There is an old adage that says crisis produces both danger and opportunity. As can sometimes be the case, opportunities include an increase in power for those who want to marshal more extensive power. At CUNY during the COVID pandemic crisis, the power of the chancellor’s office may be advancing at the expense of faculty’s academic freedom and their robust role in shared governance. CUNY’s decision, as communicated by CUNY Interim Provost Daniel Lemons, for a 70/30 split for Spring 2022 course offerings, divided between classes taught in-person versus those taught in modalities wholly or partly online, is a strong case of diminished faculty autonomy. Such teaching decisions are traditionally the purview of the faculty member in consultation with their department chair. However, during the pandemic, such faculty decisions have been abrogated to those in administrative roles. CUNY administration’s overreach in regards to teaching modality decisions raise the specter of what other faculty decisions may be abrogated in a moment of crisis.
Philip Pecorino, professor of philosophy at Queens- borough Community College, says academic free- dom is at risk with teaching modality decisions.
Academic freedom, as exercised by teaching faculty, has been recognized by the courts as including faculty’s right to make their best academic judgments in regards to who teaches, what is taught and how it is to be taught. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities clearly states: “The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction.” The chancellor’s office at CUNY is unilaterally deciding how classes are to be taught, or in other words, unilaterally deciding the “methods of instruction.” This move threatens to violate one of the main pillars of academic freedom: a faculty member’s right to make those modality decisions based on their pedagogical knowledge and experience with achieving the expected learning outcomes. In violation of this principle, administrators are now ordering modalities based on other considerations.
One of the more involved modalities, currently termed “HyFlex,” is a costly one in terms of IT infrastructure, equipment, support staff and the work needed from faculty. At Queensborough Community College, for example, department chairs were given a goal of a 70/30 split between classes offered in-person and classes that are either entirely online or involve some online components. In far too many other cases, faculty are not involved in the decisions on setting these goals or quotas concerning how classes are to be taught. Thus, the academic freedom of faculty is being ignored, suppressed or violated outright.
ROLE OF DEPARTMENT
The problem extends from the faculty teaching the courses to the role of the academic chair. It is the job of academic department chairs to assign classes to faculty by using their best judgments. The exercise of a chairs’ best academic judgments is now being countered by administrators, not just in terms of the number of classes to be offered, but also by determining the modalities of instruction. In the wake of the COVID crisis, administrators far from their campuses and without knowledge of the students to be served by their specific programs and colleges, are establishing arbitrary measurements for such modalities. This meant, for example, that curricula designed and effectively taught as “hybrid” had to be partially refashioned as “in-person,” in order for departments to achieve the arbitrary ratio.
Through 2020 and 2021, directives from the CUNY Office of the Chancellor were imposed on department chairs, forcing faculty repeatedly to adjust their teaching modalities and styles, sometimes in the middle of the semester. This additional work induces stress and frustration. It also infringes on academic freedom and ignores the faculty role in governance. This marks the first time in CUNY history, or perhaps in all of higher education for that matter, that when faculty are assigned their teaching schedules there are designations as to the modalities of instruction to be used. For example, face-to-face, hybrid, partially online, fully online or HyFlex. Department chairs use their best academic judgments in assigning classes to instructors based on their expertise and their ability to achieve the learning outcomes for a class. Now chairs are being forced to make judgments that include a consideration of how well a faculty member is suited or qualified to be assigned specific modalities, sometimes at the expense of the academic considerations that have traditionally been at the center of such decisions.
What is to be done? What can be done?
Insisting upon a small measure of respect from administrators to faculty making academic judgments based on academic criteria would be a good start. Academic department chairs could make it known to administrators who are imposing modality measurements upon them that they cannot meet those measurements and ensure effective instruction while also suggesting alternative distributions of modalities better suited for their current faculty and their expertise, competencies and experience. This intervention would be an exercise of department chairs’ academic freedom and in keeping with their professional responsibilities as public educators.
Further, the PSC, as the AAUP chapter representing CUNY faculty, must support its members in ensuring that faculty not be evaluated and found in any manner to be unsatisfactory in their teaching observations if faculty have made it known that they had reservations about being assigned a modality for instruction, especially if it is a modality with which their chairs do not have evidence of their satisfactory performance. The AAUP has clearly stated in a FAQ on pandemic resources on AAUP principles and standards that “principles of academic governance dictate that assessment of faculty teaching performance is the primary responsibility of the faculty, not the administration,” noting that under the “extraordinary circumstances” of the pandemic, during which faculty have been forced to teach in modalities for which they are not sufficiently trained, “the faculty may wish to consider whether temporary adjustments in faculty evaluation, including suspending the administration of student evaluations, may be appropriate.” Such decisions must be in the hands of faculty and department chairs alone.
Further, as is already occurring, the PSC needs to make known its objections to the imposition of modality measurements, which challenge the exercise of academic freedom at CUNY. Beyond this, all faculty, including department chairs and PSC members, need to work to preserve academic freedom so as to maintain the effectiveness of instruction for the students who we all serve. Decisions as to how faculty teach are best left to faculty and not administrators, who after all are focused on a variety of quantitative measures which they place above teaching excellence and the learning necessary for our students. As the AAUP notes in its FAQ on the pandemic: “The COVID-19 pandemic should not become the occasion for administrations to circumvent widely accepted principles of academic governance.” Indeed, the AAUP continues, this is even more true during times of crisis such as ours: “However cumbersome faculty consultation may at times be, the importance and value of such participation become even greater in exigent than in more tranquil times.”