The End of Political Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University
An empty classroom in Claremont.
The administration of Claremont Graduate University has ended its graduate program in political philosophy after nearly six decades. Over the years, some of the most influential American politicians and intellectuals have passed through its ranks. The program had a national reputation for the serious study of political philosophy, characterized by a close reading of philosophical texts. Many professors, students and alumni of the program were blindsided by the decision.
Admissions to the Ph.D. program were paused in 2021, according to an email sent to graduate students on April 16. In the email, Michelle Bligh, then dean of CGU’s School of Social Science, Policy and Evaluation, said that after conversations with faculty, students and administration, CGU determined that they “simply do not have the core faculty to support these fields moving forward.”
However, long-time CMC and CGU political philosophy professors Mark Blitz, James Nichols and Charles Kesler report that the CGU administration did not consult them before the decision was made. Professor Blitz allegedly heard the news secondhand from his graduate students. By the time the administration granted the professors a meeting, “the impression I had was that the decision to cancel the program was already final,” Professor Kesler said.
The cancellation came after the death of CGU Professor of American Politics Michael Uhlmann, who often served as a liaison between the CGU administration and the political philosophy program. “He was very important at CGU,” Kesler said.
“CGU could not hire anyone with a similar portfolio, depth of experience and passion for the program. [Professor Uhlmann] is sorely missed,” former CGU dean Bligh said.
Uhlmann had a unique affection for CGU, which caused him to take on much more work than a traditional untenured professor. He was consistently relied upon to smooth over gaps in the American Politics department. “If a student needed an independent study in something that was not taught at the time, he would help,” Blitz said.
While Kesler acknowledged that Uhlmann’s death was a blow to American Politics at CGU, he did not see why the political philosophy program needed to end, given that there were still several qualified political philosophy professors in Claremont. CMC also footed the bill for most political philosophy professors. “When I was hired, it was part of my contract that I would teach one course a year at the graduate school on CMC’s dime,” Kesler said.
Kesler added that student funding was not an issue as funding for graduate students was acquired entirely outside of CGU. “We brought our own money to support our own students. We were not asking them to give us anything or pay for anything,” said Kesler.
Dean Bligh also claimed it was against CGU’s accreditation and policies to have a department completely reliant on CMC faculty. When asked to specify those policies, she failed to do so. According to Professor Nichols, “For many years, if not every year, the political philosophy program relied wholly on faculty from [the undergraduate colleges] for courses, exam committees and dissertation committees.” It is unclear whether the political philosophy program has been in violation for its duration.
According to Professor Kesler, “The idea of the [graduate] school was that they would use the undergrad faculty—the general faculty of the Claremont Colleges. Most of the teaching would be done by people whose home institutions were the undergraduate colleges.”
The cancellation has left existing Ph.D. students in an arduous position. “I have almost nothing positive to say about the CGU administration,” a current political philosophy Ph.D. candidate said. The student was admitted to the program the semester before the cancellation and was given no notice that the program would soon be done away with. After the cancellation, the student felt abandoned by the University. “When it became clear [CGU] would abolish the political philosophy concentration, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get a lot of support,” he said.
CGU failed to wait for current political philosophy Ph.D. students to finish their degrees before canceling classes. Professor Nichols intended to teach a graduate seminar on Rousseau’s Emile in spring 2023 that was canceled. This meant that most of the student’s coursework would be taught at the undergraduate level.
“This probably doesn’t make much of a substantive difference because these professors teach at such a high level, but the big difference is the loss of that time working through a single text like Emile and the rigor of that experience. That in-depth study is something unique to a graduate program that is no longer available in Claremont,” the student said, “It might also make a difference to future employers looking at my transcript.”
A former political philosophy M.A. student who graduated in 2022, Karl Heintz, objected to CGU’s actions. “You can’t accept someone [promising] that they will be able to complete their dissertation and then make it impossible, or at least very difficult, for them to finish their coursework.”
Heintz says he attended a number of school-wide town halls in which students from many other departments complained about the administration. “Their argument essentially was: you accepted us, we have paid for our degree, we want to finish, we need courses and we need mentorship,” Heintz said.
The cancellation has left some program alumni questioning CGU’s motives. One graduate said, “While the future has never looked as bright for political philosophy jobs in the academy, CGU decided, for what seem to be ideological or progressive-bureaucratic reasons, to end the program. It’s literally baffling.”
Another CGU Ph.D. said, “It’s not a large program and never was. Unlike many other other programs at the school, it cost CGU almost nothing. While the political philosophy professors are still teaching in Claremont, they should be able to teach graduate students who want to learn from them. I see no legitimate reason for the pause in admissions.”
Both Professors Nichols and Blitz denied that the decision was political. Though, Professor Kesler said, “I think if [political philosophy] went away and never came back, [the CGU administration] would be very happy. They don’t believe in political philosophy or the kind of approach we take. They think it is old fashioned, unscientific, not on the cutting edge.”
Kesler’s expectations for the future of CGU are bleak. “If you look at the courses they are now teaching, there is little hope that good students would be attracted to study there,” he said, “the stuff taught there is unremarkable and you could study it at one hundred different places. It lacks both distinctiveness and distinction. It’s on a death spiral.”