By: Steve London, PSC First Vice President
In the Spring issue of CUNY Matters, CUNY central administration takes a swipe at the lawsuit filed by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and the University Faculty Senate (UFS) against Pathways, CUNY’s controversial overhaul of general education and transfer. It’s the latest salvo in the administration’s glossy Pathways campaign, and it’s an attack that’s both misleading and revealing.
The lawsuit seeks to uphold the tradition of shared governance at CUNY by defending agreements that CUNY management made in the 1990s, ceding to faculty authority in curriculum decisions. Fundamental to the notion of shared governance is the idea that faculty are ultimately responsible for the quality of the students’ education and the meaning of a CUNY degree. Shared governance is inseparable from quality education. Pathways breaks that bond by imposing a new general education curriculum without meaningful faculty involvement, and it is our students who will suffer if Pathways is not stopped.
That is why almost 6,000 faculty and professional staff have signed a petition that calls for Pathways to be repealed – and replaced with a fresh start. Even half of the faculty serving on the Pathways Common Course Review Committee, recruited and paid by CUNY management, have signed a petition that says Pathways must be stopped. Faculty and professional staff signed because they feel so strongly that the ill-conceived Pathways curriculum will inflict real damage on our students.
The Pathways process is mainly designed to speed up graduation rates and spend less money, even if the quality of a CUNY degree is sacrificed in the process. Pathways is an attempt to rationalize budgetary austerity by hitting certain numerical targets without increased funding – even if this requires a debased curriculum.
As resistance has grown, the public relations strategy CUNY is using to “sell” Pathways has shifted several times. First, the chancellery tried to say that faculty critics of Pathways were a marginal few. That was abandoned after the massive response to the petition. Then the administration adopted the “teachers are the problem” framework that we have heard so often in K-12 debates, claiming that faculty are “conservative” and don’t care enough about their students to change. So, at the same time that the administration advertises that at CUNY, you can “Study with the Best,” they trash its faculty. In the PR business, I think this is called “going off-message.”
Their latest PR strategy is two-fold. First, bring in the academic stars to save Pathways’ reputation. The 12-page color brochure “Pathways Ahead: Reform and Rigor,” widely circulated this Spring, mainly features praise from a parade of current or former officials of other institutions. While some heads may be turned by this high-powered prestige assault, a closer look at who is behind the pull-quotes is revealing. For example, Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, is a strong proponent of reducing overall expenditures per student (after decades of budget cuts) and dismantling disciplines. If this is 80th Street’s idea of an educational leader, one wonders what is coming next?
The second part of the chancellery’s strategy is to attempt to discredit the PSC/UFS lawsuit. It uses a lie – there is no other word – about the lawsuit to justify abandoning shared governance in favor of a corporate model of governance.
The lawsuit, filed jointly by leaders of the PSC and the UFS, charges that the Pathways process violates both CUNY’s Bylaws and an agreement that settled an earlier lawsuit over faculty rights in the 1990s. “[T]he PSC/UFS claim that CUNY breached a 1997 agreement regarding the role of faculty in formulating policy by establishing a new core curriculum,” says the article in CUNY Matters.
“The lawsuit, however,omits some important language [their emphasis].”
Under the headline “Fair or Frivolous? ”,CUNY Matters quotes three of the lawsuit’s 64 paragraphs, passages discussing the Bylaws provision stating that faculty shall be responsible for “the formulation of policy” on curriculum and the awarding of credit. CUNY Matters charges that the lawsuit omits another important phrase in that provision, namely that faculty shall exercise this authority “subject to guidelines, if any, established by the Board.”
But there’s a problem with this claim: it isn’t true.
The phrase about guidelines is not omitted from the PSC/UFS lawsuit at all. It’s quoted repeatedly and prominently elsewhere in the brief – three times in the body of the complaint and in two of three attached Exhibits . Contrary to CUNY Matters, the lawsuit does not omit or hide this language in any way.
For example, the lawsuit’s central argument – why the Pathways process is in violation of CUNY’s Bylaws – begins with the following paragraph:
“Pursuant to the 1997 Resolution and CUNY Bylaws §§ 8.6 and 8.13, the faculty, through the Faculty Senate and the College Senates, ‘shall be responsible’ for the formulation of academic policy, subject to guidelines, if any, set by the CUNY Board [emphasis added].”
More interesting, perhaps, than CUNY administration’s false charge on this point, is what the chancellery thinks this language means. From the way Pathways has been handled, the administration seems to think that “establishing guidelines” means that the board’s power is absolute.
The lawsuit against Pathways does not dispute that the board has policy-making authority at CUNY. Of course the board does, and this is recognized throughout the brief. But the board has delegated some of that authority through its Bylaws to the faculty. This is how shared governance at CUNY has historically taken shape.
The roles of the UFS and the college senates, for example, are specifically delineated in the Bylaws, and the board is not free to ignore this and unilaterally assign their roles to new committees hand-picked by the administration. The board may not substitute itself for the faculty in the formulation of academic policy, then slap the word “guidelines” on the finished product, and declare that it has done what the Bylaws require.
As the lawsuit explains, the 2011 Pathways resolution violates the Bylaws and the 1997 settlement “by establishing a task force to perform duties that are the responsibility of the Faculty Senate, such as the development of a general education framework applicable to all CUNY institutions.” Faced with “overwhelming criticism” of the Pathways proposal, that task force simply “disregarded the majority of the most critical comments and objections as beyond its jurisdiction.”
Thus, the lawsuit contends, the administration’s Pathways resolution “was crafted, considered and passed without the benefit of policy formulated by the faculty,” through its elected institutions. Overall, Pathways was adopted “without properly including faculty in the process,” as the Bylaws and the court settlement require.
In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty insists that, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” So, can the word “guidelines” mean whatever the CUNY administration wants it to mean? When the Bylaws spell out the role of the UFS and of college senates in formulation of academic policy, is this not a requirement, but just a kind of suggestion? Does the setting of “guidelines” somehow give the board the power to ignore any other part of the Bylaws that it may find inconvenient?
For the PSC and the UFS, the answer is no. But the Pathways process suggests that the chancellery and CUNY’s trustees think the answer is yes.
This is a direction that would be bad for US universities – and the Pathways process shows why. When administrators formulate academic policy without the democratic participation of university faculty, academic imperatives can too easily take a back seat to administrative convenience or the demands of austerity. As Pathways shows, the result is a weaker, diluted education.
CUNY students face real problems in the transfer of credits, and those problems deserve a solution. But Pathways is not an academically sound response and it takes the University in the wrong direction. Those who teach CUNY’s classes and assist CUNY students know this all too well. Pathways drew a critical response from faculty and staff from the start and that criticism has only grown stronger and louder during this academic year. Now the UFS, with support from the PSC, is starting work on an alternative.
The CUNY administration does not want to follow the Bylaws’ requirements for real faculty involvement for one simple reason: it knows that those who do the work of teaching and scholarship at CUNY do not support the path it wants to take.
The lawsuit is being pursued in defense of shared governance, maintaining CUNY’s character as an academic institution, and ensuring a quality education for students. These principles are important to fight for, and they are anything but “frivolous.” In this struggle, it is important for faculty and professional staff to stay strong.
The PSC and UFS are insisting that the faculty’s role in curriculum be respected because we care about the quality of our students’ education – and we are not ready to sell them short.