Chapman Hall is home to the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. photo by Julianne Tran

Humanities professors express despair, cautiously optimistic

Drs. Arnold, Hockett and Prudlo reflect on their experience with True Commitment and the aftermath that followed.

April 11th was a fateful day for professors in the College of Arts and Sciences. The provost announced the restructuring plan to professors in a meeting where some left deeply distraught, others leaving in tears. On the second floor of Chapman Hall, news of True Commitment sent a ripple of shock and dismay through the faculty offices.

The proposed plan eliminated liberal arts majors like Philosophy, Religion, Chinese Studies, Russian Studies and Theater along with multiple graduate programs.

For the Philosophy and Religion, Political Science and History departments, professors felt the effects of True Commitment immediately.

“It felt very disrespectful,” recounts Dr. Jon Arnold, associate professor of history and director of Classical Studies. “It was just sort of like, ‘Oh, by the way, these programs are gone now. Good luck.’ It felt like a betrayal of the faculty and the programs we worked so hard to build.”

“We really just didn’t understand how a plan that was so obviously flawed could have been regarded as a good idea,” echoes Dr. Jeffrey Hockett, professor of political science who has taught at TU for over 35 years. “This was an existential threat. You’re talking about the destruction of any kind of meaningful notion of higher education.”

The release of True Commitment was especially shocking for Dr. Donald Prudlo, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and chair of the now combined Philosophy, Religion and Sociology Department. Prudlo came to this university just after the restructuring plan eliminated his major.

“A couple years before I came here, there were six professors in Philosophy and Religion. This was widely known as one of the finest small Philosophy and Religion programs in the country. There’s been well-published authors that have come through this department,” Prudlo remembers. “We’ve gone down from six to three professors.”

Following True Commitment, the Philosophy and Religion and Political Science departments lost faculty, either from early retirement or simply from leaving TU. Notably, faculty at TU have lost their traditional retirement packages. For those that left, the administration offered retirement packages that were perceived as tactical buy-outs.

“Our department lost, in part because of True Commitment, a junior faculty member who’s not been replaced,” Hockett says.

And as professors left or retired and the department shrank, and those professors were not replaced. “If you lose a professor in ethics, the usual practice is that you get to hire a new professor of ethics. And what TU did, not just in our department, but across the whole university, was to just let lines go extinct,” Prudlo explains.

This even includes endowed chairs, like the McFarlin Chair of Philosophy, which was never replaced.

“[The College of] Arts and Sciences lost a significant portion of our faculty,” Hockett says.

More than losing faculty members, True Commitment did far worse damage to the morale of professors and their relationship with administration.

“The fallout from that was just enormous,” Hockett emphasizes. “You lose trust right away. And so, from that point on, it was really difficult to feel that there was any kind of good faith in our dealings with the administration.”

And with the plan to combine humanities disciplines into general education courses, replacing disciplines with four “divisions” organized around fashionable topics, Arnold felt especially hurt.

“​​I was told that [my] discipline doesn’t matter. Not just that they’re going to eliminate some of the degrees that [my department] offered, but that [my] discipline doesn’t matter as a discipline, and that instead, [history] was going to be part of some catch-all thing that all freshmen will take.”

This consolidation of the humanities disciplines was especially harmful to the university as a whole.

“We’ve suffered tremendously because of the damage done to other programs, in particular, the humanities,” Hockett says. “The whole institution suffers when the humanities have been targeted and severely damaged.”

Dropping degrees in philosophy and religion threatens the very idea of a university. “Philosophy and Religion looks at the big questions that attempt to unify all of the other sciences and all the other disciplines together,” Prudlo explains. “While other disciplines are asking the “what’ and the ‘how,’ Philosophy and Religion focuses on the ‘why.’”

“And if you’re not asking those questions, then the real danger is [that] you give people a radically incomplete picture of the world and of themselves.”

“And in so doing, you are left with people that are able to earn a living but ill prepared to make a life.”

“To be at a university that no longer offers even a major in Philosophy or Religion, to be at a university that grants degrees and doesn’t offer Greek or Latin, and only teaches a language to fulfill a language requirement which doesn’t allow people to actually study it,” Arnold emphasizes. “What is this? That is not a university.”

In Prudlo’s view, True Commitment attacked the very disciplines that are the heart of a liberal arts education, and, beyond that the very heart of the university.

“These are some of the core disciplines that are needed in order to form people,” Prudlo asserts. “And what we need most in society, we need citizens who can act freely and responsibly in response to very complex situations. Technical training is not going to be able to produce those things. We’re supposed to be producing free and responsible leaders for society.”

As professors look towards the future of TU, the phrase “cautiously optimistic” comes up often in conversation. Some believe that the turnover of administration since True Commitment holds promise. Others, conscious of periodic reviews of programs and majors, know that this is not the end.

Looking back at True Commitment, some silver linings emerged.

“When we mobilized to push back against True Commitment, I really started to meet faculty from other disciplines, which was really healthy,” Hockett reflects. “[We gained a] strong sense of ownership of our university, our colleges, our departments, and extended the interconnections between faculty among different departments.”

“We’re much more collegial,” Arnold echoes. “We used to just be in our little worlds, and now we actually talk to each other.”

“We have a faculty unity and activism that is present in a way that it wasn’t present before True Commitment, and we continue to be wholly dedicated to our students and to our disciplines,” Prudlo adds.

Hockett, proud of the changes accomplished by the faculty push-back, is especially appreciative to the efforts by students to resist True Commitment.

“The creativity of the students in pushing back, their independence that they exhibited, the fairness, how informed they were in pushing back, and insisting that they were going to be listened to,” Hockett reflects. “[Students] ultimately did the most democratic thing they could do [in calling a no confidence vote.]”

“I don’t think that the faculty alone would have been listened to. So I’m enormously grateful.”

Since True Commitment, passionate professors serve on faculty senate and push for greater transparency in administrative processes. This is not the end, but the future holds some promise for these liberal arts disciplines.

Prudlo says that they have a plan and verbal backing to reinstate the Philosophy and Religion major in the near future.

The trust between administration and professors has not yet healed. But still, the professors move forward, with renewed dedication to their disciplines and their students.

They remain wary and cautiously optimistic about the future.

“So long as we continue to get the kinds of students that we’ve had that are as willing to take matters of education as seriously as they have,” Hockett asserts. “Yes, I think that TU has a bright future.”

Post Author: Julianne Tran