Stories

Community college course cutbacks spark faculty rebellion

'Pathways' curriculum forces schools to shorten English composition courses

A City University of New York (CUNY) curriculum overhaul is forcing English departments at two-year colleges across the city to cut back their class hours or face repercussions — including, faculty at one Queens college were told, the possible elimination of courses and teachers.

Bronx Community College has approved four-hour composition classes f0r next fall, despite orders from City University to limit them to three hours. Photo: geedebee/Flickr

Last week, the English department at Queensborough Community College voted to reject two English composition classes proposed as part of the Pathways to Degree Completion Initiative program approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees last year. Pathways seeks to make curriculum and credits uniform and transferable across CUNY colleges — a move that faculty largely support — but in many instances shortens the amount of time students spend in class to complete course requirements.

The day following the vote, Queensborough vice president Karen Steele emailed the department announcing the cancellation of the school’s three introductory composition classes and warning that faculty layoffs and hiring freezes could result next year. The letter suggested that Queensborough students would have to complete their credits at other CUNY colleges.

The administration has since walked the statement back. On Sunday college president Diane B. Call emailed the department to say that the college will seek ways to comply with the Pathways program. On Monday, Steele issued an apology.

“I deeply regret having sent the original email,” said Steele in her message. “I would like to make clear that the items listed in the email were hypothetical, and there are no plans to enact them.”

But she added, “At the same time, as a member of CUNY, we have the responsibility to comply with the Board’s policy and the guidelines issued under it.”

How Queensborough and other two-year colleges will comply with Pathways remains unclear as departments vote to approve or reject courses by a December deadline for the fall 2013 semester. The proposed 25 percent reduction of weekly class time — from four hours to three — mandated by the Pathways initiative has been widely panned by English departments across the city. Faculty critics argue that reducing the amount of class time for often underprepared junior college students will lower academic standards and outcomes.

“Having less time means those students are going to fall through the cracks. They’ll make it into four-year schools that offer four-hour composition courses and really be at a disadvantage,” said Joel Kuszai, who teaches composition at Queensborough. He added simply, “Our students will not be as proficient.”

The Pathways to Degree Completion Initiative, crafted by a faculty committee, requires all CUNY colleges to restructure undergraduate courses in order to make each three-credit class in the 30-credit “common core” uniform and transferable across colleges. Currently, classes from any one college aren’t necessarily recognized at others, leading to delays and rejections of applications to transfer between schools. CUNY administrators say the program will ease the difficulties of students transferring across campuses—particularly between junior and senior colleges—while maintaining high academic standards. Advancing a plan developed by professors from around the city, the administration has shown no signs of changing course.

“This is a process that began nearly 18 months ago and there’ve been many points in this process that have involved the participation of the faculty both at the university and college levels,” said Michael Arena, a spokesman for CUNY administration. “The result is that many courses have been moved forward from the campuses for the common core.”
Many faculty, however, have been vehemently opposed the plan, arguing that the changes will dumb down the curriculum and are an ill-considered response to budget cuts. Professors, departments and student and faculty councils have issued more than 100 resolutions against Pathways, in the spring a petition garnered 5,600-plus signatures from professors, and the Professional Staff Congress — the faculty union — has filed two lawsuits seeking to block the initiative.

“Votes on curriculum should not be taken under any kind of threat,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the faculty union. “Faculty should not be forced to take votes or retake votes under threat. That’s not an appropriate decision making-climate.”

Departments across the city have responded to the changes in various ways. Bronx Community College’s English Department approved four-hour introductory composition classes, contrary to the central administration’s three-hour mandate, and plan to continue with those proposals despite pressure from school administrators. Some, like LaGuardia Community College, have yet to hold votes on the courses, and others have voted to approve the changes grudgingly.

“The provost told us over the summer that unless we intended to go on strike over Pathways, we would have to swallow the bitter pill,” said Ashley Dawson, the chair of the English department at College of Staten Island. “We’ve basically been bludgeoned into submission.”

College of Staten Island Provost Fred Naider acknowledged to the New York World that he warned faculty that there would be consequences for failing to approve Pathways courses. “What I basically said was that if we decide not to offer certain courses, well then those courses won’t be available to be taught,” he said. Naider added that he has urged faculty to work collaboratively with the administration to find a solution.

“Should we really resist,” he asked rhetorically, “or should we find a way within Pathways to make the strongest educational program possible?”

The Queensborough English department has scheduled a meeting for this Wednesday, at which faculty will decide whether to maintain the rejection or reverse course and accept the changes.

Philosophy professor Philip Pecorino said that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“I’ve had colleagues draw up images of the tanks driving down Tiananmen Square,” he said “where the tanks are the heavy-handed actions from the chancellor coming down on the departments.”

UPDATED September 19, 2012, to add comment from College of Staten Island provost Fred Naider.