The Business of a University: Are Philosophy Departments Expendable?

by David Baggett

The Business of a University

by David Baggett

It was an exciting week at Liberty University last year, when Princeton’s Robert George and Harvard’s Cornel West came to convocation. They held an inspiring chat; these two intellectual titans talked about their friendship, intellectual virtues, civil disagreement, and the purpose of education.

The same week I heard that Liberty had stopped offering its undergraduate philosophy major.

For fourteen years I taught at Liberty. As my wife and I leave Virginia for Texas this summer, it is not my desire to disparage a school that will always mean a great deal to me. Still, I have to admit that Liberty of late has had a recurring habit of straining my credulity and breaking my heart. Cutting the philosophy department, which happened just this past week, is the latest egregious example, and I feel compelled to talk about why, not in a spirit of animus, but one of warm and real concern.

When a philosophy professor musters the temerity to talk about the big picture of a university, including its fiduciary responsibilities, he tends to elicit concerned looks from those who find his naive idealism as charming as it is mildly benighted. Their inflections and body language, if not their words, communicate something like this: “Of course you think that, you poor thing—it’s practically an occupational hazard—but we need to leave the financial decisions to those who know what they’re talking about, dear.” They are not wrong. I readily admit my naiveté and sad lack of business acumen. If I were accused of producing “enhanced efficiency,” I could not be convicted of even knowing what it is. Still, I see the need for some philosophical analysis here, and will attempt to offer it in brief compass. It is worth doing, to my thinking, because the issues at stake are bigger than this one specific situation.

The ostensible justification for cutting the department was economic, and of course Liberty is not alone in such a move. Other colleges, including Christian colleges, have cut back in various areas of the humanities, including eliminating philosophy departments. Last year, for example, Gordon College merged political science, history, and philosophy into a single department. Cedarville University is another, eliminating its philosophy major in 2013. Back when Cedarville was considering this move and I caught wind of it, I wrote, “At a time when [evangelicals] are so often perceived as none too rigorous, uninterested in the life of the mind, and lacking in intellectual curiosity, for a significant evangelical institution of higher learning to make such a decision sends a horrible message whose reverberations will ring loudly and only reinforce the worst stereotypes.” (I was a bit dramatic in my forties.)

More and more colleges are unapologetic about following business models, and for understandable reasons. Students are fewer and costs are prohibitive; efficiency is important and branding matters. But to allow the logic of the market to trump, capitulating to what some have called the “corporatism of the university,” raises a number of serious questions to ponder. These questions cannot be answered by business alone; they are ethical and philosophical questions of values and worth, not just price. Business has practically become our society’s new mythmaker, setting the sacrosanct rules of engagement and the spending strictures demanding allegiance. To privilege a business mentality, though, to allow it to monopolize the discussion, does not leave value queries aside; it just answers them in a particular sort of way. It smuggles in answers to important questions without stating them explicitly and feeling any need to defend them, but it is just those answers that may, on reflection in the light of day, come to be seen as eminently dubious.

Leaders of a university saying they wish to run it as a business leaves unanswered what their operative understanding of business is, not to mention the content of their business ethics. On some models of business, maximizing the bottom line holds the highest priority; treating employees as eliminable or replaceable cogs in a machine is perfectly alright; charging the most one can for the lowest competitive product is paramount; as is refraining from offering extra value to keep costs low. So how is business to be understood? A commitment to run it as a business underdetermines what that looks like. Not all business models are equal, and certainly not all business practices are ethical. Often the most myopic business models are, in the short run, tremendously lucrative, and thus gravely tempting for those privileging profits. 

For several years, before ever coming to Liberty, I taught business ethics. After a while all the case studies, despite their variety and range, seemed to boil down to one common denominator and chronic question: What gets privileged, profits or people? Time and again the poster boys of bad business ethics get caught prioritizing money-making over doing the right thing and treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve—as the ends in themselves they are rather than mere means to ends. Bad behavior invariably also sows seeds of its own eventual destruction. Even from an enlightened egoistic perspective alone, failures of moral imagination and minimal moral decency are self-sabotaging—maybe not tomorrow or next week, but eventually. And this is before we even start considering duties of altruism, the demands of Christian morality, and various and sundry intrinsic goods.

So let’s get back to eliminating the philosophy department. Business lingo was used in Liberty’s decision—specters of efficiency, adding value, and negative enrollment trends—but it all raises prior questions that ought to be asked. If a program isn’t a money-maker for the university, how relevant is that to its value? Is its value reducible to monetary terms? If the university overall wants to be financially solvent—and what university doesn’t?—does that rightly suggest that each department has to pull its own weight financially? What if history and English eventually suffer the same fate? Can a school legitimately claim to be a university at all without a philosophy program? Or an English or history department? This is no unprincipled slippery slope concern; the parity in reasoning seems inescapable. At what point does the intrinsic value of studying poetry or history, philosophy or literature, simply demand that a university privilege something other than the bottom line?

Liberty’s rationale also includes mention of other Christian colleges streamlining their humanities programs, and it is probably true that this was a financial necessity for some or many of those colleges. But what about Liberty? It has an endowment of over 1.5 billion dollars. Wouldn’t this have been an ideal time to be countercultural and lead the way, rather than capitulating and following the lead of institutions far less financially blessed? The argument that this was a financial duty bears critical scrutiny only by revealing some troubling value commitments on which the decision was based. It was apparently deemed more valuable to safeguard and keep growing those hefty resources than use them to preserve a philosophy department. Actions reveal character and values.   

When George and West talked at Brandeis University, George talked about the value of a liberal arts education that encourages exploration of the great questions of meaning and value and existence. He acknowledged the financial pressures to back away from the liberal arts, but he encouraged those institutions that can afford it not to lose their focus on such central concerns, the soul of the university. Especially at a conservative Christian university like Liberty, flush with cash, incessant rhetoric about financial responsibility does not preclude the looming possibility and increasing likelihood that the cloak of biblical stewardship is getting draped over problematic love of money. Perhaps more important than running a university as a business is first figuring out what the business of a university really is. Or so it seems to me.  

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Ross Inman recently wrote these words with which I resonate:

Imagine a world where St. Augustine was never exposed to the study of philosophy.

Augustine, after reading Cicero's exhortation to philosophy in Hortensius, says: ‘In fact, that book changed my mental attitude, and changed the character of my prayers to Thyself, O Lord. It altered my wishes and my desires. Suddenly, every vain hope became worthless to me and I yearned with unbelievable ardor of heart for the immortality of wisdom. I began to rise up, so that I might return to Thee.... The love of wisdom bears the Greek name, philosophy, and it was with this love that that book [Hortensius] enkindled me.’ -Confessions, bk. 3, ch. 4

Sadly, there will be fewer altered attitudes/wishes/desires, reoriented prayers, abandonments of vain hopes, yearnings of heart, and enkindlings of the love of wisdom at Liberty University in the days ahead.

If only the study of philosophy were practical.

David Baggett is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently The Moral Argument: A History, with Jerry Walls. Starting in the fall of 2020 he and his wife will be teaching at Houston Baptist University.

Book Highlight

One of the unique aspects of the Christian faith is how strongly it’s tied to people and events in history.  While a number of religions are based primarily on a philosophy, Christianity depends entirely on the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).  In The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus' Death and Resurrection, author Justin Bass demonstrates a historical scholarly consensus concerning the death, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, as well as the rise of the Christian movement.  Citing scholars across the ideological spectrum, Bass shows that these key events are acknowledged as historically sound, and that the best explanation of them is that Jesus rose from the dead.     

“Very highly recommended.”

Gary R. Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor & Chair, Philosophy Department, Liberty University

“Justin Bass takes us down to the core historical facts which have to be explained, surveys the best historical scholarship on each, and shows why ultimately they point towards a risen Lord.”

Andrew Wilson, Teaching Pastor, King’s Church London; author of If God, Then What

Find The Bedrock of Christianity at Amazon, Lexham Press, and other major booksellers.

* This is a sponsored post.


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