A feud over new general education requirements at the City University of New York kicked up a notch Wednesday, as faculty groups filed a lawsuit  to block the plan and slammed administrators for putting graduation rates ahead of academic rigor.
CUNY’s governing board last year unanimously approved a slimmer, standardized core curriculum  of 30 credits for the system’s 23 campuses. Four-year institutions can add another 6-12 credits.
Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, this week called the plan “austerity education.” The faculty union joined the University Faculty Senate in bringing the lawsuit.
“It is all about speeding up graduation rates, even if the quality of a CUNY degree is sacrificed in the process,” Bowen said in written statement .
System officials have touted the plan as an attempt to improve an internal transfer process  that most agree is dysfunctional. Many students transfer from the six CUNY community colleges to its four-year institutions, often without completing their associate degrees, and face various hurdles related to general educational requirements that don’t line up.
For example, Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences has a 63-credit general education core, while the requirement for the bachelor of science program at the College of Staten Island is 33 credits. (The national average is 41 credits, according to CUNY.) And many credits students earn at the system’s community colleges do not count toward their bachelor requirements after they transfer to a CUNY university, system officials said, meaning some students earn more than 120 credits without graduating.
The complex plan  also guarantees that when students transfer between CUNY institutions, all of their general education course credits transfer with them, without any evaluation by their new college.
Faculty leaders and CUNY administrators generally agree that the transfer process needs to improve. But that’s where the agreement ends.
Many professors are upset about the process that led to the plan’s creation, saying administrators hand-picked faculty members who participated in a steering committee that drew up the core curriculum. Those faculty members should have been elected by their peers, faculty leaders say.
However, 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.”
The Professional Staff Congress said thousands of faculty and staff have signed an online petition  to oppose the general education changes. The petition says that while the goal of helping students transfer is important, the issue “can be addressed without destroying years of faculty work on curriculum, violating the principles of shared governance and academic freedom and mandating a general education program that devalues the CUNY degree.”
“Professors are interested in graduating students who won’t be left behind when they look for jobs.”
--Sandi E. Cooper, chair of the University Faculty Senate.
Faculty groups at many of the colleges have formally opposed  the plan, or called for a delay in its implementation. But CUNY administrators said it is hard to gauge the depth of opposition among the system's 25,000 faculty members.
The lawsuit, which was filed in New York’s Supreme Court, which is the equivalent of a district court in that state, argues that CUNY’s administration exceeded its authority over curriculum matters, violating university bylaws and faculty governance procedures.
In a written statement , CUNY’s general counsel said the lawsuit lacks legal merit because the Board of Trustees “has full authority to make academic policy for the university.” CUNY will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
'Total Denigration of Quality'
It’s not surprising that the core curriculum plan triggered a shared governance brawl, particularly at CUNY, where faculty groups are strong. Professors generally don’t like being told to tear up longstanding general education requirements. And some courses at CUNY could be eliminated under the leaner core, meaning faculty jobs are probably on the line.
And while those turf battles are serious, the deepening argument about whether the plan would harm academic quality has bigger implications for CUNY, and for the “completion agenda.” Faculty leaders this week appeared to be sharpening their rhetoric on how the national graduation rate push was helping CUNY leaders ramrod a flawed plan.
“What is being pushed on us is a total denigration of quality,” said Sandi E. Cooper, a professor of history at the College of Staten Island and chair of the University Faculty Senate. “We’ve been put in a straightjacket and don’t have any flexibility.”
CUNY officials counter that colleges have latitude  in designing their own general education requirements under the new framework. For example, four-year institutions can require all students, including those who have transferred in, to take a specific course, including a foreign language or laboratory science -- two areas that faculty groups have claimed get shortchanged in the new core.
“There has not been a single viable alternative presented by faculty leadership."
--Alexandra W. Logue, CUNY provost
Last year there appeared to be divided opinions  about the plan among faculty, with some professors at community colleges supporting the idea of making credits transfer more easily. But if that split still exists, it has gotten quieter as the storm of opposition builds. To wit, several faculty groups at two-year institutions have weighed in  against the new core curriculum.
Cooper isn’t shy in criticizing the completion agenda’s influence. “The pressure to increase graduation is like a vice coming down on your head.”
She said faculty members are fully behind improving completion rates, just not by weakening academic requirements. For example, she points to complaints by faculty members that the vague  core requirements allow overly broad ranges of courses to satisfy requirements. The result is a worse education for students, she said.
“Professors are interested in graduating students who won’t be left behind when they look for jobs,” Cooper said.
The CUNY plan has drawn praise  from outside New York City, including from higher education associations. Perhaps most notably, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which specializes in liberal arts education, likes the new core curriculum.
Carol Geary Schneider, the association’s president, said in an e-mail message that the CUNY approach compares favorably to other “single pathway” curriculum overhauls, particularly for “its recognition that general education cannot be accomplished in a mere 30 hours and needs to include advanced as well as foundational studies.”
But she also said the argument itself is outdated. “The old idea of general education as a foundation core is increasingly out of sync with students’ preparation, enrollment patterns and educational needs.”
Louis Soares agreed. Soares, the director of the postsecondary education program at the Center for American Progress, said it’s impossible to have a serious debate over the quality of general education requirements without solid metrics that track student learning across courses. And those data generally are not available.
“We’re having a conversation that’s 30 years old,” Soares said. “We have to start moving past this.”