What It Means For UNK to Lose Its Philosophy Major

Feb. 24, 2022, 7 a.m. ·

Girl with braids wears a browns beanie hat and holds a book. There's a coffee cup on her left and she's sitting in a classroom.
Candace Coleman reads Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" for Tom Martin's Ethics course. (Photo Courtesy of David Rozema)

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The Board of Regents recently voted to cut the philosophy major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Only about 2 students on average graduate with a philosophy major per year, including double majors. But, proponents believe it’s worth saving. However, cutting the major is a national trend. Other colleges like Liberty University, Western Oregon University and Elizabethtown College have made a similar decision.

It’s a small philosophy class at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) on Tuesday. There’s a row of windows looking out on snowy ground on one side. About 10 students sit at their desks, and flip to chapters from C.S. Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength. Philosophy Professor David Rozema starts the discussion. He encourages students to ask questions about the reading and talk about it.

"And in that kind of a setting, even sometimes the most hidden meanings of texts come out into the surface," he said. "And you'll see in a person’s eyes, a student's eyes, you'll see a realization and insight from this book that they never saw before."

The consequence of reducing gen-ed requirements

Rozema also directs the philosophy program at UNK. He said most students find the program through their general education requirements. But in 2020, the university administration decided students only needed to take three hours of humanities courses, or one class, that’s down from about nine hours.

"If you've never taken philosophy, you don't know what it is.. how are you going to find out if you don't take a course? And if there's no incentive to take one?" he said.

Enrollments have dropped off not only in philosophy, but other programs like fine arts and modern language, Rozema said. To him, it seems like the administration doesn’t value humanities and arts. Charles Bicak disagrees. He's UNK’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. He approved the new general education requirements.

"I think actually the reverse," he said. "I think it opens the doors for students' selection across a variety of different options. I view it as a liberating exercise in liberal education."

Now students can pick up a minor like philosophy because they have more flexibility to choose the classes they want, instead of checking off gen-ed boxes, Bicak said. He thinks it’s the faculty’s responsibility to push students to consider new studies.

"And I know many who do this currently today, seek out students and say, ‘Hey, current students or prospective high school students considering UNK, consider a minor in this area or that area, because it will serve you so well," he said.

In 2021, Laurel Bain decided to double major in philosophy and psychology at UNK because of that flexibility. However, she believes it’s a death sentence to the philosophy major, especially for future students.

"I'm really, really sad for the people who aren't going to have that experience, and they're not going to be able to even try out philosophy and fall in love with it the way so many people do," she said.

Bain’s favorite discussion so far was last week at her ethics class, where a lot of nursing students are her classmates. The professor gave a real life scenario of a man coming into the ER saying he’s going to hurt people.

"We have a lot of discussions like that, trying to determine, what is the best course of action? Who would be morally responsible in a situation like that? Was there any other decisions they could have made?" she said. "Really just making sure, the nurses in our major or in their major understand what the ramifications of their actions could be."

Table of Degrees Awarded in Philosophy at UNK by Academic Year
In 2018, UNK had to make a strategic action plan to attract more students. David Rozema came up with strategies including going to high schools to recruit prospective students, but the pandemic shortly started in 2020. (Screen shot of data received from Charles Bicak)
Not meeting performance standards

Bain said she's disappointed the university didn’t give them a chance to save the philosophy major. But the administration has been given lots of time to try to increase their philosophy majors since 2004, according to Regent Barbara Weitz.

"And honestly, you know, I don't think taxpayers want to pay for there to be a major that has only 1.6 students in it, in a university that has 52,000 students," she said. "I know it hurts. I know it's painful for the professors in that department. We certainly heard from them, but they've had lots of time to prepare for this.. and I feel like this has to happen."

It’s state law to require at least 7 graduates per bachelors program to protect taxpayers, according to Michael Baumgartner, executive director of Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.

CCPE Minimum Performance Standards For Programs
The Commission reviews existing programs on a seven-year cycle. (Screen shot of data received from Charles Bicak)
Small towns need philosophy just as much as those in large towns

Nebraskans can still study for a philosophy major in Lincoln and Omaha. However, UNK student Laurel Bain said people in small towns need philosophy just as much as those in large towns.

"I think a lot of people in small town Nebraska don't understand that when we say liberal arts, we don't mean liberal politically," she said. "Philosophy is something that everyone benefits from and it's not pushing a political agenda one way or another. It's helping someone to think for themselves and consume information in a more knowledgeable way, to understand what articles they are reading."

She believes we would have a better society if there were more philosophy or humanities majors. Philosophy Professor Thomas Martin agrees.

"Without these humanities, the university is not a university," Martin said. "You're not educating the students, you're preparing them to make a living without even giving them a sense of what life is about."

For UNK Students, they’ll have to find that sense of life within the philosophy minor.