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Confusion in Queens
September 16, 2012 - 9:59pm

Several alert readers have sent me updates on the conflict going on at Queensborough Community College, part of the CUNY system in New York City.  It’s perplexing on several levels.

Apparently -- and this all may turn out to look very different when the dust settles -- the English department at QCC took exception to a proposed change in credit hours for Freshman Composition courses, which are the bulk of what the department teaches.  CUNY as a whole has adopted what it calls the Pathways initiative, which appears to involve harmonizing courses and credits across the CUNY system to make transfer easier.  Wild variations in general education requirements across colleges within the CUNY system have led to conflicts when students transfer, with predictable effects on graduation rates.  In response, the system is trying to smooth the transfer process in order to improve graduation rates.

At QCC, one impact of the Pathways initiative would be to reduce the contact hours for freshman comp courses from four to three.  The English department objected that this was a diminution of rigor and an uncompensated workload increase, and voted it down, 14-6.  In response, the VPAA, Karen Steele, let it be known that because QCC did not approve the courses the system would offer, it would not be allowed to offer freshman comp at all.  Consequently, the staffing of the English department would be reduced to reflect its reduced role.  Faculty are crying “retaliation!,” and threatening lawsuits and whatever else they can.

As an outsider -- I don’t work in the CUNY system -- I find it all a little perplexing.  And I’ll stipulate upfront that this is not about whether Pathways is good or bad; I don’t have a position on that, though experience suggests that anything as big and complicated as that is probably both.  But that’s not the issue.  I’m perplexed by who gets to make the decisions.

Any student of American history or politics would recognize the QCC conflict immediately as a dispute over what John C. Calhoun called “nullification.”  Does a local subsidiary of a larger organization -- in this case,one department on one campus -- have the standing to effectively veto a systemwide initiative?  (In Calhoun’s case, the argument was that any one state had the right to declare “null and void” any federal law it considered unconstitutional.)  Obviously, for any large-scale organization to make systemwide change, nullification has to be out of the question.  

A report in InsideHigherEd back in March shed some light on the administration’s perspective:

Alexandra W. Logue, CUNY’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and university provost, said the plan was developed with “unprecedented” public discussions, including 70 meetings between the central office and campus representatives. Furthermore, she said faculty leaders have not done their part to tackle the transfer problem. “There has not been a single viable alternative presented by faculty leadership," she said in a written statement. “Nor has there been any such proposal over the more than 40 years that transfer has been widely recognized as an extremely serious challenge facing CUNY students.”

When deference to local preferences results in decades of inaction, it’s easy to see the temptation to just say “to hell with them” and move forward.  In fact, when the issue is serious enough, I’d argue that there is a positive duty to do exactly that.  When final responsibility rests with the Board of Trustees, rather than with this department or that one, it’s hard to construct a coherent argument for putting the Board at the mercy of a single constituent department.  To vest responsibility in one area, but authority in another, is to court disaster.

In this case -- again, from the outside -- the core issue seems to be a badly underdeveloped understanding of shared governance.  Does a single department on a single campus have the right to veto a systemwide initiative or not? If it does, then so be it; I’d expect decades more of stagnation until the system as a whole lurches towards irrelevance.  If not, then we need clarity on the standing of a departmental vote.  In most settings, shared governance is understood to be “advisory” to the Board, which is ultimately free to make the decisions it considers best.  (Notice I’m saying “Board,” rather than “administration.”  The administration reports to the president, who reports to the Board.)  If the vote were merely advisory, as it would be in most places, then I could understand the VPAA expressing disappointment in the outcome but moving ahead anyway.  But she overplayed her hand pretty badly in moving from “I wish you hadn’t done that” to “hit the bricks.”  

Oddly, the overreaction is the flip side of the implied embrace of nullification.  If it’s actually true that a single department has the right to nullify a systemwide initiative, then it’s reasonable to ask that department to bear the cost of its choice.  But it doesn’t really have that right.  And there’s a very good reason for that.  Decisions made by one department have ripple effects across the entire campus or even system, effects of which the department is often unaware.  (We had a case of that on my own campus not long ago, when the English department advocated adding a credit to freshman comp, until the Nursing department pointed out that doing so would push the Nursing program over the credit limit for its accreditation.  To its, well, credit, the English department reconsidered.)  Part of the job of administration is in tending to those ripple effects.

In threatening to eviscerate the English department, the VPAA is both making herself look petty and inadvertently feeding the myth that a negative departmental vote is somehow binding on the system as a whole.  (And that’s before mentioning the inevitable political blowback, litigation, and the like.  In light of that, I’d be shocked if her threats are actually realized.)  That’s a bad management two-fer.  This is not how it’s done.

Instead, a smart VPAA would take the departmental vote as an expression of concern about the impact of the change, and would look at ways to measure and address that impact.  Given that the change is happening, and given the concerns expressed, what are the best ways to make the change work?  In this case, the issues are a muddy mix of academic and labor, which doesn’t help, but the general idea still holds.  You don’t let yourself get held hostage by fourteen professors in one department, and you don’t debase yourself by becoming a caricature of a vindictive tyrant.

Anyway, that’s how it looks from the outside, at this point.  As more facts trickle out, the picture may very well change.  But at this point, I’d be absolutely shocked if the threats that VP Steele allegedly made actually happen.  It just takes too many mistakes to get to that point.

 

 

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