Monday, November 12, 2012

Crisis in Academic Governance & Standards at CUNY

The following is a guest posting by Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). Robin authored the popular "Billionaire Education Policy." She can be reached via email at
Follow her on Twitter: @Robin_Rogers

The City University of New York (CUNY) is in the middle of a clash over budget-driven higher education reform that could rival the Chicago Public School strike, and that is bad for everyone. The epicenter of the crisis right now is in the small, unassuming English department of Queensborough Community College (QCC). 

At issue is CUNY’s implementation of a new program known as Pathwaysthat aims to make transferring among CUNY colleges, particularly from the community colleges to the senior colleges, easier and to improve graduation rates. It is also an attempt to make the CUNY system more cost-effective. All of this seems very rational. In fact, when I first heard about Pathways, I thought it might work. What is happening now, however, is tearing CUNY apart and threatens to diminish the noble CUNY system, with its unmatched diversity, which has been a center of both academic excellence and accessibility for decades.

Before getting into the decidedly local, and very shocking, details of what is happening at CUNY, and which reached a boiling point last week at QCC, I want to make it clear that CUNY is not a unique case. Similar dynamics are at work throughout higher education and, thankfully, some universities are handling it with  grace and wisdom. (For an example see, THIS is What Shared Governance Looks Like! ) That bodes well not only for those universities but also for the future of the institution of higher education.

As with all major events, the CUNY Pathways crisis has a long history and many facets. I’ll start with the event that was significant enough to merit coverage in the New York Times on September 17th. Here is what happened.

On September 12th, 2012 Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs at Queensborough College, Karen Steelecame to the English Department’s faculty meeting to discuss a proposed change to the department’s composition courses that would make it a 3-hour course rather than a 4-hour course and thus compliant with the new CUNY Pathways rule. According to a faculty member present, “She also brought a host of threats, including some of the ones that she later put into writing in her infamous emailwhich essentially threatened to dissolve our entire department.  It was clear that she expected our department to roll over and vote to pass the new courses – if you can call something a vote when only one outcome is acceptable and the other outcome results in the termination of your employment.
Professor David Humphries, then the Deputy Chair of the English Department was quoted in the Times as saying “It’s hard to understand how teaching less English, less math, less science and less foreign languages could be good for students,” Echoing concerns expressed by many other faculty across CUNY campuses, including myself, Humphries continued, “Under the guise of streamlining transferability we’re actually watering down the students’ education.
It gets worse. Much worse.
The English department voted against dropping the fourth hour of instruction on the grounds that it was academically unsound; their students needed more time. Then they elected David Humphries as Chairman of the English Department by an almost 3/4th majority faculty vote.
On November 6th, Election Day -- one hopes this simply reflects President Call’s finely honed sense of irony -- Queensborough College President Diane Call rejected the vote for Humphries. Instead, she replaced the faculty-elected Humphries with her own self appointed interim chair (who was brought out of retirement to take on the task) and announced that she would be conducting a national search for a new department chair. The interim chair would take over administrative tasks, while Vice-President Karen Steele – yes, you do remember that name – would assume tasks such as bringing faculty members up for promotion and tenure.
The English Department issued an open letter demanding that President Call reverse her decision and respect faculty autonomy in departmental governance. A petition is also being circulated, which you can sign and circulate online.
The events at QCC are only a part of what is happening at CUNY.  Now there is a lawsuit against Pathways by the faculty union. There very well may be another lawsuit over Call’s recall of a department chair, which appears to violate the bylaws of the faculty that requires that a petition to the Faculty Executive Committee be signed by a majority of the full-time faculty members of the department. Last week, Staten Island College faculty voted to reject Pathways. Other colleges and departments are taking similar action. Foreign languages, classics, and philosophy – the core of the traditional humanities – are extremely limited under Pathways. And so much more.
This promises to be an interesting and important week for higher education and for CUNY. If you want to follow what is happening on twitter, you can follow #CUNYPathways.
Full disclosure: I worked with Professor Humphries almost ten years ago when he was at Queens College, and I have the highest regard for him.

Update: 11/13/11

The following email was sent to members of the Queensborough Community College English Department late this morning:

It is my decision to accept the recommendation forwarded by the English Department for Dr. David Humphries to serve as its Chairperson, effective November 14, 2012.
In a lengthy meeting with Dr. Humphries yesterday, he expressed his willingness and ability to advance the important work of the English Department in curricular and personnel matters. I have confidence in and appreciate his sincerity to unite the department as a community, in the best interests of the College and our students.

Thank you.
Dr. Diane B. Call
Interim President
Queensborough Community College