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May 1, 2003

Grünbaum resigns from philosophy department faculty

Adolf Grünbaum, who led the transformation of Pitt’s Department of Philosophy from an academic backwater into one of North America’s elite philosophy units, severed his affiliation with the department April 26.

Grünbaum, one of the University’s most celebrated scholars, called his resignation the culmination of years of “escalating alienation” from the department.

He will continue as Pitt’s tenured Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, as chair of the University’s Center for Philosophy of Science (which Grünbaum founded when he came to Pitt in 1960), and as a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and in the psychiatry department.

“This is an amicable divorce,” Grünbaum told the University Times. “I continue to enjoy the warmest and most cordial personal relations with people in the philosophy department.”

But Grünbaum also cited what he called “festering ills” within the department that drove him to resign, including:

• Refusals by most philosophy faculty to give examinations. Instead, most philosophy faculty evaluate students based mainly on term papers. According to Grünbaum (who requires exams in his courses), this over-reliance on term papers encourages students to focus on course material related to their papers — at the expense of gaining a broad-based grounding in philosophical concepts. “On top of this,” Grünbaum said, “some faculty have been vastly delinquent in returning papers within a reasonable amount of time and with appropriate annotations,” a complaint also voiced by graduate students in a Jan. 22 open letter to philosophy faculty.

• What Grünbaum called “a poverty of educational leadership” within the department. “There is a tendency to treat students like customers, and the customer is always right,” he said. “There is an openly stated fear that if faculty give examinations and impose tougher standards, students will go elsewhere, which I believe is nonsense.”

• A growing trend among the department’s doctoral students to pursue narrow research interests and take only those courses required for completing their dissertations.

“The ethos among these students is very different from what it was during what is often called the department’s golden age [of the 1960s and 70s],” Grünbaum said. “They tend to prefer courses where a professor just lectures at them like a guru. They avoid courses like mine, and those of some other faculty members, that employ the Socratic method.

“I mean, Socrates was not some bum off the streets of Athens!” Grünbaum said, with a laugh. “But too many graduate students in the philosophy department are afraid that if they are shown to have made a mistake during a question-and-answer discussion, they will be embarrassed in front of their fellow students.”

In an April 24 letter to Grünbaum, philosophy chairperson Stephen Engstrom wrote that the department reacted to news of Grünbaum’s resignation with “great sadness and regret.”

“I want to emphasize that in saying this I am not speaking just for myself or for a few of my colleagues,” Engstrom wrote to Grünbaum. “All of us regard your alienation from the department in recent years as one of the most unfortunate developments in its history. And speaking for myself, I am disappointed that I was not able to do more to counteract it.”

Grünbaum called Engstrom’s letter “gracious and touching” and absolved Engstrom (who has chaired philosophy for only the last three years) of blame for the department’s ills.

In an April 18 letter informing philosophy faculty of his resignation, Grünbaum had written: “Steve Engstrom has been the only chair of the department who tried to deal systematically with the causes of my escalating alienation from it before I reached the breaking point.”

Grünbaum said he had come close to resigning in 1999. But the philosophy department’s incoming chairperson at that time, Tamara Horowitz (“who shared my strong aversion to some of the departmental modus operandi,” Grünbaum wrote) pledged to reform the department and convinced him to remain, according to Grünbaum.

Then, in January 2000, Horowitz, 49, died of complications from a brain tumor.

More recently, Grünbaum said, he postponed his resignation until the end of the spring term to avoid “undue embarrassment” over the philosophy department’s co-sponsorship of “Adolffest,” an April 12 event celebrating his 80th birthday (which actually occurs on May 15).

Philosophy chairperson Engstrom noted that some of Grünbaum’s criticisms dovetailed with those expressed by philosophy graduate students in their Jan. 22 open letter to faculty. (In a secret ballot, 43 graduate students affirmed that they agreed with the letter. Five abstained, and none disagreed.)

This winter, an ad hoc committee of philosophy faculty and graduate students began meeting to discuss concerns about class sizes, students’ funding, and the length of time it takes to complete the doctoral program. While the department’s official literature describes it as a five-year program, it takes more than eight years to complete a philosophy Ph.D. here, students wrote.

Students also complained that philosophy’s graduate program is not conducive to regular interaction between students and faculty philosophers, either in class or in private. “As things stand here,” they wrote, “one spends many years laboring with little sense of the quality of one’s work, and almost no encouragement or guidance.”

Grad students said their main contact with faculty currently comes through term papers, on which faculty write few comments. “And often the comments are returned to us months, semesters or even years later — long after they have ceased to be useful to us,” students wrote.

In a Feb. 20 letter of reply, philosophy faculty thanked students for their “constructive and thoughtful expression of concerns,” pointing out that certain complex issues such as funding and the time it takes to complete the Ph.D. program will be addressed by the department’s ad hoc committee.

In the meantime, faculty encouraged grad students “to make appointments with us to discuss your work, or simply to drop by and ask us whether we have some free time to talk philosophy. This is not asking a favor. It is an essential aspect of our contribution to the graduate program, and you should take advantage of it.”

Faculty pledged to return term papers (with substantial comments) within one month.

Engstrom said: “We certainly take the students’ concerns quite seriously. Our ad hoc committee will continue to meet in the fall, and likely will present some recommendations to the department for modifications of the graduate program.”

Provost James V. Maher expressed disappointment at Grünbaum’s resignation, but also confidence in the philosophy department.“It’s a very good department and I’m confident they will give serious consideration to making improvements,” said Maher, who is a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science.

Grünbaum said he feels “both physically and mentally fit,” and plans to continue working in the HPS department and the Center for Philosophy of Science for years to come. “In striking contrast to the Department of Philosophy, I find the ambience in the HPS department as well as in the Center exhilarating, and I take enormous satisfaction from feeling very much at home in both of them,” he wrote.

Could Grünbaum’s resignation simply be a case of a pampered senior scholar quitting because he felt Pitt administrators were not stroking his ego sufficiently?

Grünbaum laughed off that scenario. He said Provost Maher (to whom Grünbaum, as a Mellon Professor, reports), arts and sciences Dean N. John Cooper and philosophy chairperson Engstrom “all have been nothing short of wonderful to me. And I have the highest opinion of them” — in contrast to Grünbaum’s opinions of former arts and sciences Dean Peter Koehler and former philosophy chair Rudolph Weingartner, with whom he feuded bitterly.

“We’re talking about a Department of Philosophy that I raised out of the dust to national eminence,” Grünbaum said. “Believe me, I was not going to just terminate my membership in it because of some minor irritation or annoyance. This was a well-considered step.”

For decades, Pitt’s philosophy department has been rated among the top five nationally by various ranking organizations. But Grünbaum attributes this largely to a tendency among outside evaluators to view Pitt’s philosophy department, HPS department and Center for Philosophy of Science as constituting a single, high-powered entity.

As for the Pitt philosophy department’s continuing high status, Grünbaum commented, acidly: “Once you have the reputation as being an early riser, you can sleep until noon for many years before people realize you’re no longer getting up early.”

— Bruce Steele

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