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‘Fear and Intimidation’ at the New Community College

Emily Schnee, an assistant professor of English, resigned from the New Community College in November and returned to her former position at Kingsborough Community College. Above, Schnee works with a student in her class at KCC.
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Five months before CUNY’s New Community College (NCC) is scheduled to welcome its first class of students, the school has been demoralized by deep conflicts between faculty and administration. Of the college’s seven original founding faculty members, three have resigned, one was abruptly fired, and most were given disciplinary letters due to opinions they expressed in a report on curriculum development.

The PSC has filed three class-action grievances on behalf of NCC instructional staff. One seeks removal of the disciplinary letters and reinstatement of the faculty member who was fired. The second charges the college with creating an excessive workload, in violation of the contract. The third challenges the NCC’s refusal to hold a labor-management meeting, as the contract requires.

Planning for the NCC began in 2008, and accelerated in 2010 when its first faculty members were hired. Both current and former NCC faculty told Clarion they were excited by the prospect of building a new school from scratch, using innovative practices to help community college students achieve greater academic success.

That promise, they now say, is not being fulfilled. “The rhetoric around a new educational model has been used as a means for the administration to usurp traditional faculty roles and responsibilities,” said Emily Schnee, an assistant professor of English who resigned from the school in November and returned to her former position at Kingsborough Community College.

Bill Rosenthal, an associate professor of mathematics, says that for him, “the dream became a nightmare.” Hired in September 2010, Rosenthal was fired from the NCC last December 2. He was given two hours to clean out his desk.

In reporting for this article, Clarion spoke with more than half of all current or former faculty at the NCC. All current NCC employees asked not to be identified, citing fears of retaliation.

UNILATERAL

“These are people who fell in love with the idea of the New Community College, and they arrived with an extraordinary level of commitment,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “CUNY should be honoring them, not crushing them.”

“The NCC administration has acted in a high-handed manner, attempting to set policy unilaterally,” PSC First Vice President Steve London told Clarion. “They emphasize what they call a ‘collaborative and collegial’ approach – which sounds good, but unfortunately they interpret it to mean that they can tell faculty members to do whatever the administration wants.” The NCC’s lack of departments and lack of a tenured faculty, London added, create problems for effective governance.

“These are the roots of the contract violations we’ve seen at the NCC,” London said. “We believe these problems can be resolved – if there is a will to do so.” But as Clarion went to press at the end of March, a resolution did not appear to be close at hand.

PUNISHED FOR VIEWS

Several of management’s hostile actions towards faculty came in response to a report that original founding NCC faculty submitted on September 2 to CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs (OAA), a status report on curriculum development.

Building an interdisciplinary curriculum, the report emphasized, requires time. “Even at a progressive and innovative institution such as the NCC, there seems to be a tendency to view the need for substantial, dedicated faculty time for curriculum development as subordinate to other aspects of the work,” it stated. “As 2011 proceeded, this dedicated time was subject to steady, significant erosion.”

It was unclear, the report said, whether this was “a one-time consequence of having only seven faculty members on hand to do the work of at least twice that many” – or whether it instead reflected “an institutional culture that will continue to treat the time we know we need as a negotiable commodity. The next few months should tell.”

The report also posed questions about where responsibility should lie for the development of curriculum. Inclusion of staff beyond the faculty is important, it said, but so is recognition of faculty members’ particular roles. “Most faculty see the benefit of sharing ideas, drawing on different perspectives and even co-creation of knowledge, but are concerned about the pedagogical impacts of numerous non-faculty voices.” Clarifying these issues is essential to further progress, the report concluded.

“That was viewed as dissent,” Schnee told Clarion. In fact, it was viewed as a punishable offense. On November 21, NCC President Scott Evenbeck wrote disciplinary letters for the personnel files of most of the faculty members who signed the report. The letters specifically criticized them for the views expressed in the report, asserting that this reflected poor professional judgment. Like all faculty hired to work full-time at the NCC, those who received the letters are untenured.

“How else can you turn a concept into a reality unless you can ask questions about details that come up along the way?” asked Steve Cosares, who received a letter and was shocked by the administration’s reaction. Cosares left the NCC project to take an associate professor position in the math department at LaGuardia CC in the Spring semester.

WORKLOAD

Other issues at the NCC included how the school’s Group Workspace, conceived as a regular base for academic support, should function, and how much time should be devoted to developing students’ academic literacy skills. But open discussion was not encouraged. “Differing opinions over how to achieve student success became, ‘Oh, you don’t support the collaborative model,’” said Schnee.

The disciplinary letters were preceded by a November 9 memo from Evenbeck titled “Expectations for the Work Ahead,” with which many faculty strongly disagreed. The union says that this directive violates the contract; for example, the memo’s imposition of “mandatory assignments during annual leave period [in] 2012” creates an excessive workload, a PSC grievance contends.

As elsewhere at CUNY, junior faculty at the NCC are contractually entitled to reassigned time for scholarly work. But they were told that this year, the only time they can take for that purpose is on Mondays – even when that time falls on a legal holiday.

Workload has been a sore point for NCC faculty in many ways. “There’s a persistent lack of respect for the expertise and time it takes to organize this school in a different way,” said one current faculty member. “This college is supposed to be based on a really innovative way of teaching, and that’s why I’m working there. But they want to support it even less than they do traditional teaching.”

Many NCC faculty thought Evenbeck’s workload memo was off-base, and Bill Rosenthal was among the most outspoken. On December 2, the NCC president gave his response. He called Rosenthal into his office, fired him for “insubordination” and other offenses, and gave him until 5:00 pm to hand in his keys. “It was surreal,” Rosenthal recalled. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Minutes later, Evenbeck e-mailed a message to the entire NCC community announcing the firing and denouncing Rosenthal’s work. He accused Rosenthal of “acts of insubordination and conduct inconsistent with the collaborative model,” “a lack of professional judgment around issues of importance to the college,” and acting “inappropriately and unprofessionally at NCC meetings.” Among Rosenthal’s transgressions, Evenbeck explained, was that the professor had written a “vitriolic memorandum” criticizing the president’s workload memo of November 9.

“It was terrifying,” said an NCC faculty member. “It was done in a way that is completely unthinkable in almost any corporate or non-profit setting. He was publicly humiliated and thrown out.”

“It’s a huge blow,” said another person who works at the NCC. “People are still trying to pick up the pieces.”

“In an academic environment,” asked Cosares, “what does it mean to be ‘insubordinate’? And what does it mean to be subordinate?”

A few hours after Rosenthal’s dismissal, PSC President Barbara Bowen sent her own e-mail to faculty and staff at the NCC. “There is nothing appropriate, professional or collaborative about denouncing an employee to the entire community of his colleagues,” Bowen wrote. “The PSC stands behind every member, and we will stand behind Professor Rosenthal. We will not tolerate such unprofessional treatment of any member of the faculty or staff.” The union filed grievances on the firing, the disciplinary letters and workload in December, and an initial hearing was held in February.

The first group of NCC faculty were hired through lines assigned to other colleges, as the NCC did not yet officially exist. Rosenthal’s underlying appointment is at LaGuardia, but he is fighting his dismissal from the NCC and aims to return to his position there.

In January, CUNY management canceled a scheduled labor-management meeting on the NCC. When the administration declined to reschedule this meeting, which is contractually required, the union filed another grievance challenging the management’s failure and refusal to abide by this provision of the contract.

As the start date for the NCC’s first classes draws near, faculty describe the school as a place where everyone is working hard but the institution is in disarray. “It’s a very crisis-ridden atmosphere,” said one. “We’re floundering so badly. I can’t imagine how we’ll be ready.”

SELF-CENSORSHIP

NCC faculty interviewed by Clarion say it is now harder than ever to disagree openly with the administration, given what one called “the environment of fear and intimidation.”

“People are censoring themselves because of what happened to others who were more vocal before,” agreed another.

“If you speak out, you are afraid you are going to lose your job,” said another NCC employee. “Academic freedom is apparently nonexistent at the NCC.”

(NCC officials did not respond to a request for comment on academic freedom at the NCC.)

All faculty working full-time at the NCC are untenured, and the NCC has no tenured faculty of its own. (A handful of tenured faculty from other colleges have part-time duties at the NCC.) “We’re all reporting to the provost,” an NCC faculty member said in March. “Right now, that is the governance plan.”

“It would have a hugely chilling effect for our union rights and faculty governance if this college were held up as the model that all CUNY should follow,” said Schnee. The problems at the NCC, she said, reflect “a systemic issue” that has also emerged in the Pathways process – “reshaping the University to take power away from the faculty and put it into the hands of the administration.”

“I believe you can have an innovative curriculum while still respecting members’ union rights and treating faculty like the professionals we are,” Schnee told Clarion. “The two are not incompatible.”

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