Philosophers call for Liverpool v-c to reconsider department closure

Letter-writers claim the university needs to invest in the discipline or distinctive research strengths will be weakened in the UK, writes Melanie Newman

March 30, 2009

The philosophy community is lobbying the vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool in the hope that he will reconsider a decision to close the university’s philosophy department.

Seventeen heads of department from the research-intensive Russell Group of universities have written to Sir Howard Newby expressing “shock and disappointment” at the closure plans.

Times Higher Education reported on 12 March that Liverpool was planning to close the departments of statistics, philosophy and politics and communication studies because they had showed no “world-leading” (4*) activity in the 2008 research assessment exercise.

In their letter to Sir Howard, the department heads say: “There are good reasons to believe that the philosophy department at Liverpool will have a bright future if it receives the kind of institutional investment that other Russell Group universities have bestowed on units that faced disappointing RAE results.”

Brad Hooker, the head of the British Philosophical Association, has written separately to Sir Howard, pointing out that the RAE results do not reflect Liverpool’s distinctive strengths in areas underrepresented elsewhere in the country, such as environmental and feminist philosophy and philosophy of religion.

Professor Hooker describes Liverpool’s MA in philosophy as a way of life as “an ingenious initiative”.

His letter was written on behalf of eight other philosophical societies including the Mind Association and the Forum for European Philosophy.

A Liverpool spokesperson said: “Senate has agreed a proposal to carry out departmental reviews, which will take place without prejudice to any particular outcome. A final decision will be taken in June.”

At a House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee hearing in Liverpool on 23 March, Paul Athans, spokesman for the Save Our Subjects campaign at the university, said: “Perhaps factors such as teaching should be considered when making an assessment of a department’s value to a university. Would any department be closed if it was rated below average for teaching?”

The letters in full:

We, the heads of philosophy at Russell Group universities, were shocked and disappointed to hear that the University of Liverpool was proposing to close its philosophy department. We are encouraged to hear that there will now be a review; we hope that the following considerations will be borne in mind at that stage.

Russell Group universities aim to promote cutting-edge research, foster innovation, benefit society and improve the health of the nation. Any university without a philosophy department will lack something essential to achieving these aims. Philosophy is the discipline that addresses some of the deepest and most fundamental questions, whose answers constitute the foundations of all others, including the natural sciences and medicine.

Russell Group universities are also at the forefront of the development of higher education policy in the UK; support for core disciplines and for preserving breadth in the number of subjects taught should without doubt be at the heart of their mission. All but two Russell Group institutions (Imperial College London and Newcastle University) have philosophy departments or equivalent units.

The philosophy department at Liverpool has made, and continues to make, a distinctive and important contribution to the philosophical community in the UK and worldwide. Members of the department have played a leading role in the creation of learned societies such as the Society for Applied Ethics. They have also set up and managed information and communication technology tools that are renowned and used across the academic world, such as, for instance, the Philosophy at Large website and the discussion list Philos-L.

The recent research assessment exercise result showed that internationally excellent research is being conducted in the department. What it does not make evident is the department’s vital role in the development of areas of research (such as feminist philosophy and the philosophy of religion) that are underrepresented elsewhere in the UK.

There are good reasons to believe that the philosophy department at Liverpool will have a bright future if it receives the kind of institutional investment that other Russell Group universities have bestowed on units that faced disappointing RAE results. It has buoyant student numbers and offers distinctive and innovative degree programmes, such as the new MA in philosophy as a way of life.

The loss of its philosophy department would diminish the University of Liverpool and would be a serious loss to the UK higher education sector. We urge you to give it the support it needs to flourish.

Alessandra Tanesini
Head, Philosophy Research Group, Cardiff University
And on behalf of:
Alex Miller
Head, department of philosophy, University of Birmingham
Samir Okasha
Head, department of philosophy, University of Bristol
Alex Oliver
Chair, faculty of philosophy board, University of Cambridge
Andy Clark
Head, philosophy subject area, University of Edinburgh
Alan Weir
Head, department of philosophy, University of Glasgow
David Papineau
Head, department of philosophy, King’s College London
Steven French
Head, department of philosophy, University of Leeds
Richard Bradley
Head, department of philosophy, logic and scientific method, London School of Economics
Julian Dodd
Head, discipline area of philosophy, University of Manchester
Penelope Mackie
Head, department of philosophy, University of Nottingham
Cynthia Macdonald
Director of research, philosophy research area, Queen’s University Belfast
Martin Davies
Chair, philosophy faculty board, University of Oxford
Daniel Isaacson
Chair, philosophy faculty, University of Oxford
Rob Hopkins
Head, department of philosophy, University of Sheffield
Alex Neill
Head, department of philosophy, University of Southampton
Tim Crane
Head, department of philosophy, University College London
Michael Luntley
Head, department of philosophy, University of Warwick

The British philosophical community is horrified that the University of Liverpool is considering closing its department of philosophy.

Any university without philosophy will lack a forum for studying some of the most profound and pivotal questions. For philosophy is the discipline that addresses questions about what knowledge is; about how human beings should behave individually and collectively; about whether there are sound arguments for religious belief; about the nature of truth and beauty; about which forms of reasoning are valid; and about the underlying presuppositions of other subjects, from history to psychology to biology.

Thus we cannot understand how a university could increase its intellectual stature and research coherence by cutting philosophy out of its teaching and research. And our view is widely shared. Of Russell Group institutions, only two (Imperial College London and Newcastle University) have no philosophy department or equivalent unit.

There are also very concrete reasons for high expectations for philosophy in the UK generally and at Liverpool in particular. The number of students taking A-level philosophy in the UK more than doubled between 2002 and 2007, and many of these students want to study philosophy at university. Likewise, increasingly, students taking A-level religious studies and ethics want to study philosophy at university. Meanwhile, demand for places from students with no philosophy background remains high. In addition, philosophy is enjoying healthy recruitment at postgraduate levels, including noticeable increases from other European Union countries.

One thing the research assessment exercise showed was that research by people working in UK philosophy departments was on average extremely high. In many ways, this is hardly surprising. Every opening in a UK philosophy department attracts a huge number of applications. And, for at least another three or four years, philosophy departments will be in a “buyers’ market”, and thus have opportunities to hire people with enormous promise as researchers and teachers.

As was recognised by the RAE panel and is well known within and outside the UK, staff at Liverpool produce some excellent research by international standards. What the RAE result does not record, however, is the historical importance of the department (for instance, Stephen Clark’s leading role in founding the Society for Applied Philosophy). Nor does the recent RAE result reflect the distinctive ways in which the department enhances UK philosophy. For instance, it has strengths in important areas of philosophy that are underrepresented elsewhere in the UK (some examples: environmental philosophy, feminist philosophy and philosophy of religion).

Moreover, the department’s recent focus on “philosophy as a way of life”, through its MA programme and recent seminar series, is an ingenious initiative, one that connects a fascinating variety of concerns and reaches out not merely to other disciplines but to the wider community. Few topics can have more contemporary relevance than the peaceful co-existence of individuals and communities with conflicting religious and moral beliefs.

To close Liverpool’s philosophy department would be terrible for the university and a serious loss for UK higher education. It would also be an injustice to members of the department, given the good work they have done and the promise they have for the future. For all these reasons, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, not to close Liverpool’s philosophy department. It deserves the university’s support and encouragement. If it gets what it deserves, it will flourish, strengthen the university and continue to serve the needs of the community.

Brad Hooker
President, British Philosophical Association
And on behalf of The Mind Association, The Aristotelian Society, Forum for European Philosophy, Society for Women in Philosophy UK, Society for Applied Philosophy, British Society for Ethical Theory, British Society for Philosophy of Science and the Scots Philosophical Club

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