What happens when an academic department declines to go along with one of administrators' top priorities? That question is being debated at Queensborough Community College, where the English department says that it is being punished in inappropriate ways for exercising its professional judgment about a curricular model.
Specifically, the department refused to change its four-hour composition courses to three-hour courses, as it was asked to do as part of the Pathways program of the City University of New York. In response, a vice president at Queensborough, Karen Steele, sent the department a memo canceling searches and the composition courses in question, saying that adjunct jobs were in danger, and saying that students would be advised to take composition courses at other CUNY campuses. The memo said that "I may not have conveyed sufficiently the urgency of the issues for the department."
As that memo spread far beyond Queensborough by Sunday, the college issued a statement from the president describing the memo not as a firm plan but as a "worst-case scenario."
Pathways is designed to make it easier for students at community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions within the system, knowing that they have finished their general education requirements and are on track to receive a bachelor's degree in four years (two at a community college and two at a four-year college). While faculty leaders say they embrace that goal, some (but not all) have argued that Pathways takes too much power away from individual campuses and departments, and that easing transfer could come at the expense of academic rigor. In turn, defenders of Pathways say that too many departments have made it too difficult for transfer students to bring all their credit with them, and that some centralization is needed to help these students.
English faculty members say that they believe the courses in question are best structured as four-hour courses, and that there should be no reason the department cannot continue to offer composition as it has, even if CUNY has other courses aligned with Pathways.
The Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY faculty union, issued a statement on Saturday defending the right of the Queensborough English department to decide this matter. "The faculty’s decision was guided by a deep commitment to sustaining a quality education for students. They determined that if English composition classes were reduced to three hours from four, the integrity of the department’s standards would be profoundly compromised," the statement said. "The administration’s response, which includes eliminating all composition courses, cancelling all English Department searches, calling all full-time faculty reappointments in fall 2013 into question, and announcing that all adjunct faculty will be sent non-reappointment letters in fall 2013, was especially disturbing in its punitive dismissal of faculty judgment in matters of curriculum development. We call on Vice President Steele to rescind her message immediately."
A number of faculty-related blogs (at CUNY and elsewhere) have been publishing Steele's memo to the Queensborough English department, arguing that it reflects a form of retaliation that is antithetical to academic values. The discussion at the American Association of University Professors blog is under the headline "The Danger of Ignoring Shared Governance" and the headline on the post at a blog on activism in higher education is "CUNY Declares War on Rebel English Department."
Late Sunday afternoon, the college released a letter being sent to all faculty members at Queensborough from Diane Call, the president. The letter outlined the importance of working together on Pathways, and suggested that Steele's memo did not reflect any definite plans.
"The most recent discussion with the English Department faculty raised concerns within the administration about the possible outcomes of not having the three courses [on which the department refused to change credit hours] included in the common core. The potential consequences as described in Vice President Steele's email illustrate the worst case scenario -- one we are prepared to work mightily to avoid," Call wrote. "It is my belief that through continued communication and collaboration with our faculty, a constructive resolution to ensure student learning will be achieved. It is my hope that you will join with me in this effort."
Via e-mail, Alex Burnett, a spokesman for Queensborough, said that he thought Call's letter "makes clear that the college is not in the process 'retaliating' against anyone. Rather, the college is committed to working with faculty across Queensborough and CUNY – as it has for more than a year – to re-configure and offer these three courses to meet the CUNY design for the Pathways common core and help the transition of students who wish to continue their educations at other CUNY institutions."