With support from the PSC, the University Faculty Senate has begun work on developing an alternative to Pathways, CUNY’s controversial overhaul of its policies on general education and transfer. “We recognize that the transfer process needs to be improved,” said UFS Chair Terrence Martell. “But the problems students encounter are not necessarily the ones described by CUNY in the Pathways Initiative.”
Pathways has drawn growing faculty opposition since it was approved by the Board of Trustees in 2011. The administration argues that by reducing CUNY’s general education requirements, Pathways will help transferring students avoid delays in the pursuit of their degrees. Its critics contend that Pathways will dilute the quality of education at CUNY without really solving transfer problems. (For more, see psc-cuny.org/what-pathways.) The plan is opposed by a large majority of CUNY’s elected faculty bodies.
A joint UFS-PSC statement says that developing a truly faculty-driven alternative should begin with “an examination of the scale of the current problems in student transfer, a survey of existing best practices, and a study of the success and failure of the articulation agreements currently in place.”
“Our approach is to start with a systematic look at the transfer issue, which has not been done to date,” explained Martell. “The one white paper that the administration produced early in the Pathways process, in 2010, was primarily focused on the cost of ‘excess credits.’ But it did not delineate and distinguish the reasons that students accumulate ‘excess credits’ on the way to their degrees.”
For example, he told Clarion, when students take more than the 120 credits they need to graduate, the cause is sometimes a desire to change majors, which may reflect new interests awakened by that student’s intellectual growth.
“We need to take a careful look at students’ real experiences with transfer before the problems they encounter can be effectively solved,” agreed Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC.
At a June 18 hearing of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff raised several examples of the mismatch between Pathways and transfer students’ needs. “Currently, Baruch is provided limited information when accepting transfer students – and that information does not include the students’ course transcripts,” testified Bill Ferns, professor of computer information systems at Baruch. That means “Baruch cannot anticipate what courses the students will require,” and thus cannot ensure an adequate number of sections.
“The absence of timely transcript information leads to many delayed graduations,” said Ferns – and this is just one of many problems for transfer students that Pathways ignores. “Solutions to these very real stumbling blocks require difficult organizational and operational work, and not just simplistic, sweeping mandates,” he told the trustees.
The statement announcing the alternative effort, which began this summer and will continue through the Fall, was issued jointly at the end of last semester by then-UFS Chair Sandi Cooper and Bowen of the PSC.
“At the center of the process will be the faculty actually engaged in undergraduate teaching who have been elected by their peers to shape curriculum,” the statement said. “With organizing support from the PSC, the UFS will bring together college faculty governance bodies, department chairs, discipline councils and other elected representatives to develop a proposal with academic integrity for facilitating student transfer. We will also invite contributions from the many other CUNY faculty who have developed special knowledge of the issue during the past year of discussions.”
Unlike Pathways, the alternative plan will go through CUNY’s elected faculty bodies before moving forward. “We are confident that the elected faculty representatives can produce an approach to student transfer that strengthens, rather than weakens, this great University,” Cooper and Bowen said. In taking this initiative, they said, “the faculty is taking back control of the education of our students.”
Meanwhile CUNY faculty and staff continue to speak out against Pathways. A resolution before the Hostos Community College Senate objects to a number of specific Pathways provisions. For example, it says, “Pathways’ insistence that all core courses be limited to three credits will prevent natural science courses from including a lab section.” This and other provisions of Pathways will create “a host of new transfer problems” for CUNY students, the resolution states, and it therefore asks CUNY trustees to suspend Pathways’ implementation so that such concerns can be addressed. Action on the resolution is expected when the Hostos Senate meets at the start of Fall semester.
“CUNY students need a chance in life; that’s why they are here. A degraded education is not going to give them that chance,” said Bowen. “That’s why so many faculty bodies have spoken out against the Pathways plan. The courses developed under the plan cannot be implemented unless they are approved by faculty governance bodies. We have the power to say yes or no. And as faculty we have the right – and the responsibility – to vote in the best interest of our students.”
“Pathways is not good enough for our students,” Bowen emphasized. “That is why we are determined to ensure that it is replaced with an educationally sound alternative.”
The battle over Pathways is also being waged in this courts. On August 1, the PSC and the University Faculty Senate filed a new lawsuit against Pathways, arguing that the administration’s efforts to implement it are in violation of New York’s Open Meetings Law.
The new court action is just one part of a broader strategy by the PSC and UFS for replacing Pathways with an alternative, union leaders said. “This lawsuit holds CUNY to important standards of transparency and inclusiveness, but it will not alone stop Pathways,” Bowen said. “If CUNY continues to implement this deeply flawed plan, we will remain alert for violations of the law, and we are prepared to contest any other attempts to take illegal shortcuts.”
“There is more at stake here than student transfer, important as that is,” she told Clarion. “That’s why CUNY is fighting so hard. And that’s why we must approach the issue on several fronts. By approaching Pathways from multiple directions and continuing to expose its academic weakness, we will eventually be able to force a constructive change.”
The new lawsuit notes that “as CUNY has acknowledged, development and approval of CUNY’s curricula [must] be done in compliance with the Open Meetings Law.” This means that meetings on approval of new curricula must be open and accessible to the public, held with advance notice, and minutes must be recorded and published.
CUNY’s bylaws and college governance plans assign responsibility for considering changes in curriculum to the colleges’ academic senates, which hold their meetings in compliance with the Open Meetings Law. The lawsuit points out that at six CUNY campuses – Baruch, BMCC, College of Staten Island, John Jay, Lehman and Queensborough CC – Pathways curricula have been either rejected or simply not approved by the college’s faculty senate.
Having failed to obtain college senate approval, the administration at each of those schools submitted its own Pathways plan to CUNY central administration this spring. The content of those plans, the lawsuit charges, was thus never discussed at a public meeting as required by law. The suit asks that the plans be declared null and void.
The lawsuit over violations of the Open Meetings Law is the second filed by the PSC and UFS. The first, filed March 20, asserts that Pathways violates a 1997 court settlement on the role of CUNY faculty in curriculum decisions. CUNY has filed a motion to dismiss the faculty suit, and briefs in the case are due on August 23. “This is about our students,” said Martell. “What has brought us into court, above all, is that Pathways would mean an abrogation of our responsibilities as an institution. The students hurt most by Pathways are likely to be those with the weakest preparation, those who need more academic guidance rather than less. Pathways would ultimately mean a cheapening of the CUNY degree, and that would limit our students’ opportunities. That’s why this is so important to us.”
“The lawsuit poses a direct challenge to Pathways and we believe our case is strong,” said Bowen. Whatever the outcome in court, she said, faculty opposition to Pathways will continue: “This is a plan that damages our students’ education – and that is not something we can accept.”