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Home » Clarion » 2012 » December 2012 » Pathways Conflict Flares on New Fronts

Pathways Conflict Flares on New Fronts

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At the midpoint of the semester, the conflict over Pathways flared on new fronts across CUNY. A college president tried to block the election of a Pathways critic as a department chair, but was forced to back down. Calls for a moratorium on Pathways implementation won new support. And at a hearing on a union grievance, the PSC argued that the administration’s imposition of Pathways has violated governance procedures and the contract.

Pathways, the CUNY administration’s overhaul of policies on general education and transfer, has been deeply unpopular with CUNY faculty. Described as an effort to “streamline” course requirements, it would cut the number of credits that colleges can require under rules on general eduction. For most CUNY colleges, these centrally imposed limits would mean less time for instruction in English composition courses, an end to lab sections within introductory science classes, and would make it harder to require foreign language study.

‘Austerity Education’

The PSC has characterized Pathways as “austerity education,” a cost-cutting measure that is designed to raise CUNY’s graduation rates on the cheap, by requiring less of students and thus diluting the quality of their education.

“We’re the ones on the ground, and we know what our students need,” said Fred Bilenkis, an adjunct lecturer who has taught history at John Jay College for more than 16 years. “They need to know more, not less. Pathways is not going to help anyone who wants to go to graduate school – [grad schools] will look at this and say, ‘You haven’t been well educated.’ This is not doing our students any favors.”

Suzan Moss of BCC shows her spirit at a PSC rally outside the November 9 grievance hearing on Pathways.
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At Queensborough Community College, faculty concern over what Pathways would do to the school’s curriculum led to a face-off between the English department and the college administration over faculty members’ right to elect their own department chair.

For years QCC’s English department, like those at about three-quarters of CUNY colleges, has based its freshman composition classes on four hours of instruction per week. QCC faculty felt that this amount of instruction was especially important at their college, where so many students are non-native speakers of English. So at the start of the semester, the department refused to approve a proposal for Pathways-compliant composition courses that would meet for only three hours weekly. “It’s hard to understand how teaching less English…could be good for students,” David Humphries, then the department’s deputy chair, told The New York Times in mid-September, 2012.

In response to the department’s vote, QCC Vice President Karen Steele told the department that if they did not approve the three-hour Pathways plan, the department’s composition courses would be shut down and most if its faculty would lose their jobs.

Steele’s threat provoked outrage across CUNY, and within days she had issued an apology (though not a retraction). For their part, English department faculty continued to insist on the need for four hours for composition classes.

The episode led a number of English faculty to propose a vote on the recall of their department chair, who they felt had not taken a forceful stand against the administration’s intimidation. When a vote on the recall was held on October 24, 2012, three-quarters of the department voted in favor of a change in leadership, with Humphries elected as the department’s new chair.

The day after the vote, Interim President Diane Call invited Humphries to a meeting, which occurred on October 26, 2012. But Call issued no statement on whether she would follow normal practice and accept the election of Humphries as department chair.

On November 6, 2012, a meeting of the English department was held at Call’s behest. She told the department’s faculty that she rejected their choice of Humphries as their new chair and would impose her own candidate instead. Call said this was necessary because the department was deeply divided; that it had fallen under the influence of “outside forces”; and that the department needed “to heal.”

Open Letter

The department was unconvinced. Faculty members told Clarion that none of those who had voted for Humphries as chair changed their minds; in fact, he gained some new support. Department members drew up an open letter to Call, appealing to her to change her mind. Far from being helplessly split, the letter said, “it speaks to our unity that Professor Humphries received the votes of 22 of the 30 full-time faculty eligible to vote,” despite the inherently “contentious” nature of a recall vote. The open letter also asked Call to clarify her remark about “outside forces” influencing the department.

In an e-mail to colleagues, Associate Professor Susan Jacobowitz said that faculty members wondered whether this might refer to their consultations with the union on academic freedom issues in the wake of Steele’s threats. But it was unclear, she said, why this would be considered improper.

In October 2012, the English department at LaGuardia Community College had invited Humphries to speak with them about Pathways and curricular decisions at QCC, to inform their own decision-making at LaGuardia. “I understand that the QCC administration was upset with Prof. Humphries over this,” said Sigmund Shen, an associate professor at LaGuardia. “That makes no sense. If we’re going to make sound decisions, if we want to have smoothly working policies on transfer or other matters, faculty at different campuses need to talk with each other more, not less.”

Other parts of Call’s decision were also troubling to QCC faculty. One was Call’s announcement that although she was appointing a former English department head to serve as an “interim chairperson,” she planned to conduct a national search for a new chair. “A whole generation of dedicated faculty who have devoted their careers to Queensborough and to CUNY are not considered eligible to either be chair or to elect a chair,” wrote Jacobowitz. “The ‘why’ of this was never explained to us.”

The other point that drew particularly sharp dissent was the vital departmental decision-making role that Call assigned to VP Steele. Under Call’s plan, it would be Steele, not the interim chair, who would present department recommendations on personnel issues to the college’s Personnel and Budget Committee. Several English department members were incredulous that the very person who had threatened their jobs would now be in charge of presenting recommendations on their future employment.

Rather than calming the conflict over Pathways, Call’s actions only inflamed it. Statements of support for the department streamed in, from the English Discipline Council (or EDC, composed of English department chairs from across CUNY), the PSC, the student association in CUNY’s doctoral program in English, the College Senate at Hunter, and others.

“The PSC fully supports the right of CUNY faculty to elect their department chairs, as established in the CUNY bylaws,” a union statement said. “When faculty vote to make a change in their department leadership, as happened recently with the English department at QCC, the college president should accept the results of the vote and honor the wishes of the faculty.”

The EDC strongly urged Call to reverse herself, calling her rejection of the department’s vote “a reprisal” for the department’s rejection of Pathways-complaint courses, and a punitive departure from norms of academic freedom and departmental self-governance.” By the end of the weekend, more than 900 people had signed an online petition in support of the department’s right to elect its own chair.

By Tuesday, November 13, 2012, the growing chorus of criticism had left its mark. In an e-mail to department faculty, Call reversed herself. “It is my decision to accept the recommendation forwarded by the English Department for Dr. David Humphries to serve as its Chairperson,” she wrote. The idea of a national search for a new chair from outside the department was dropped.

On November 14, 2012, the department held its first meeting with Humphries serving as chair. “We are happy to be moving forward together,” Humphries said afterwards. The department, he said, would continue to put students’ interests at the center of its decisions on curriculum.

Four Hours

The English department was not alone in seeking to preserve four hours a week of instruction in its introductory classes at QCC. The college’s foreign languages department had for many years based its elementary courses on a four-hour structure – but it now found itself under enormous pressure to cut its investment in students to three hours for Pathways’ sake.

Last spring QCC’s foreign languages department reluctantly agreed to reduce the credits in its introductory courses from four to three, but it kept the number of hours in class at four. In June, 2012 QCC’s administration informed the department that this proposal would never be approved, and that there was no alternative to making all general education courses just three hours and three credits. Under protest, the department gave in and agreed to the 3-3 plan.

“When September 2012 came, we were very unhappy with the 3-3 option,” Associate Professor Aranzazu Borrachero told Clarion. “The English department had its vote,” sticking with four hours for composition classes, she recalled. “And we started thinking that we should reconsider our position.” But intense pressure was brought to bear against any reconsideration. “We were repeatedly told that if we do not accept the 3-credit, 3-hour plan for our elementary courses, we will lose our jobs,” Borrachero recalled.

Nonetheless, in late October the department voted by a wide margin to rescind its approval of the 3-3 classes and to support a 3-credit, 4-hour structure instead. “The pressure has been very strong,” said a department member. “But it’s already difficult for us to teach the content we have in four hours. In three hours it would be impossible.” If somehow the administration imposes three-hour intro courses on its own authority, the faculty member said, “we are not going to stop coming to work. We won’t refuse to teach. But we are saying that this is a terrible idea, and our department is not going to vote for it.”

After the October 2012 vote, the chair of foreign languages and two other faculty members tried to submit their own proposals for three-hour, Pathways-compliant courses separate from the four-hour courses backed by the department. Though the college’s curriculum committee declined to consider any proposals that lacked departmental approval, said Borrachero, “this still shows how Pathways can cause department life to deteriorate.”

Administration pressure tactics, and their negative effect on open discussion, have led the PSC to call for a moratorium on Pathways implementation, to allow for full consideration of the best way forward for CUNY. That call was supported by the Faculty Senate of the College of Staten Island on November 8, 2012.

McDonald’s

John Lawrence, chair of CSI’s psychology department, told Clarion that the moratorium was a necessary step toward free discussion. The current Pathways process calls for faculty participation, he said, but only if it moves toward a predetermined outcome. “The analogy I use,” he said, “is that it’s as if they brought you to McDonald’s and said, ‘You can order anything on the menu.’ I don’t want to go to McDonald’s! But you’re not allowed to say that, even though that’s how most faculty feel.”

In the CSI Senate discussion, “people spoke about why they teach at a public university – about what our students need and the difference a good curriculum makes,” said George Sanchez, professor of performing arts. “Several asked why isn’t anything like Pathways being implemented at elite universities?”

Communication and sharing of information among faculty at different campuses is critical, said Sanchez. “The college administration is going to tell you, ‘Oh, everyone else is falling in line.’ But it’s not true! And unless we communicate with each other, we won’t know the facts and we can be manipulated.”

“It’s very easy to feel isolated,” agreed Lawrence. “We need to work on sharing information and developing cross-campus solidarity.”

Say What?

The moratorium vote at CSI was followed the next week by a QCC Senate vote that was surrounded by confusion. “When it was over, a lot of people were asking, ‘What did we just vote on?’” said PSC Chapter Chair Judith Barbanel, who attended as an observer.

Earlier this semester, the QCC Senate had agreed to take no action on Pathways until the college’s president formally withdrew the threats by VP Steele in writing. At its November 13 meeting, QCC’s Senate voted in favor of a package of Pathways-related courses even though there was no written statement from Interim President Call. Call did make a verbal statement at the meeting, with a general disavowal of pressuring faculty on votes over curriculum, and it was proposed that recording this in the minutes might be accepted. When Call was asked why she would not put her words in writing, however, she gave no direct answer.

Adding to the confusion, the courses from QCC’s English and foreign language departments were approved as-is, with four hours of classroom instruction. This is contrary to the Pathways regulations advanced by CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs, raising the prospect that these courses may be rejected by 80th Street.

“I felt torn,” said Borrachero. “Though I’m glad our four-hour courses were approved, they are not the same courses we are teaching now. Our department’s first preference this semester was for a moratorium on Pathways – so I’m not sure we should have approved anything.”

Meanwhile the moratorium proposal has drawn support from other faculty bodies, with department chairs at Queens College backing the moratorium idea. And in late October, the Faculty Council of Brooklyn College voted by a substantial majority to not take action on courses that could become part of the Pathways curriculum. To date, the Brooklyn College Faculty Council has not approved any Pathways courses.

The November 9, 2012 hearing in the union’s anti-Pathways grievance is one step in an often long process leading to arbitration. By filing the grievance, the union has opened a new front in the campaign to oppose Pathways, in addition to campus-based organizing efforts, the call for a moratorium on Pathways implementation, and two lawsuits filed jointly with the University Faculty Senate.

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