To be or not to be…


It’s March 18 and the philosophy department is supposed to be having a special meeting about its future. Few show up on time. It’s 10:31 a.m.

Clevis Headley, an associate professor in the department, glances behind him at a UP reporter. He asks, “Do we have a visitor?” The acting chair of the department nods. Headley grabs his belongings and leaves.

Marina Banchetti, the associate dean in the group, would be the department’s only hope at quorum — with six members left, four would be necessary for a vote to carry through — now that Headley’s gone. She’s busy, but said she’d arrive soon after 10:30. It’s 10:34 a.m.

Lester Embree, one of two eminent scholars in the department, asks impatiently if the meeting will happen or not. Jeffrey Morton, who had taken up as acting chair last year, assures him that they would wait for 15 minutes.

Smalltalk ensues. It’s 10:45 a.m. Banchetti, who happens to be Headley’s wife, never shows. Morton calls it. Everyone stands up and slowly shuffles out.

The meeting is officially nixed. There is neither yay nor nay.

The future of the philosophy department and the major it offers will remain unknown for now.


The unexamined life is not worth living

Over the past two years, the philosophy department has shrunk from 11 professors to just six. Two of them are eminent scholars and are only supposed to teach approximately two courses a semester — the rest of their time is spent writing books or traveling.

With 46 students registered under a philosophy focus in the spring 2011 semester, there has been speculation that the department may not be able to continue its normal operation.

Simon Glynn, a full professor in the department, wrote The Case for Ongoing Support of the Philosophy Department as a supplement to the meeting mentioned above. He wrote that there is “clear evidence of [the department’s] continuing capacity to offer the degree.” Glynn continued, “And there is obviously much room for optimism concerning our increasing capacity to attract majors and minors.”

In the latest development of the philosophy department’s ballad, three professors were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed. The message came on March 2 in a subject-less email from Jeffrey Morton.

” … The Department of Philosophy will no longer be able to retain any of its instructors or adjuncts beyond the current semester,” he wrote. “The university’s allocation of resources leaves the department with funds only for the six tenured members of the department.”

James Tracy, the president of FAU’s faculty union, didn’t buy the “allocation of resources” argument.

“For every empty shell, there’s a shell with money underneath it,” he said. “It doesn’t cost very much to keep a philosophy department afloat. If [the university] wants the prestige of having a philosophy department, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make it happen.”

Prestige is just one of the tenets associated with philosophy in higher education, according to Gene Witmer, chair of the University of Florida philosophy department. He said that a public university, funded by the public, has a responsibility for the public good. That good, he claimed, includes philosophy, the oldest subject of education.

“You want people to be able to participate in democracy. You want somebody who is used to thinking about big, complex subjects,” Witmer said. “Philosophy encourages not only critical thinking, but patience. It makes you humble. It gives you confidence. You find out you don’t have to rely only on what someone else tells you.”

If the university doesn’t offer it, Witmer claimed, “[philosophy] will disappear entirely.”

But the chair of philosophy from a traditional university like UF — the same type of traditional university that FAU strives to become — is not the only one who feels this way.

Kenneth Henley, chair of the philosophy department at Florida International University, goes even further.

“Philosophy is a core discipline for universities and liberal arts colleges,” he wrote in an email. “A college or university without a philosophy department will be considered by the academic world as a mere technical institute.”


Pointing fingers

According to acting chair Jeffrey Morton, FAU is not the one who will be responsible if the department is dissolved, pointing out that the department had made “no progress” since he took over in November 2010 when then-chair Clevis Headley resigned two weeks after a lawsuit against FAU mentioned his name.

“The university has given the department of philosophy every opportunity to mend its internal fences, to get along and to work together,” Morton said. “Half the department doesn’t want to keep it as a department.” Of the half that wants to keep the department, Morton exclaimed, “Where is their leadership? Where is their energy?”

Jari Niemi, an assistant professor who was informed last year he’d been terminated as of the coming summer, said he thinks the university is in fact responsible for the slow downfall of the department.

“They’re really putting extra pressure on the department, making it virtually impossible to function,” he said, explaining that by cutting out positions, the administration can now make it look as if the department is “soiling” its own home.

Niemi concluded, “It’s not us, we’re not doing anything to ourselves. This is being done to us. The story that we’re imploding — like it’s our fault in some way — has got to stop.”


No good deed goes unpunished

Andrew Dobson was one of those terminated more recently, along with two more adjunct professors in the department.

He had been part of the philosophy department for 15 years.

“I’ve been made to feel like teaching at FAU is like sleeping with a duchess — like it’s a privilege,” he said. “I sort of have a little glimmer of hope that this might change. I would teach [again] at FAU if the decision was changed.”

Before his termination, Dobson was working with the department to try to help it recruit more majors and retain them, he said. Meetings were set up where a draft was being written for the sake of the department. Dobson said that the “proposal was going to keep everything together.”

Sandy Luria, a political science major who had taken one of Dobson’s classes, said that he feels there’s a general under-appreciation of professors that teach intro-level classes.

“Dobson is one of the most interesting and intelligent professors I’ve had, and any one of his students can tell you that his knowledge is not just limited to the subject of philosophy,” the junior said. “But because he strictly teaches the intro course, I think it’s possible that the department is overlooking his value as a professor. Regardless, I believe any university is better off having Dobson than not.”

Dana Quirey, a graduate anthropology student, found her way into teacher assisting (TAing) in the philosophy department. She said that money can’t possibly be an issue when higher-ranking professors, like the eminent scholars, are paid more and teach less.

“There’s plenty of money to pay people who aren’t really involved in the teaching aspect and don’t want to be,” she said. “But the money for the adjuncts who are closer to the students and work harder isn’t there.”

Quirey had a message for incoming freshmen: “I would recommend you go to a different university because your degree is only worth what your university is worth,” she said.

“If a department may not be there long after you graduate, your degree won’t mean as much.”

When the March 18 meeting adjourned, Morton promised the group that he would work with the department’s secretary to reschedule the meeting. If quorum is achieved next time, the department will vote on the fall 2011 philosophy major — or not.