Feltham and AUP colleagues’ letter

17 May 2010

Dear Members of the Board,

I am writing in reference to the decision to close the Middlesex philosophy department. I coordinate a small undergraduate philosophy program at the American University of Paris so I am familiar with the challenges of low student numbers. We have a very successful Communications department with astronomical student numbers, and when they are feeling hard done by, communications professors occasionally suggest that their oversized classes are subsidising the smaller classes in philosophy or Comparative Literature. Their frustration is understandable given how long it takes the administration to approve their requests for new hires to meet student demand.

However, it would be a terrible mistake to base a management policy on the sentiments that emerge during moments of duress. Universities are naturally institutions in which not every sector or department produces the same cost/benefit ratio, and it is often those departments which are not as traditionally profitable which contribute to the prestige and name of the university. One cannot run a university as if it were a hard-discount supermarket; one cannot simply close down departments without adulterating the nature of the institution. The word university derives from the Latin universitas, whole or totality.  If one closes down a department, one closes down a branch of knowledge, and so, on however little a scale, one quite simply kills part of the future of knowledge, allows a small part of the universe of the known to disappear. This is why professors find such decisions ‘barbaric’. A university is a national symbol of knowledge.  To close departments on grounds of minor revenue problems is to betray the university’s mission of advancing both the nation and humanity as a whole.  If management at Middlesex continues on such a path, probity dictates that the institution should no longer be granted the proud right of proclaiming itself a university.

Even in business terms, one cannot run a large company with an eye to its long-term health by immediately closing any department that shows a loss over one quarter. Departments evolve and if they show signs of health – which Middlesex Philosophy does, given its RAE rating – then they will continue to contribute to the life and health of the university.  Philosophy is already doing so by teaching students from other departments: there are lifelines of collegiality as well as simply ideas joining one department to another. Moreover, the prestige of the scholars in one department affect the recruiting of talented faculty and students for other departments, so that the elimination of the philosophy department must indirectly impact upon the well-being of all of the departments in the humanities. If you simply cut one organ out of a body you could well end up damaging other organs.

This is not a debate over good management – making the ‘hard’ decisions – versus redundant academic nostalgia. This is a debate over short-term asset-stripping management versus clear-sighted and careful management: be wary of the life of your whole institution, it is far more complex and fragile than you think.

Yours sincerely,

Oliver Feltham PhD

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature;

Coordinator of the Philosophy Program

Department of Comparative Literature and English

Anne-Marie Picard-Drillien

Professor of Comparative Literature, French, and French Studies;

Department of Comparative Literature and English

Jula Wildberger PhD

Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature;

Coordinator of Classical Studies.

Department of Comparative Literature and English

Samuel Tabas PhD

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature

Department of Comparative Literature and English

The American University of Paris

31 Avenue Bosquet

Paris, 75007

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