Portland State’s philosophy department has struggled with shuffling faculty and a lack of tenured professors, but big changes may be on the way.
The Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, the region’s largest philosophical organization, is holding its annual meeting in Portland this month, but PSU will not be as involved as other local colleges in the major philosophical conference.
Portland State’s philosophy department is comparatively undeveloped and experiencing a major transition in staff and objectives. Currently the department is less focused on research than Oregon’s other major universities and has only one tenured professor.
Dr. Kevin Hill, one of the department’s few professors on track for tenure, said that the current state of the department is not conducive to the goals of the conference. He characterized the conference as a scholarly sharing of academic research and a networking opportunity to hire new professors. PSU is not currently hiring.
Lewis and Clark College, Reed College and the University of Portland are hosting the 80th annual meeting of philosophers. Dr. Grant Farr, interim department chair, was not aware of the other schools’ involvement. “Good for them, bad for us,” Farr said, who took over as department chair in January. Farr, who was hired as chair for administrative reasons, has a background in Middle East studies, not philosophy.
A recent shuffling of positions within the philosophy department hindered PSU from coordinating with the APA during the planning stages of the meeting, according to Farr.
Historically PSU has been more of an undergraduate teaching organization, Hill said. Oregon State University and the University of Oregon have fulfilled the research- and graduate-level roles while PSU has been thought of as more of a regional teaching institution, he added.
However, a new constitution is in the works for Portland State’s philosophy department. The new constitution is part of an overhaul of the entire department, with a major objective being a larger focus on research. “There is a harmony of objectives within the department,” Hill said.
The philosophy department’s desire to become more research orientated reflects that of the whole university, added Hill, who acknowledged the difficulty of having a strong research element in a department without a graduate program.
However, there are differing views among faculty members on creating a master’s program at PSU. “I’m of two minds about it,” Hill said. The current number of faculty could not support a master’s program, he said. “We’re one of the smallest units in the college of liberal arts and sciences at PSU,” Hill said.
Dr. Tom Seppaleinen, the department’s only tenured professor, acknowledged the disparity of resources between the public and private colleges as a central difficulty for balancing research and teaching.
“You teach philosophy classes, you ain’t going to give multiple choice exams,” Seppaleinen said, joking about the limitations of his field. Limited time resulting from large class sizes and a shrinking staff inhibit involvement in the larger philosophical community, he noted. “I hope we’ll be hiring very soon,” Seppaleinen said.
The budget of the philosophy department is well organized and controlled, according to Nancy Weaver, the philosophy department administrator. “We’re very economically run,” she said.
The university has gone through a series of budget cuts and retirements, causing the department to shrink, Farr noted. He highlighted the strengths of what he called the active, youthful and boisterous staff. “This is a very dynamic and young faculty,” Farr said. “This is a very successful department.”
Farr was optimistic about the program’s future. “There is a tremendous interest in philosophy right now,” he said.
The program has seen difficult times recently. Five professors who have retired from PSU have continued to teach. The PSU philosophy department currently has only one tenured professor, Seppaleinen, and three instructors are on tenure track, one of whom is Dr. Aleksander Jokic.
Jokic was denied tenure a year and a half ago after students complained about his teaching. He filed a grievance and will be up for review again in the upcoming year. Jokic was unavailable for comment.
Philosophy student Nicholaus Krichevsky noted that Jokic is not a popular teacher. “Some students like him,” Krichevsky said. “Most despise him.” He noted that Jokic may know his stuff but shows little respect for students. “Give him tenure, but don’t let him teach,” Krichevsky said.
Krichevsky, who has participated in over 20 philosophy classes at PSU over the past four years, said he has seen improvement. “Up until we got Dr. Coventry and Dr. Hill, the department was dilapidated,” he said.
Drs. Angela Coventry and Hill, who are both on the tenure track in the department, will be involved with a handful of the seminars and workshops at the APA conference. Hill will be moderating a panel on Nietzsche.
From March 22 ?” 26 thousands of philosophers from academia across the United States and Canada will gather at the Portland Hilton to attend an annual meeting. Both Farr and Weaver mentioned plans on hosting receptions for the visiting philosophers, but lamented the fact that the conference takes place during finals week.