Sunday, September 16, 2012


Confusion in Queens

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.

Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism and campus politics, has been following this issue on his blog and Twitter feed:

It isn't an issue of "nullification". Departmental curriculum changes have to be voted on by the department faculty. The University issued an ultimatum that the department must change its courses to comply with the Pathways standards, but that doesn't negate the department's own authority over its own course offerings. They first requested input from the administration, which responded by threatening the faculty directly. The English department faculty felt that the changes weakened the composition program and were also unfair to the faculty, who would wind up teaching more sections of an already-difficult course, and more courses overall, with no increase in pay. Because the changes harmed the students and the faculty, they voted against them - exercising their own academic control of their own department offerings in the normal way. This is the way the course content is determined, as stipulated by the university governance procedures already in place.

The University then retaliated by announcing that they would immediately cancel all non-Pathways-compliant composition courses and fire all faculty teaching them - meaning every adjunct and the majority of the tenure-track faculty, totaling 85% of the entire department. This in response to the faculty's exercising its existing authority in a way the university had demanded they not do. Who is "nullifying" whom?
I see you had already linked the Angus Johnston blog post I mentioned. I'm sorry not to have realized it.

But I think it makes clear that this act by the English faculty was not an act of defiance based on non-existent legal maneuvering, but an exercise of ordinary and real power arising from the department's given authority. And so "nullification" is much too strong a term, if departmental self-governance - whether or not it is convenient for the administration - means anything.
How did Dean Dad manage to blog about this without demanding the death of the credit hour as a concept?
Sorry to be OT, but I love that you use the term "alert readers." You must be a Dave Barry fan.
Darn, Alex beat me to it!

How can DD blog about this without noting just how important credits are to the success of transfer students?

I'd go further, in that the VPAA could have told them that how they assign faculty work hours within their budget is a local matter. I'm pretty sure our composition faculty have some extra office hours in a writing center to deal with some of the work issues (class size and contact hours) alluded to here.

In response to Kevin and the Johnston blog, the oversight is in thinking that transfer is not relevant to "local" students. It would have been better if the VPAA had said that their courses are interesting, but since they will not transfer we can't fund them with CUNY dollars from the state.

The key point in all of this should be that CUNY is trying to do something that other states have done 10 or 50 years ago, and the faculty have not proposed a workable alternative.
If the issue is the workload, I wonder if a compromise could be reached in which enrollment in each Freshman Comp class was reduced by 25%? Then the students would receive the credits as required by the system, but the faculty workload would be pretty similar to what it had been under the four credit course.
As Kevin Keith says, the Department has control over its curriculum. The VPAA can't unilaterally direct they adopt a Pathways-compliant Freshman Comp. And we have the oddity that for a Department to adopt a new course typically requires college-wide consultation, but a Department can hang on to an old course without anyone else having a say.

But. If the Department insists on offering a non-Pathways compliant course, responsible academic advisement will tell students not to take it. Students who intend to transfer to a four year school shouldn't take it because they'll only have to take it over at their new school. Students who don't currently intend to transfer to a four year school, but might change their minds shouldn't take it either, for the same reason. Even students who intend their Associates to be their final degree can take a Pathways compliant Freshman Comp at a different CC; Queensborough will accept that towards their AA and if they ever change their minds they're in a better position to proceed to a BA.

So it's very likely that most of the sections of the non-compliant course won't fly. It's fair to warn potential adjuncts of that, since the only thing worse than being an adjunct teaching a course at community college pay rates is being an adjunct whose course was cancelled for insufficient registration. And it's prudent to postpone searches until the actual impact on registration for these non-compliant courses can be assessed.

Either this wasn't well explained to the English faculty, or, perhaps, some weren't listening
I had noticed the same issue with the credit hour -- either transfer is important or it isn't. No one's found a better system; indeed, this is a prime example of why other systems generally work terribly.

I don't buy the idea of the Administration's non-culpability in the bad process before it got to the Faculty. Vindictive tyranny doesn't start suddenly at the first serious pushback. It's usually a standing pattern that's brought to the surface once a conflict comes to a head. Anybody can SAY that the other side has been unreasonable.

Robert Aronov & Associates, PCBefore we talk about how to get him to propose let’s start by talking about how you can lose your guy in a few easy steps.
how to get him to propose
We have a pathways program (for general education only) in the entire state, and all public institutions of higher ed – from the community colleges to the flagship uni – are bound by it. That being said, though it was forced on us by statute, and though its initial roll-out was marked by some idiotic bits (I loved watching a state official refer to an encounter with two students in a Home Depot as sufficient evidence for implementing the program), it has ended up working fairly well. Now I see the advantages of such a program.

That being said, it sounds to me as if the English faculty at Queensborough have some solid pedagogical reasons for not wanting to reduce a four-credit course to three credits. An administrator with some sense might fund a way to the college to become compliant with the pathways program while also recognizing the validity of the department’s concerns – adding, for example, a one-credit workshop to the department’s composition courses (which would have been converted to three credits). The VP’s behavior is horrendous.

But that's just it, Anonymous@2:19pm, why didn't the bright folks on the faculty come up with that alternative (an elective writing lab class) or any of the others? There is only one VPAA, but lots of professors. Why should the statewide admin have to think of every possible solution for every local situation?

BTW, in some states that 4-credit class would simply transfer as 3 gen-ed composition credits and 1 elective credit. I didn't see any indication that they proposed that alternative.
This is a very compelling and thoughtful analysis. I'm not sure it gets at all of the complications of this issue (It's a blog, afterall....), which go well beyond the CUNY system. Still, you raise some important considerations for moving forward in this conversation and in the macro-conversation in which this is an exemplary cog.

First, as a scholar who studies the teaching and the positioning of English faculty at community colleges, I believe it is important to see the ‘Pathways’ issue as one of many components to an ongoing political and historical disempowerment of CC faculty. CC faculty are generally overlooked in scholarly literature and are often assigned less-than professional identities by their peers and by institution administrations. However, I think it would be counterproductive (and likely incorrect) so suppose that faculty have been deliberately disempowered—at least blatantly by all parties. Rather, somewhere within a the culture that struggles to identify structural barriers to educational advancement and mythologizes effort as the singular ingredient effecting product, the indefatigable work of faculty at two-year colleges gets maligned, dismissed, misunderstood, and marginalized. Thus, the credit hour at stake seems an open one for arbitration: if students at 4-year colleges are required to take 3 credit hours, then the curriculum for students transferring from two-year colleges can and should adapt to this standard. I can actually see how the intention of this policy is to increase transfer and decrease barriers to moving forward. I can also see how CC faculty, working hard to improve the success rates of students for whom academic discourses are often foreign and who are most at-risk for stopping out, would identify such a move as depleting, again, the woodshed of tools necessary to advance the purpose of educational access AND SUCCESS to students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dean Dad, your blog response offers a productive opening for response, "Given that the change is happening, and given the concerns expressed, what are the best ways to make the change work?" Could, for example, students take a 4-credit hour course, with one course falling under some kind of "writing lab" or "tutorial," which would be billed to the English department, yet of which only the 3 "English" credits would transfer? In that way, much the way developmental course credits do not "transfer," the hour of additional learning the experts at two-year colleges recognize their students to need remains core to the required curriculum at the college. This would facilitate the bureaucratic conundrum of “transfer” while supporting established pedagogy and maintaining current labor contracts with faculty. I don't know that such a solution would work. As a current student and former CC faculty, I lack an understanding of how the budgets get sliced and diced in these negotiations. Nevertheless, I think you are right to point out that a productive response that recognizes the authority and autonomy inherent to the identity of faculty as professionals is a necessary first response for the VPAA and (if I extend your argument and analogy a bit) that a creative solution to the problem of credit transfer would go a long way to establishing a foundation for dialogue and debate that would strengthen, rather than nullify, the compact among the CUNY colleges and universities and, perhaps, best serve its citizens, the students.
Today's New York Times notes that the CUNY senior colleges would have no problem continuing to offer 4-hour composition courses, which I believe some of them do. That would, as Brooklyn College's English Department chair Ellen Tremper said, this would mean that the students who are least prepared (the community college students as opposed to the four-year college students, who must meet more stringent admissions criteria; remedial classes are unavailable at senior colleges) getting less writing instruction than the more prepared and skilled writing students.
It's NYC gang, the students could, with little extra travel, take the course at another NYC CC or one of the CUNY schools. Of course, those schools would then need more faculty and QCC less.

Please carefully re-read the information you have regarding this event at QCC. It is not true that the controversy is over the number of credit hours. The courses at QCC are all already three credit hours. They meet the transfer standards for Pathways. The problem is that the BOT does not want those classes to be four contact hours. That is an enormous difference and your blog post misrepresents the facts of the situation. Essentially the university and college do not want to pay for the extra hour of contact time that it had previously been paying for--these courses have been offered as 3 credits 4 hours for several years. There is an easy solution to the problem: just make an exception and fund the fourth hour, as they have already done for some science courses. Asking the faculty to vote against their own interests and to punish them by not offering the two courses that make up the vast majority of their offerings, when they do not is ridiculous. The fact is, faculty governance is a farce, at CUNY and elsewhere. It only exists so long as the faculty vote the way that the administration and the Board want them to. There is another simple solution: The BOT can simply tell the college VPAA to change the course offerings to three contact hours and override the department's recommendation. The BOT does not want to do this, however, because they want to put forward the illusion that Pathways was somehow decided upon through a process of shared governance. It wasn't!! In fact, almost 5,000 faculty members signed a petition in opposition to Pathways. That means a large portion of the teaching faculty at CUNY are opposed to Pathways and the way it has been implemented. How such a scenario can be called shared governance is beyond me. The real problem here is that the CUNY BOT (a non-elected, largely non-academic body of business persons--some of which have active ties to education privatization corporations such as Edison Schools) wishes to enforce its will upon the faculty regardless of what the faculty wants.

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