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Tough Going for Pathways: Fall 2013 Implementation May Be Hard to Reach

By Peter Hogness
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Delegates at the Modern Language Association's annual conventionin Boston approved an anti-Pathways resolutionby a vote of 108 to 2. In the January 6 statement, MLA delegates affirmed the right of CUNY faculty to withhold implementation of any curriculum that has not been recommended by the appropriate faculty body.
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CUNY’s central administration wants its Pathways curriculum on general education to be securely in place by Fall 2013. But as the Spring 2013 semester began, that time frame was looking more difficult to achieve.

Pathways, the administration’s overhaul of rules on general education and transfer, took another hit in January when delegates of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association (MLA) sharply criticized the initiative in a January 6 resolution during their annual meeting in Boston. “The association came out in support of [CUNY] faculty, arguing that the administration had bypassed faculty governance and overridden professors’ rights to determine curriculum,” reported Inside Higher Ed.

“All specific Pathways courses have been proceeding through traditional mechanisms of faculty curricular development and governance,” insisted Executive Vice Chancellor Alexandra Logue in a December 17 letter to the MLA. But CUNY faculty say that’s not the case.

“Our English department has not voted for Pathways composition courses, and those courses have not gone through college governance,” said Mary McGlynn, chair of the English department at Baruch. Commenting on the response across CUNY, McGlynn said, “There’s been so much pressure on the presidents and provosts to submit these courses [to central administration], even if not approved by the departments or by college governance.”

A PSC lawsuit filed in August says that it is illegal for administrators to ignore college governance meetings and make their own private decisions about which courses to approve. Such actions, the union says, violate New York’s Open Meetings Law (see Clarion, August 2012).

Refusal

Some CUNY college senates, such as those at Brooklyn College or College of Staten Island, have not approved any Pathways courses. Some, such as Hostos Community College, have approved some proposed courses but not others. “The greatest pressure for a re-think of the misguided structure of Pathways comes from governance bodies that decline to approve Pathways courses,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen.

The MLA resolution, approved by a vote of 108 to 2, concludes by “affirm[ing] the right of CUNY’s faculty...to determine curriculum and graduation requirements, and to withhold implementation of any curriculum that has not been recommended by the appropriate faculty governance body.”

“It was a deeply sympathetic audience,” said McGlynn. “They were particularly concerned by the threats and coercions that faculty at various CUNY colleges have experienced” as administrators have applied pressure to take and win favorable votes (see Clarion, October and December 2012).

National Petition

Several college senates have endorsed the call by the University Faculty Senate and the PSC for a moratorium on Pathways implementation, to allow time for a full and open discussion of transfer issues. A national petition, with 5,600 signatures so far, asks for a “moratorium on further implementation of Pathways until an atmosphere free of coercion is established and academically sound alternatives can be considered.”

“Suddenly, there are all these directives, all this pressure: ‘You must vote on this, you must approve that.’ Where is the urgency on this coming from?” Bowen said at the PSC’s January 24 Delegate Assembly. “It’s coming from management, and its own artificial timetable. But it’s faculty who are responsible for the curriculum. We are responsible for its quality.”

With management still facing problems in winning faculty support, many at CUNY are skeptical that the plan can be implemented on schedule. “The truth of the matter is that Pathways will most likely not be implemented, at least not in the way or to the extent that CUNY administration wishes, in Fall 2013,” wrote BMCC student Maruf Hossain in a comment on the college’s website, after BMCC’s administration announced that Pathways is ready to go. Hossain is vice chair of United Leaders of CUNY, an organization of students in SEEK and College Discovery programs.

In January, the PSC told New York’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that CUNY management’s push to win approval of Pathways courses has violated State labor law. CUNY has attempted to “negotiat[e] terms and conditions of employment, specifically workload requirements, directly” with English departments at three CUNY community colleges. Workload, the complaint points out, is “a mandatory subject of bargaining” with the union, and under State law the PSC is recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent for CUNY instructional staff.

Negotiations

At issue in the PERB charge is management’s pursuit of negotiations with English departments at several CUNY colleges over workload hours in freshman composition classes. Resistance to Pathways has been particularly strong in CUNY’s English departments, most of which have long taught introductory composition courses on the basis of a “3/4” formula: a class that receives three credits, but meets for four hours a week. But Pathways lowers the total number of credits that can be required in general education classes – and an administration directive last year stated that “all courses in the [Pathways] Common Core must be three credits and three hours.”

CUNY’s English Discipline Council, representing English department chairs from across the University, argued that the 3/4 structure was a “best practice” that must be maintained; banning it would “undermine established pedagogic practices within CUNY.” Four hours a week are needed “to prepare students adequately for the challenges of academic writing in their undergraduate careers,” the Council said. It argued that cutting instruction in introductory composition by 25% would impair student performance in future classes – which would impede student transfer, not enhance it.

Faced with English departments that refused to approve Pathways-compliant composition courses, college administrations twisted arms, and, in some cases, tried to cut deals to gain favorable votes. They offered several different options, inconsistent from one college to the next and changing over time. In one offer, the class would be offered on a 3/3 basis, but faculty could hold a “conference hour” (essentially an extra office hour). Or perhaps the fourth hour could meet in a classroom, but students would not be required to attend. Or student attendance during the fourth hour would be mandatory, but the session could not include the entire class.

The PSC’s PERB charge cites attempts to negotiate workload requirements for composition classes with English departments at LaGuardia, Queensborough and Bronx Community colleges. CUNY is expected to file its response to the charge later this spring.

In late January, the PSC sent CUNY a formal request to bargain on these issues. “If the administration at these colleges is prepared to offer, and pay for, four hours of workload credit for these three-hour courses, it may be possible to negotiate a side-agreement that would formalize this structure,” said Bowen. “But not in ad hoc agreements with individual departments whose chairs have been subject to enormous and unfair pressure; instead, these talks must be with the union as a whole. That’s the way to do what is best for students.”

LaGuardia Vote

Issues raised by the PERB charge were a factor in a January 23 vote by LaGuardia’s English department, in which a Pathways-compliant composition course again failed to win the department’s approval, even though this version was not burdened by as many odd restrictions as past proposals.

With 43 department members present and voting (by secret ballot), the revised course proposal drew 20 votes. With 23 who voted not to endorse it (15 voting no and 8 abstentions), the proposal failed.

In a sign of the conflicting pressures and sentiments faculty are feeling in the Pathways debates, the department overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the LaGuardia College Senate to adopt a moratorium on Pathways implementation, by a vote of 37 to 4, with two abstentions. Thus, even most of those who favored the composition class deal are asking their college senate not to act on any Pathways courses.

Sharpening Conflict

“These votes are consistent with the PSC message over the past year. In its work with faculty governance, PSC has been emphasizing the importance of collectivizing the voice and power of faculty to maximize their influence and minimize the vulnerability of individual faculty members and departments,” said PSC Treasurer Michael Fabricant on hearing of the LaGuardia votes.

With 80th Street facing its own self-imposed deadline of February 25 for submission of Pathways courses, faculty can expect conflicts over Pathways to sharpen. “Management is likely to be even more aggressive this semester than in the Fall,” Fabricant told union delegates in January. “We will win or lose on Pathways based on faculty engagement, one campus at a time.”