discipline, but perhaps the value of philosophy is apparent to anyone who takes it seriously.

But in order to push back more effectively, and to avoid being caught in the cycle of reactivity – akin to running on a treadmill where someone continually ramps up the pace – one must also think proactively about the situation. This would amount to getting off the treadmill entirely, answering the push for accountability with a self-account that doesn’t simply assume the external evaluative structures provided; for instance, the metrics typically used for evaluation vs. self-generated metrics that make your department look the best it can.

Reactivity may be able to save some departments, but it will not save all. As the accountability push within academia grows in external strength and support, this will become an increasingly important point not only for philosophy departments, but for all academic departments do not demonstrate superficial, easily quantified economic value.

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