After Keele, Who’s Next?

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 18, 2011

So after an attempt to close down Philosophy at Middlesex and cut Philosophy at King’s College London, now the Philosophy Department in Keele is threatened with closure, together with Keele’s Centre for Professional Ethics. You can read all about it here. I really can’t help but wonder: “Who’s next?” We earlier reported here on plans to cut funding for the humanities and the social sciences at the EU-research spending level.

I think the tendencies are clear. If you are teaching/doing research in a field/discipline that can not easily show (quantitatively, please!) to policy makers & bureaucrats that you will make a significant positive contribute to economic growth, your very existence is at stake. Never mind that you’re opening up minds, teaching logic or the arts, passing on history to the next generations. Either someone on the market should be willing to pay for what you’re doing, or else you are at mercy of the benevolence of your government. The University as a public good? That’s an old fashioned idea from premodern times, obviously.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read the EU agenda on the modernization of the Universities, published by EU bureaucrats in 2006. I think what we’re witnessing now, is that this agenda has touched the lowests levels of execution, and that the financial crisis is seen as a great opportunity to push it through. A tiny bit of this ‘modernization agenda’, like the stress on international mobility of students and teachers, could be explained by the goals of creating multi-national understanding and hence contributing to peace. But the rest of that agenda regards the university primarily (perhaps solely?) as an instrument for the economy. We had better become more worried, and we had better started to create a counter-discourse to this narrow economistic paradigm then. What I see around me, and what I see developing that hasn’t been fully worked out yet, worries me a lot.



Liam 03.18.11 at 10:36 pm

anyone concerned about the situation at Keele should join this facebook group
sign this petition
email this address

The senate meets in early April and the departments may yet be saved so your intervention may prove decisive.

Many thanks,


Metatone 03.18.11 at 10:59 pm

One of the deep ironies in the UK is how the EU is still often held up as a socialist bogeyman, but the policies of recent years have been very neo-liberal.

In the end of course, the problem is that absent a defeat for the neo-liberal conception of the economy, how is it any easier to save universities than to save various other institutions that have been dismantled over the last 30 years?

Not to discourage you from trying, but it feels like the battle was lost when no-one developed a counter-discourse to “austerity” in the first place.


PHB 03.18.11 at 11:05 pm

This seems a rather bizarre approach.

Would a university consider closing down their math department as not being directly applicable to industrial needs?

Philosophy is a foundational subject. The modern understanding of computing comes directly from work done by Russell et. al. at the turn of the 20th century. The World Wide Web was heavily influenced by post-modernism.

There could be an argument for not offering philosophy at a third tier ‘university’ that can’t attract an appropriate faculty or students but Keele used to have ambitions of becoming a top tier player.


James Ladyman 03.18.11 at 11:37 pm

Philosophy may well pay for itself at Keele if indeed it doesn’t make a profit but as with Middlesex the agenda seems to be that its ftes can be reallocated to STEM subjects for which the University thinks it will get more funding. Since student numbers are capped by the government any university wanting more STEM students will need to cut student numbers elsewhere. This is reveals the ultimate absurdity of government policy since a market in which suppliers are capped by the state in respect of what they supply is not really a market at all. The issue then in this case seems to be not so much that philosophy is not valuable to the economy but that it is not valuable enough to the university. There is a campaign to defend all the humanities in the face of all this lunacy:


Hidari 03.19.11 at 12:00 am

I know I have posted this before, and I know it is specific to the University of Glasgow, but it still seems to cut to the chase: the way that un (indeed, anti) democratic technocrats, their eyes dazzled with whatever the latest lunatic fad from Chicago might happen to be, have effectively hijacked most British Universities and are now taking advantage of the Great Recession to ram through ‘shock treatment’ (cf Naomi Klein) which will fundamentally alter the structure and purpose of British academia (for the worse).

‘“In practice, the powers of both Court and Senate have been eroded by the emergence of executive management groups, within which strategic decisions are made in the absence of widespread consultation,” the letter states. “These decisions are then reported to the governing bodies with limited supporting and background information.”

The academics go on to warn of the “substantial increase” in the proportion of university funds being spent on administration.

“Decisions, whether strategic or managerial, are increasingly made without appropriate consultation, and are, in effect, top-down decisions from a senior executive management group,” the letter adds.

“Consideration should be given to academic elections or confirmations in respect of key administrative posts. The academic body should, by vote, be able to confirm the appointment of the principal.”

The submission also calls for a review of the salaries of senior managerial staff with a view of capping salaries in future.

“Universities … exist for the public good, not as profit-making organisations. As such, they have charitable status. The high salary levels currently commanded by senior management are not compatible with this status and further alienate management from the academic body.”’’


Clay Shirky 03.19.11 at 1:50 am

“Either someone on the market should be willing to pay for what you’re doing, or else you are at mercy of the benevolence of your government.”

You seem to say this as if it is a new, terrible and incorrect attitude, but is this not in fact a fairly bald description of higher education, full stop? Is it not, in other words, simply the truth?

What’s changed is not this situation, stated here quite compactly; what’s changed is that you no longer have a benevolent government.


John Quiggin 03.19.11 at 3:05 am

@Clay I think the point might be made better if “capricious” were substituted for “benevolent”. What’s changed is not so much the presence or absence of benevolence (Thatcher, for example, was anything but benevolent, both in general and as regards universities) but an acceptance on the part of government that, as Ingrid says, universities are a longstanding source of public good, and that attempts to impose short-term priorities on them are likely to lead to disaster.


William Timberman 03.19.11 at 4:29 am

The periodic implosion of human civilizations seems to be something of a historical constant. We do read about them in our school days, but it’s quite a different matter to be living through one. Once we forget — yet again — what we’re about, no end of ancient demons attend the simplest of invocations. If the question is What good are universities anyway? the correct answer is, by definition, already out of our reach.


Mike Otsuka 03.19.11 at 7:55 am

I think the tendencies are clear. If you are teaching/doing research in a field/discipline that can not easily show (quantitatively, please!) to policy makers & bureaucrats that you will make a significant positive contribute to economic growth, your very existence is at stake.

The case of KCL Philosophy doesn’t readily fit this narrative, given the administration’s targetting of two of the Philosophy Department’s members — Shalom Lappin and Wilfried Meyer-Viol — as part of their baffling plan to “divest” themselves of “computational linguistics”. See, for example, this from Steven Pinker’s letter of protest against the attempt to fire Lappin:

Speech and language understanding are among the next frontiers in the world of computing; the PC or laptop that you will be using in five years will bear the marks of research in Lappin’s area. So will the very practice of science, as more and more fields cope with the torrent of scientific publication by using data‐mining techniques that automatically understand the text in tens of thousands of publications. One of the reasons that in the past progress in this field has been so halting is the lack of a deep understanding of the mathematical and logical problems inherent in understanding language. That is the foundational work in which Lappin is a major contributor.


Chris Bertram 03.19.11 at 9:19 am

I think changes in the environment at the EU level have very slow and uncertain effects on institutions, and I don’t think the are behind what is happening at Keele. Changes at the national level are more important here, and it maybe that the Keele management are banking on getting a higher proportion of STEM students as James says. That strikes me as nuts as a policy on their part and possibly the beginning of a massive multi-institution Prisoner’s dilemma if lots of institutions make the same move (as there aren’t enough STEM students to go round).

My experience suggests that university managements have very little interest in the intrinsic merits of any particular field of study and will dismiss arguments based on that as special pleading. Claims of inconsistency with past management decisions, broken promises, etc also count for nothing (as do assurances about the future). Long-term rationality is also likely to be in short supply. What is probably happening is (a) a short term need to cut costs on the balance sheet coupled with (b) an assessment of who is easiest to get rid of (easiest as in: we can get this policy through easiest and will meet least resistance). (b) is the key and (probably) the resistance you need to defeat a move like this can only come in the form of getting internal allies. Letters and emails from students and alumni will go straight into the bin or will get replies that repeat bland management-speak justification and aren’t responsive on the substance. Internal allies are the key.


Mike Otsuka 03.19.11 at 11:16 am

Chris — Perhaps KCL Philosophy is an unusual case. But my understanding is that, rather than internal allies, it was external pressure from people of standing in the relevant fields who could testify to the high quality of the research of those the administration was trying to sack that persuaded them to back down from plans to fire three members of the Philosophy Department. The case was made that nobody, no matter how outstanding his or her research, would regard a job at KCL as secure if, e.g., someone who was soon to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy (Lappin) could be sacked for falling outside of the field of ‘Vision for Arts & Humanities’ that a senior manager had drafted in an ‘Arts & Humanities Restructuring Consultation Document’, and that this would irreparably damage recruitment and retention. I believe that these letters made a difference.


tomslee 03.19.11 at 12:02 pm

“If you are teaching/doing research in a field/discipline that can not easily show (quantitatively, please!) to policy makers & bureaucrats that you will make a significant positive contribute to economic growth, your very existence is at stake. ”

Is this really the whole story? My old program (Chemistry, at Sussex) was nearly closed a few years ago despite good rankings and a couple of Nobel prize winners. It’s not the only chemistry department to be under threat either, and the rationale was not lack of contribution to economic growth but lack of demand among students, chemistry now being a musty, old-fashioned science.


Chris Bertram 03.19.11 at 12:09 pm

Mike – obviously, you may be right about KCL, and we are all in the position of generalizing from a few cases. However, in other cases (including Bristol) where management have played the “we need to save money and are therefore divesting from areas on strategic grounds” card, arguments such as you mention have cut no ice (I’ve put them myself). I also know what it is like to be on the management side, in receipt of multiple emails from alumni etc.

Mind you, most managements aren’t so stupid as to try to sack a prospective FBA. Mid-career Dr Muggins at 2nd tier institution, with a reasonable publication record and loved by students, isn’t going to get the same support as Lappin did.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.19.11 at 12:49 pm

Obviously the explanation that I suggested surely is not the whole story. But I see things evolving in the Netherlands that resembles (a weaker version of) what’s happening in the UK, so I think there is something bigger than just the national-level explanations. I hear stories (that I haven’t checked) from colleagues in Belgium and Germany that are not much better either. Of course, another explanation could be that these countries (and many EU countries) now have right-wing rather than left-wing governments. In any case, the economistic arguments I detect in both national and EU-level HE-policy documents scare me, and are not predicting much good for the humanities.


Pete 03.19.11 at 1:03 pm

Are we allowed to be anti-EU here? You do realise that’s the side with Daniel Hannan on?


bjk 03.19.11 at 1:13 pm

“Either someone on the market should be willing to pay for what you’re doing, or else you are at mercy of the benevolence of your government.”

This isn’t true in the US – there are plenty of universities in the US supported by endowments and alumni giving, in addition to parents who are willing to pay for a liberal education.

The whole idea of a university originated with the nation-state – Fichte and the German research university, and so on. So it’s reasonable to expect, as pointed out above, that the humanities will wither away when the university is globalized and marketized and so on. Too bad there are no conservatives around left to defend the university in a way that doesn’t sound like left-wing special pleading.


leederick 03.19.11 at 1:46 pm

“If you are teaching/doing research in a field/discipline that can not easily show (quantitatively, please!) to policy makers & bureaucrats that you will make a significant positive contribute to economic growth, your very existence is at stake…”

I think this is an absolute myth. It’s a caricature of what some academics wish the government was saying, rather than what they are.

Take the UK, I don’t like Lord Browne. But the guy clearly values the non-economic benefits of science for humanity, and the Browne Review explicitly says the sciences should be funded because of their social returns (in spite of their often low private returns). For contrast we can compare other subjects which clearly do make a significant contribution to economic growth, like accounting, which are not going to be funded – as they have low social returns and due to their private returns can self-finance.

“Either someone on the market should be willing to pay for what you’re doing, or else you are at mercy of the benevolence of your government”

Really? Medical humanities, for example, have always been very well funded thanks to the Wellcome Trust’s £14bn endowment, and that’s not going anywhere.

I think the humanities and the social sciences deserve public funding. But to say that sciences are being funded because of their economic contributions and that policy should be changed is completely the wrong way of arguing for this. They’re being funded because of their social returns and the humanities and the social sciences should be funded because they have social returns too. Academics aren’t doing themselves any favours by starting from the basis that policy makers are being driven by an argument they haven’t publicly accepted.


Steve LaBonne 03.19.11 at 2:09 pm

To add to what William Timberman said at #8- it’s surely a leading symptom of the implosion that a catastrophic failure of neoliberalism, whose painful effects are still being felt by almost everybody several years after the catastrophe, has left it (and the elite that benefits from it) more entrenched than ever; so much so that alternative ways of looking at society seem to have become literally unimaginable to all but a tiny minority. It’s difficult to envision a soft landing for a civilization that far gone in delusion. I’m more or less old enough not to mind (too much) living in “interesting” times, but I worry a lot about the world my daughter (now 18) will be facing.


Bill Wringe 03.19.11 at 4:03 pm

(Emerging temporarily from behind my usual CT ‘nym’, if that’s OK by Ingrid)

Before this thread gets trapped into the usual narrative of how philosophy departments can’t pay for themselves, its perhaps worth noticing that as well as shutting philosophy, Keele are also planning to shut the professional ethics centre, PEAK, which has apparently (per the BMJ’s blog) been a big external revenue generator in the past (and iirc doesn’t have undergraduates of its own).

Also: I’m not sure why, but I’ve noticed that people seem (here and over at Leiter) to be treating this fatalistically as a fait accompli, in a way that didn’t happen with either KCL or Middlesex (or slightly longer ago) with Birmingham.1 I don’t think that that’s much help to the people whose jobs are at stake;

1 all of which battles were won, to some extent.


Jonathan 03.19.11 at 4:10 pm

Ah, Keele strikes again. Keele was the uni that tried to butcher one of the more interesting management schools in 2008. The campaign to stop that was successful in the end, good luck with this one


Bill Wringe 03.19.11 at 7:31 pm

They also tried to shut down physics at Keele a few years back, I believe.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.19.11 at 8:19 pm

Bill is right that we shouldn’t assume as if it’s all decided yet, as the earlier cases clearly show. I’ve just signed the petition and hope to find time tomorrow to write a letter too.

As for the rather pessimistic hypothesis/claim in my post: Perhaps I may be too much influenced by having read lots of Dutch government reports and been too much of a (relatively close/privileged) witness of HE policy making in the Netherlands in the last 1,5 years (for reasons which would get us too much off-track here); and those documents and conversations make me rather pessimistic. As does the general political climate, which surely is along the lines suggested in my post (funding for the Arts and for other things that do not contribute (much) to GDP/capita growth, such as social work or special needs education, have been the first targets of the Budget cuts, whereas *more* money is invested in ‘innovation’ and collaboration between universities and businesses (and if there are some HE documents which refer regularly to ‘innovation’ and the importance of the contribution of HE to Europe’s cometitiveness, it surely must be those from the EU).


Kindred Winecoff 03.20.11 at 12:26 am

This is probably a bad policy, but I don’t think there’s any way you can characterize higher education as a “public good”. It is, after all, both excludable and rival. So knowing the distribution is necessary for determining the merit: if the cut here means some other cut somewhere else is averted, then it’s impossible to know whether this cut represents a good or bad choice without knowing what the other possible cut would be.


Slocum 03.20.11 at 2:35 am

Kindred Winecoff:
Under the proper definition of public good, you are probably right. But consider that Universities, while providing services to students, also generate massive positive externalities (loosely speaking, I suppose). Alternatively, you might think that the intellectual capital generated by Unis is probably more analogous to Ostrom’s idea of a common pool resource.

A problem here (and with UNLV and CRMEP) is narrow managerialism, careerism on the part of administrators (and some faculty), and impatience with goods that don’t pay off in $ or other quantifiably measurable outcomes within a year. I teach a lot of business students and I constantly try to expose them to the idea that the provision of common pool resources, or just good stuff for society or organizations like firms generally, cannot work if we are always constantly asking about the immediate pecuniary ends to be served by our decisions. That entire mindset is self-undermining–similar in structure to the paradox of hedonism. I’m glad to say that many are receptive to this, but what that bodes for the future as workers and citizens, I dare not speculate.

But tying the administration of universities so directly to “economic policy” is a recipe for disaster–in which I include economic disaster.

(None of this is to say that efficiency does not matter, that sometimes programs really do need to be cut, or that administrators are evil.)


Slocum 03.20.11 at 2:38 am

Sorry, my remark says somewhat more abstractly some of what Chris Bertram pointed to in his comment at 03.19.11 at 9:19 am.


BillCinSD 03.20.11 at 5:27 am

Never mind that you’re opening up minds, teaching logic or the arts, passing on history to the next generations.

While arts is probably OK, at this point, why would we expect any elite power brokers to want a large swath of the population to know logic or history. Those can get in the way of important plans for enriching themselves more.


bianca steele 03.20.11 at 5:41 pm

I’m sure all the researchers who are supporting Professor Lappin and the others are right that his work is crucial, but it does seem unusual to me that a philosophy professor’s specialization would be described as “computational linguistics.” It has been a long time since I’ve been in contact with anyone doing university level work on this, and my only knowledge of this is from (mostly popularizing books), but I understand “cognitive science” as embracing philosophy, while “computational linguistics” is more concrete both in the kind of work it does and the kind of mathematics it involves. The first sentence of the abstract to an article that comes up in a search, “The tension between expressive power and computational tractability poses an acute problem for theories of underspecified semantic representation,” certainly seems correct,” and likely to be the kind of area where a philosopher could help out, and Pinker is surely right that cognitive science (especially the parts closest to computer science) would benefit from a knowledge of Kant’s work on the categories of all thought. I don’t know enough to say whether it makes sense to have a philosopher working in a technical field at a university that may or may not have anyone else working in that area. On the other hand, it seems strange that computational linguistics would be cut in the name of the need for more commercially useful research. It seems odd enough that it raises the question of how military funding in the area might be related to the issue.


Kindred Winecoff 03.21.11 at 1:44 am

Slocum, under the “proper definition” (as opposed to what?) I’m definitely right. That said, no disagreement on your broader point. What I’m trying to say is that the interesting issue here is not “Philosophy Dept or no Philosophy Dept”, but rather “Philosophy Dept or XYZ” where “XYZ” is the set of other goods that would replace the Philosophy Dept. Those could have positive externalities as well; maybe even bigger ones. The opposite may well be true. Maybe we don’t have information regarding the alternatives, but without that knowledge it’s basically impossible to determine whether or not this is a good thing.

What if we knew the closure of the Philosophy Dept meant more scholarships for poor students to pursue professional degrees? That would, in effect, be a redistribution from the relatively affluent (those who tend to pursue philosophy degrees) to the relatively impoverished. That might still be objectionable, but it would at least be defensible and understandable.

I’m not saying that’s actually the dynamic at play. But then we just don’t know, do we?


Slocum 03.21.11 at 4:04 am

Meaning that the term can be used loosely without being completely unintelligble.


kidneystones 03.21.11 at 7:57 am

I’m a second-generation academic and have to say I have zero sympathy for the wingers on the public tit. Universities in the UK, particularly, produce functional illiterates at the graduate level. A second or third language is not required for, it seems, a fairly large number of graduate programs in humanities or social sciences. As we can see on this thread, the response to the problem of funding is to sneer at the decision makers forced to choose between funding public health or paying high-brows to opine on topics outside their areas of expertise.

There’s a transparent lack of intellectual rigor on this site and many others that tilt left. In a sense, this is far more unforgivable than the partisan sniping that characterizes debate on right-wing sites, simply because the left postures as the better-grounded. You are discovering that much of the world doesn’t like you, doesn’t understand you, and doesn’t value. And somehow, you’ve determined that this state of affairs actually vindicates your own position. The practical challenges of teaching students two or three languages bores many academics. Henry here is clearly a brilliant scholar, as are several others. You’ve cut yourself off from the people who pay your bills.

I work as an adjunct at several good universities and also work at prep schools teaching children basic skills. If you can’t convince the average individual why you should be paid then perhaps your estimation of your own argumentative skills needs to be re-examined. The ‘peaceful demonstrations’ of fees in the UK months before and the occupation of the Wisconsin state capital by the teachers’ unions and their allies has convinced a large sector of the public to re-consider their support of public education.

I’m reasonably confident that a number of people here blame Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and the Koch brothers, in no particular order. As long as that remains your view, your situation is unlikely to improve. Nor should it.


Walt 03.21.11 at 8:16 am

As kidneystones reminds us, ressentiment should never be underestimated as a force in politics.


Chris Bertram 03.21.11 at 9:48 am

I’m fairly sure that I don’t blame Sarah Palin, the Tea Party or the Koch brothers for the threat to philosophy at Keele. And I can’t remember thinking them responsible for the priorities of EU bureaucrats. I also suspect that the Senate of the University of Keele aren’t being “forced” to choose between philosophy and public health.


kidneystones 03.21.11 at 9:55 am

Hi Walt, Thanks for the reply.

Are you arguing that the root cause of the pay crisis is that the great unwashed don’t want to pay academics’ bills because we keep reminding them of how stupid they are? That’s only part of it. I spend a lot of time around bright people who don’t work in academia and wouldn’t. Those who can…etc.

I’m wrong too frequently to feel smug about much. One could fairly accuse me of feeling smug about that kernel of self-discovery, I suppose. Perhaps too many of us are just too darned right too often for our own collective good. Makes it hard for the little people to remember how lucky they are to have us explain things to them.

When will they ever wake up?


Steve LaBonne 03.21.11 at 9:57 am

As we can see on this thread, the response to the problem of funding is to sneer at the decision makers forced to choose between funding public health or paying high-brows to opine on topics outside their areas of expertise.

Actually, my response is to sneer at those naive and ignorant enough to believe that those in power are “forced” to make any such choice.

Anybody got a lithotripter handy?


dsquared 03.21.11 at 10:12 am

Universities in the UK, particularly, produce functional illiterates at the graduate level.

Some statements, as when a clock strikes fourteen, are not only wrong, but let you know that every other piece of information coming from the same source is also likely to be wrong.


kidneystones 03.21.11 at 10:59 am

Hi dsquared,

That was a bit too caustic. I should have been more specific.

Progression through graduate schools hinges on reinforcing the dubious political beliefs of their supervisors. Critical analysis of received wisdom is discouraged and frequently punished.

Consider how the luminaries on this site would respond if any of their graduate students announced over coffee that Sarah Palin would make a much better president than Clinton or Obama or McCain? Or that Maggie Thatcher was right to crush the unions. It may be the case that you know people who openly advance these heresies, but my own experience is that dissent on these questions is grounds for immediate excommunication. Forget about letters of recommendation, careers, etc. That dream is over.

The argument, according to Richard Dawkins, is more or less this: if you are so stupid as to believe in the creator or a deity, you simply can’t be trusted to cast an intelligent vote. It would, therefore, be highly irresponsible of me to permit you to teach impressionable minds. Especially, when there are so many more politically reliable candidates eager and willing to spread the Word.

Academics really don’t see themselves as missionaries, or new age Methodists, preaching our own little gospel, do we? But that is, in fact, how we are seen by many today: as sanctimonious hypocrites and fast-buck holy-rollers more committed to promoting a social and political agenda than listening or reading views that might challenge our sacred beliefs.

Perhaps, however, I’m wrong. Perhaps you would happily accept a declared Christian who regards Sarah Palin as a moral exemplar into the graduate program in your department. I suspect, however, the opposite is true. And the fact that so many here view Palin with open contempt is proof beyond all doubt of the lack of real diversity in the community. Perhaps, if one of your graduate students announced that she or he had decided to join the campus Young Republicans, you wouldn’t take that person’s decision as a personal insult or injury. I suspect you would.

Academics are tribal, first and foremost. The lefty academic tribe loathes “not us”. That’s a perfectly acceptable attitude as long as academics don’t have their hands out insisting the morons pay the bills. Many do.

You are right to correct me. Many graduate students are literate. They’ve simply learned how not to read and learned what not to say or write.

Happy now?


dsquared 03.21.11 at 11:20 am

Consider how the luminaries on this site would respond if any of their graduate students announced over coffee that Sarah Palin would make a much better president than Clinton or Obama or McCain? Or that Maggie Thatcher was right to crush the unions.

Could you be more specific please as these two cases are not equivalent; the second statement (“Thatcher was right to crush the unions”) is one about which there is plenty of scope for sensible debate, albeit that I doubt that our “luminaries” would mark down a graduate student for taking either side. The first, however, is another clock-strikes-fourteen case; over coffee or otherwise, someone who made the claim that Sarah Palin would make a much better President than Obama or Clinton would either be joking, making some convoluted contrarian point about the ineffectiveness of the modern Presidency, or indeed revealing themself to be more or less culpably ignorant.


dsquared 03.21.11 at 11:23 am

And the fact that so many here view Palin with open contempt is proof beyond all doubt of the lack of real diversity in the community

There is often a lack of diversity when it comes to opinions on amazingly cut and dried questions.

Perhaps, if one of your graduate students announced that she or he had decided to join the campus Young Republicans, you wouldn’t take that person’s decision as a personal insult or injury

Oh do me one.


Bill Wringe 03.21.11 at 11:56 am

Kindred Winecoff

What if we knew the closure of the Philosophy Dept meant more scholarships for poor students to pursue professional degrees? That would, in effect, be a redistribution from the relatively affluent (those who tend to pursue philosophy degrees) to the relatively impoverished. That might still be objectionable, but it would at least be defensible and understandable.

I’m not saying that’s actually the dynamic at play. But then we just don’t know, do we?

We do know whether this is the dynamic at play. It isn’t. No-one at Keele is proposing this.

What’s being proposed is for Keele to stop teaching philosophy students and take more students in STEM subjects.

Also: I’m not quite sure what you mean by professional degrees. But it’s worth noticing (as I pointed out earlier) that Keele is also closing it\s professional ethics centre, which doesn’t teach undergraduates, but does teach professional diplomas and postgarduate degrees.

Ingrid @ 22: I’m glad you’ve signed the petition. But that wasn’t really the point I was making. The point was this: when the announcements about KCL and Middlesex were made, people were making practical suggestions of ways of showing solidarity (write to these people, email these people etc ). I don’t know if these actions made a difference. But something did.

With Keele, what’s happening is that people have used it as an opportunity to write reflective think pieces about ‘what it all means’, which then leads to conversations about ‘how we’re all doomed’ (and in some cases, like kidneystones ‘why this is a good thing’). I guess that there’s a time for that kind of post and that kind of conversation. But I don’t think a couple of days before the Keele Senate votes on these particular proposals is the best time to have that conversation.

(Before anyone asks: no, I’m not one of the people employed by Keele who might lose their job if these proposals are voted through. But I’m not a completely detached observer either. And if anyone asks why I’m crying over this particular drop of spilt milk, the answer is – because I foresee quite a lot of similar milk being splashed around in the UK in the next few months.)

D squared: oddly enough, this post isn’t about any of the issues that seem to exercising kidneystones. Is it really worth abetting his/her attempts to make the conversation all about him/herself? I’d rather see more about things that can be done to support the folks at Keele.


bianca steele 03.21.11 at 1:21 pm

I think we should all thank kidneystones for making sure everybody knows what the issues REALLY are, and doesn’t waste time on anything else; he’s the majority culture after all and the rest of us only speak on his sufferance.


praisegod barebones 03.21.11 at 3:39 pm

@ 39

‘I’m not saying that’s actually the dynamic at play. But then we just don’t know, do we?’

This should have been italicised: I’m not asserting it, I’m quoting it. As I say, I think we do know that this isn’t the case

bianca steele @ 40: well, here’s a fairly topical example of just the sort of thing kidneystones is talking about:

Wait, what’s that?


Bill Wringe's sockpuppet 03.21.11 at 3:44 pm

Mods – if you’re looking: I’ve tried to avoid sockpuppetry, but been thwarted by forgetting about ‘autocomplete’ filling things in for me on my computer. Is there any way you could either get rid of 41, or attribute it to its actual author?


bianca steele 03.21.11 at 4:54 pm

The thing is, it was pretty obvious what the OP was about, and it had absolutely nothing to do with politics. It also had absolutely nothing to do with class war/culture war type things such as we have in the US, especially in particular parts of the country, where the university is perceived as “liberal” both in the sense that it accepts scientific progress and Enlightenment and in the political sense of trying to build governmental and non-governmental institutions that use the best recent science [1]–and “we the people of the United States,” to use a Constitutional phrase that might be welcomed by the Tea Party, are considered to be all right-wing, all conservative Christian (evangelical or Catholic), all proudly non-intellectual and opposed to everything modern. Literally nothing Ingrid Robeyns has said has suggested there is a similar dynamic in Belgium or the EU generally.

The concern of the OP was with the non-political, though surely elitist, research and teaching carried out by departments of humanities, including philosophy. The university as a public good is perceived–not as a collector of knowledge that can be distributed to private-sector persons and institutions who form relationships with it–but as the place where an activity happens that many people think is worthwhile, but that the market wouldn’t ordinarily pay for: a leisure time activity that brings prestige to a society, and involves some kind of education that is of ultimate use, but has no real use in itself. This traditional activity is now the property of all people, on both right and left (though one issue that has been brought up is whether it is really only the property of the wealthy who can afford to spend their time in pursuits that will not lead to a decent job), and universities now seem to think they would be better off partnering with business. And I’m sure there are other concerns about the direction of European universities–but it’s unlikely they have anything to do with Sarah Palin.


praisegod barebones 03.21.11 at 7:19 pm

bianca steele @ 42:

I’m sorry: I made a spectacular horlicks when posting @ 41, with the result that you’ve quite understandably read what I had to say straight when it was intended as sarcastic. (Had I not made the horlicks, I think the sarcasm would have had enough context to be obvious; as it was, it was probably impenetrable – though a look at the link might possibly have made it discernible.)

To put it more briefly I agree with pretty much everything you say in your post as to what the OP was about. (except that, being neither an American, nor in America, I’m not really covered by your ‘we’ in the way you seem to be suggesting.)


Harry 03.21.11 at 7:32 pm

kidneystones — I can’t understand why dsquared is being so easygoing with you. Maybe someone slipped xanax in his coffee.

Just to be clear — as a graduate admissions chair I have admitted students whom I could tell were libertarians, whom I could tell were Christians (one has subsequently become a minister, I was proud to be at her ordination), and a couple I could tell were Republicans (it is hard to tell normally, as it should be, and neither of them came here). I have never admitted someone I knew to be an evangelical Christian, but I did do a great deal (well, she reads, so she can comment) to support the one student I’ve had with aspirations to Graduate School in her ambitions (she’s in a top ten program, and they knew she was an evangelical Christian because I said so in my letter, because it was extremely relevant to her intellectual suitability for the program).

But, yes, if someone told me that Sarah Palin would be a better President than Obama or McCain, I’d laugh. If someone said McCain would be better I’d disagree but take them seriously.

Almost all of my colleagues are atheists or agnostics, the vast majority are Democrats (I’m an exception), most are on the left (I’m not an exception) and none (I think) would consider political or religious beliefs or practice relevant to whether we admit, mentor, or teach a student.

When it comes to undergraduates – -I teach large courses on contemporary moral issues (eg abortion) and it is essential for me to do that well that I do not convey my personal opinions about the issues, or my general political outlook. Of course, anyone who cared could figure out the latter (and the former r.e. some, but not most, issues) with a few minutes of googling. That’s ok — but on the whole they don’t. Even students I get to know well… a few months ago I had a group of seniors whom I’ve known since they were freshmen over for dinner. One of them (who knows me well and does know my politics) tested a couple who came over early about my politics. The initial part of each response: “Well, your definitely not a socialist….” (wrong) and “I’d have said you were kind of conservative about lots of things….” (not entirely wrong, but not really right).

This is much, much more common than you seem to think. Dare I say that in my experience professional philosophers (who as a group tilt left more than in most disciplines) take particular care to keep their personal politics from infecting their pedagogy? This is one reason why people like you should be especially distressed to see Philosophy targeted. (Keele, after all, was once home to the extremely right wing Anthony Flew, and also to the eminent Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne)


Harry 03.21.11 at 7:35 pm

And, just to add, I do actually know people who are political supporters of Sarah Palin (give money etc). None of them think she would be a better president than Obama or McCain any more than she does. That she would be is an extremely eccentric idea (and I’ve no great admiration for Obama as President or McCain as President-in-another-possible-world)


Ingrid Robeyns 03.21.11 at 8:08 pm

Sorry guys, but I don’t feel obliged (nor do I have the energy or time) to respond to each bit on this thread. But thanks to those of you who do. Yet if anyone thinks this needs to be said: the highest grade on my last year’s ‘ethics and economics course’ went to a right-libertarian student, who is absolutely brilliant and worked very hard. The second-highest grade to an activist Marxist student who also is excellent and worked hard. Another student who wrote on orthodox christian economic ethics also got a high grade. Those claiming that all teachers who believe that there are strong arguments why universities should be publicly funded, are partisan leftwingers indoctrinating their students, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Bill @39: thanks for the clarification. The original post was not all about Keele alone (in fact was not about Keele but about the question whether any trend is emerging, and if so, why). I think the kind of reflective pieces that are being written may indeed not be the best strategy for Keele right now (but I simply lack enough local information to say), but it could be relevant in a wider context, especially the EU context which I mentioned. In the Dutch context, we haven’t yet gotten to the situation where humanities departments are closed, and I think we could still benefit from a general debate, that shows to a larger group of people how discourses shape decisions, how they shape what we see, and especially, do not see. I’ve written such a piece for the (center-right) newspaper NRC last year, and I have indications that this had some effect.


bianca steele 03.21.11 at 8:11 pm

I think we’re mostly in agreement, but I admit I’m not really sure what point the link was supposed to make. Is the joke that Marx is not really considered a solely left-wing thinker anymore and only a Tea Party member would object to his being cited in the way described, or is the joke that US academia is and has long been so oppressed by the right that there isn’t any room for academics to say anything that doesn’t follow the strictest right-wing ideology (which raises the question what self-declared right-wing students and academics have been complaining about for these past decades)?


Henry 03.21.11 at 8:26 pm

This Inside Higher Ed story today is relevant.

bq. Two studies being released today provide more evidence that bias is not the cause — and the studies provide some additional evidence to back the theory (put forward last year by one of the authors of the new work) that “self-selection” is the primary reason so many academics are liberal. … One of the new studies was an “audit” of the reactions of graduate program directors to initial inquiries from potential graduate students who said something to indicate their political leanings. The research found no evidence of bias.

bq. The second study used a longitudinal database that had information on how thousands of individuals thought about politics and the launch of their careers. This study found that those who pursue academic careers are far more likely to be liberal than conservative — again countering the idea that conservatives are being turned away from doctoral programs, or that a leftward shift is a price of success in Ph.D. programs.

bq. The study of how graduate directors respond to inquiries was conducted by Gross; Ethan Fosse, a graduate student at Harvard University; and Joseph Ma, an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. Posing as undergraduates getting ready to apply to doctoral programs, they sent e-mail messages to graduate program directors in top departments of sociology, political science, economics, history and English. The inquiries were similar in describing their academic preparation, their undergraduate institutions, and their interest in applying. Some of the e-mails made no mention of politics, but some mentioned having previously worked on either the Obama or the McCain presidential campaigns. … In a few cases, the researchers found “traces” of a political impact, but “no statistically or substantively significant evidence of bias.”

bq. … limitations to their study. … looked at an initial stage of contact between candidates and departments, not the crucial admissions decision, when bias might also surface. Further, they note that all of the publicity over alleged political bias might make graduate directors censor themselves and not reveal their biases. … At the same time, however, the authors cite “research on stereotypes and social biases in general, as well as on political bias and the associated affect specifically [that] suggests that, when present, biases operate primarily in the domain of automatic cognition.

bq. The second study is by Fosse, Gross and Jeremy Freese, chair of sociology at Northwestern University. This study makes use of the Add Health database, which was created to track the long-term health behaviors of 90,000 adolescents, but which also includes questions about political orientation and educational/career plans. … These figures match (generally) data on the political leanings of young professors. “These numbers strongly suggest that much of professorial liberalism is indeed a function of who goes to graduate school: filling job openings in academe with a random draw from the pool of graduate students would still produce a distinctly left-leaning occupation,” the study says.

bq. Further, other data show that while a significant minority of those studied became more liberal in their doctoral programs, so did a significant number of those who didn’t go to graduate school. In addition, doctoral students were slightly more likely than those who stopped their education after their bachelor’s degrees to become more conservative than they had been earlier in their lives. These findings generally cast doubt on the idea that professors are liberal because they are socialized that way in graduate school. … notably, the study found no relationship between either materialism or early marriage and a disinclination to go for a doctorate. (These findings rebut theories put forward by some observers that conservatives’ desire for more money than young professors tend to earn, motivated either by greed or family obligations, explains the scarcity of right-wing academics.)


praisegod barebones 03.21.11 at 10:01 pm

bianca steele @ 48: the point – I don’t know whether you could ever really have called it a joke – butby this point it’s way too laboured to count as one, was that a bit of evidence that seemed particularly salient to me at the moment I posted, didn’t seem entirely to supprt kidneystones narrative.


Bill Wringe 03.22.11 at 9:22 am


Perhaps it’s too late to come back to this, given the horlicks I made up above. But there is one point that I want to make that seems applicable to Keele, will almost certainly be applicable elsewhere in the UK, and may be true across the EU.

It’s this: it became fairly apparent in both the KCL and Middlesex cases that a very large part of what was driving the impulse to cut philosophy was not that they weren’t generating income, but what I think can only be described as ‘managerial fuckery pursued under the pretext of economic necessity.’

As far as KCL is concerned, I think that’s been fairly well documented by various people, such as Ian Pears.1At Middlesex it seems even more obvious: what the university effectively wanted to do was hang on to the next few years’ worth of RAE money which had been generated by CRMEP, while sacking the people who had generated that income.

Now, the Keele situation hasn’t been documented in anything like the detail that those earlier cases were. And this is a pity because it looks as though there’s a certain amount of evidence, documented by Nafsika Athanassoulis, that there’s managerial fuckery going on here too:

A couple of points from here letter that stood out for me are 1) that PEAK was prevented by university adminstrators from submitting to the British RAE in either philosophy or health related areas (which is where its main expertise lies), and is now in trouble for not generating research income and 2)that it was set up specifically to teach professional postrgraduate courses, which it was then not permitted to advertise separately from general undergraduate teaching; and that it is now being told that it does not teach enough undergraduates. (There’s more, but those are the easiest points to get across).

Now – you may say these Keele-specific points are irrelevant to the ‘bigger picture’ you are trying to set out. But I think that when taken together with what happened at KCL and Middlesex they are a very important part of the bigger picture in the UK. The picture I see is at least in part that it is strong departments, not failing ones, that are being threatened; and not because of their economic failings but because of bad – and in some cases almost incomprehensible managerial decisions.

It’s possible that the structure of universities elsewhere in the EU protects them from this sort of fuckery. I don’t know: I’ve worked in universities in Britain, and now work in one in Turkey, but never in continental Europe.

But if it doesn’t, then I think that the best strategy is not for people in philosophy to beat themselves up about how modern universities are becoming unsuited to them; but to document the extent to which even when philosophy department meet the sorts of criteria that management sets them, they get messed with by management changing the goalposts without warning – and certainly without giving them time to adapt to the new criteria they are being judged by. (And I would also add that as someone who’s been keeping the fate of philosophy in the UK over the last 20 years, it strikes me that one of the lessons of the RAE in the UK was that despite their reputation for being hidebound philosophy departments are actually quite good at adapting. But that’s another story).

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Ingrid Robeyns 03.22.11 at 6:56 pm

Bill, I take your point. The Netherlands is the only continental country about which I know sufficient details to say something on the issue of management, and I don’t think this is what is at work here. In fact, the higher management has for years been complaining to the government that the universities are underfunded, that the financial rules contain all sorts of distortive incentives, etc. Of course they are not all the same – some universities are more run by managerialists who think in the short term, than others. But all in all, the complaints about the sources of the problems have typically been directed at the national policy making (which, I think, is influenced by Europe, but I admit I’d need to look at this more closely), than at within-university higher level management.
thanks for your comments, they did influence my understanding of what’s going on, and on the limits of making within EU-generalisations.

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