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CUNY faculty vote 'no confidence' on curriculum overhaul

In a faculty vote on Pathways, a City University of New York overhaul of curriculum scheduled to go into effect next fall, 92 percent declared they have "no confidence" in the new plan. In a monthlong, universitywide referendum completed May 31, 3,996 full-time faculty voted to support a statement of no confidence, with only 323 voting against.

Close to two-thirds of CUNY's full-time faculty participated in the vote, which was conducted by the American Arbitration Association at the request of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT affiliate that represents CUNY faculty and professional staff.

Traditionally used to confront profound failures of university leadership, a vote of no confidence is the most serious expression of opposition that a faculty governance body can make. The CUNY vote is exceptional because it involved thousands of faculty—far more than would usually vote on such a resolution. The result is a stunning rebuke to the Pathways curriculum, which faculty say reduces the quality of a CUNY education.

"Our students deserve an education that is broad, deep and rigorous—but Pathways undermines these goals," says Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. "The level of faculty opposition to Pathways is unprecedented because our students' futures are at stake. It is our professional duty to uphold the quality of the CUNY curriculum."

Pathways reduces the number of credits that colleges can require under "general education," the classes all students must take for a well-rounded education. The new plan was imposed by administrators despite opposition from the faculty governance leaders who usually shape curriculum. The union and the university faculty senate have filed two lawsuits against Pathways, and thousands of individual faculty have opposed it through the college governance process, petitions and now a CUNY-wide referendum.

"With a 92 percent vote of no confidence, and faculty from every college and every academic discipline voting, it is clear that the university should not move forward with Pathways," says PSC president Barbara Bowen, who is a professor of English at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and an AFT vice president. "Something is dramatically wrong with a curriculum that is rejected so decisively. The overwhelming vote constitutes a demand to the CUNY administration to change course. Curriculum development must be returned to the faculty, whose training and experience equips them to ensure academic quality."

Administrators claim Pathways will smooth transfers between CUNY schools, but research shows it will do little to address that problem. The real goal of Pathways, faculty say, is to improve CUNY's graduation statistics without requiring additional public investment. Colleges are increasingly judged by completion rates, and CUNY, which has had to cope with decades of insufficient funding, is now compromising on quality instead of improving retention and graduation rates the right way—with smaller classes and better student support.

Critics have warned that Pathways will mean reduced foreign language study at a time when college graduates are competing in a globalized economy. That is already starting to happen: Brooklyn College announced recently that it will drop the school's foreign language requirement, despite strong faculty opposition. And, under Pathways, other CUNY colleges that had required foreign language study will now offer it only as an option.

For Aranzazu Borrachero, a professor of Spanish at Queensborough Community College, this was a key reason to support the no confidence vote. "CUNY students need greater fluency in world languages, not less," she says.

Pathways will also mean basic science classes without lab sessions, and pressure for less class time in introductory writing classes. The rigid structure of Pathways fails to allow for the needs of different academic subjects and limits almost all general education courses to three credits.

With CUNY about to have a new chancellor and the term of the current board of trustees chair soon to expire, the new university management must decide how to approach Pathways and how to respond to faculty concerns. With a decisive vote of no confidence in Pathways before them, the new administrators should work with elected faculty bodies to save high-quality education at CUNY.

"CUNY's faculty stood up for quality, rigor and the freedom to learn. The administration should join us," says Bowen.

PSC CUNY

Visit psc-cuny.org/pathways to read about faculty opposition to CUNY's Pathways initiative, including a fact sheet about the curriculum, testimony from faculty, and background about Pathways from the PSC newspaper, Clarion. [PSC press release]

June 5, 2013