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Defying the Humanities Crisis

April 3, 2013

Many humanities programs are fighting off cuts and trying to hold on to faculty lines, but two philosophy departments are boosting their enrollments and reputations through a combination of administrations willing to invest in the discipline and departments eager to go beyond them.

The philosophy department at the University of Connecticut at Storrs has added eight new faculty members in the past two years, and it is now about twice as large as it was a few years ago. Meanwhile, the department at the University of Southern California has hired almost a dozen new professors in the last decade.

USC's hiring has caused the program to rocket up 35 spots on the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks graduate programs in philosophy based on the reputation of their faculty members.

“[N]o department has improved more over the last decade than USC,” Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who edits the report, said in an e-mail. He said USC, tied at No. 11, is likely to crack the top 10 if its upward trajectory continues.

Common to both departments is an aggressive focus on attracting prominent senior and promising junior faculty members, and developing interdisciplinary programs. The departments have also greatly benefited from support from their respective administrations -- UConn’s through a partnership with President Susan Herbst, whom faculty members described as being "in sync" with the department’s aspirations, and USC from a plan to recruit 100 instructors to the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the early 2000s.

“What we’ve tried to do is use interdisciplinary contacts to leverage university strength to our strength,” said Donald L. M. Baxter, who heads the philosophy department at UConn. The department recently announced Dorit Bar-On and Keith Simmons, both professors of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will join the institution in fall 2014. UConn has also poached Bar-On's research partner Mitchell S. Green from the University of Virginia.

The interdisciplinary expansion has granted the philosophy department access to funds otherwise beyond its reach. Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, is seeking to advance education in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- with a $1.5 billion investment over the next decade. Some of that money, along with support from the private sector, is likely to go toward establishing a cognitive science institute. With the department’s focus on philosophy of logic and language, Bar-On said philosophy professors will have a “very central role to play” in the institute.

“That’s not unheard of, but it’s somewhat unusual to have philosophers be regarded as such an important part of these kinds of efforts,” Bar-On said, adding that the “substantial support” UConn is providing to projects such as the cognitive science institute is helping to expand the breadth of its philosophy department.

The department is making similar interdepartmental connections with its other concentrations, including to women’s studies and human rights, African-American studies and math.

“That’s the nature of the discipline,” Baxter said. “We deal with foundational issues of kind of a synoptic view of humans in the world. Any help we can get from other disciplines in helping us put together a worldview is what we seek.”

While USC’s ranking stems from the quality and reputation of its faculty, the philosophy department has expanded its interdisciplinary programs for undergraduate and graduate students alike. New additions include a progressive 5-year master of arts degree in philosophy and law, and an interdisciplinary major in philosophy, politics and law, which has grown from 18 to 201 students in less than four years. In that same time, the department’s total number of philosophy majors has gone from about 125 to 258, said Scott Soames, chairman of USC's philosophy department.

Notable hires at USC include three professors from the University of Oxford: John Hawthorne, Ralph Wedgwood and Gabriel Uzquiano Cruz. Soames left Princeton University to join USC in 2004

"At a time in which [humanities programs] are losing majors everywhere, we doubled,” Soames said. “We doubled it in large part because we thought that there was a way that we could reach a broader public by combining what we had to offer with what these other units had to offer.”

Soames said the department is also planning to participate in two new interdisciplinary programs -- one involving health ethics and policies, the other environmental science. Instead of diluting the study of philosophy by combining it with courses in social sciences, Soames said his discipline is well-positioned to connect with other disciplines.

“Philosophy’s specialty, really, is in helping to shape inquiries and questions that are initially not at home in any established discipline,” Soames said. “[W]e have to find ways of what we do meet the needs of the students of our university community.” 

 

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