March 9, 2006

Cornell Loses Philosophy Profs

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According to many Cornell philosophy professors, the department’s recent loss of faculty – Profs. Michael Fara and Delia Graff to Princeton University last year and Profs. Zoltan Szabo and Tamar Gendler to Yale University this year – signifies no major change or downturn in the department and is only a string of bad luck.

“Nothing negative here made me decide to leave Cornell for Yale,” Gendler said.

According to Prof. Michael Della Rocca, chair of Yale’s philosophy department, Szabo and Gendler notified their colleagues on or around Feb. 20.

Philosophy professors can easily move from institution to institution given the nature of their work.

“We don’t have labs, so it’s easy to move. And we have no startup costs. The whole world’s our colleague base, because it’s possible for people to know each other in ways other professionals don’t,” Gendler said.

Ithaca’s upstate New York location necessitates the hiring of couples. That can make additions and losses of faculty seem “magnified in both directions,” in that faculty are hired in twos and leave in twos, according to Gendler.

“Academia is a weird profession because where you work, you have to live,” said Prof. Brian Weatherson, philosophy, who went on to compare academia to law, a profession where a number of law firms may be concentrated within a small area, allowing lawyer couples to work in the same city but for different firms.

Gendler plans to take advantage of opportunities for interdisciplinary work at Yale. According to the Yale Daily News, Gendler will serve as the acting director of the cognitive science program at Yale.

“Current empirical research in psychology influences her work in the philosophy of psychology and the theory of knowledge,” Della Rocca said.

“I’ll be able to do a lot of direct collaboration with people in psychology because there are people at Yale whose work directly overlaps with mine,” Gendler said.

Szabo’s work on the philosophy of language has strong ties to linguistics and cognitive science, according to Della Rocca.

“Interdisciplinary work is very important at Yale and one of the main reasons we were interested in Tamar and Zoltan,” Della Rocca said. “It’s something of a thought that it’s good for a department to talk to others when it’s appropriate to do so.”

Cornell’s decentralized organization – seven distinct, independent colleges – complicates possibilities for interdisciplinary work outside of the College of Arts and Sciences, according to Gendler. Within the Arts and Sciences college, professors of different fields can communicate with greater ease, formally or informally.

“Virtually everyone in the department has a tie to some other department or program,” said Prof. Gail Fine, philosophy. “These include classics, medieval studies, religious studies, linguistics, mathematics, cognitive studies, government, ethics and public life and science and technology studies. Some of us have taught courses with people in other fields.”

According to Fine, the philosophy department was “given a new line” for the study of post-Kantian German philosophy and conducted a search for new faculty members in collaboration with German Studies. The department made an offer for someone to work at Cornell in this area and hopes to make this a “new area of excellence and an interdisciplinary one at that.”

The Cornell philosophy department has enjoyed an outstanding reputation over the course of the past century.

“If Cornell were a football team, we’d be the playoff team year after year,” Weatherson said. “Even high profile departments have gone through lean patches where they’ve had to struggle a bit.”

The Philosophical Review, the leading philosophical journal in America, is edited at Cornell, which according to Gendler, indicates that Cornell has a “department that [is] going to land on its feet,” despite the recent faculty losses.

“Philosophy is full of smart people – you lose some, you get some more,” Gendler said.

Gendler and Weatherson attest to the Cornell philosophy department’s strength by citing that Wittgenstein occasionally visited Cornell and by referring to the fact that many faculty members were his students.

“We are no longer a Wittgensteinian department, but we’re still good,” Weatherson said.

Those perhaps most affected by the losses of Fara, Graff, Szabo, and Gendler are the graduate students working under them. Grad students comfortable with a certain professor who then moves could easily communicate via e-mail with them, but for some grads “it could be a bit choppy,” Weatherson said.

Such grads have two options: transferring to the professor’s new institution or following the professor to the institution’s city, if they no longer have to complete coursework, and finishing their dissertation in the city with their original mentor.

According to Raul Saucedo Ceballos grad, the transient nature of philosophy professors “has a negative impact in grad student training.” He noted that grads have only about five years in a PhD program, and so that “if a professor you’re working with leaves in the middle of your studies, you will have very little time to adapt to working with whoever replaces him.”

“It might take them time to get to know you,” he added.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer