Chanting “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We reject austerity!” more than 200 PSC members greeted the first Board of Trustees meeting of the new academic year with protests inside the board meeting and on the street outside Baruch’s Vertical Campus building.
The PSC members who filled the 14th-floor conference room began chanting 15 minutes before the trustees’ meeting. As the meeting got under way, they held aloft red and white signs that read “No Austerity Contract” on one side and “No Austerity Education” on the other. “We’re here to tell them it’s time to start negotiating seriously on a new contract and it’s time for them to listen to us on Pathways,” said Hostos Chapter Chair Craig Bernardini.
Fight ‘Just Beginning’
“We are here to emphasize for the Board of Trustees the link between a good education and a good contract,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the crowd outside. “This is a board that approved a $1.99-million ‘golden parachute’ for former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein while imposing a five-year increase on students’ tuition and failing to advocate effectively for the faculty and staff raises. It’s a board that swept away an entire university’s general education curriculum without regard to the faculty’s role in curriculum decisions. The priorities are wrong,” she added. “We will not let it stand without protest that the board has attempted to ignore a 92% vote of no confidence.”
The new academic year marks the debut of CUNY’s Pathways curriculum, an administration overhaul of rules on general education that was imposed despite widespread faculty objection. In May, the PSC held a secret-ballot referendum on Pathways, conducted by the American Arbitration Association. More than 60% of CUNY’s full-time faculty participated in the referendum, with 92% voting “no confidence” in the new curriculum.
The rejection of Pathways was a major theme of the demonstration, with signs that said “92%” on one side and “No Confidence In Pathways” on the other, and black T-shirts with the same slogans. “I’m outraged about Pathways and how [CUNY] continues to ignore the will of the faculty,” said Manfred Philipp, former chair of the University Faculty Senate and the Lehman PSC Chapter’s current chair.
Philipp, a professor of chemistry who has taught at Lehman College since 1977, described the impact of Pathways on faculty governance as “devastating,” saying that it shows “any administrator can write a memo changing the curriculum over the will of the faculty.” Last year, faculty governance bodies at several campuses approved moratoria on Pathways implementation, but saw their decisions overridden by college presidents.
“It shows a lack of respect for our faculty governance structure, which was very carefully developed,” said Ruth Silverberg, an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island. “Besides being forced down our throats, Pathways is bad curriculum because it’s not nearly challenging enough for students.” Oral arguments in the lawsuit against Pathways by the PSC and the University Faculty are scheduled for November 6.
“The no-confidence vote gives us strength to be here today and say that this is not going away,” said Bernardini. “[The Board of Trustees] want everyone to think that the debate over Pathways is over, that it’s water under the bridge. But this is a long-term fight, and it’s just beginning.”
PSC members emphasized that CUNY’s success depends not only on its willingness to listen to faculty and staff, but also its ability to provide fair and competitive compensation and working conditions that allow academics to do their jobs. It was time, they said, for the board to make a fair contract settlement a top priority.
While salary steps continued to be paid as the PSC works under an expired contract, there have been no across-the-board raises in the past three years.
“It’s a financial strain,” said Sean MacDonald, associate professor of economics at City Tech. For those at the top of their scale, she said, “three years without any change in pay becomes incredibly difficult because the cost of everything is going up.”
If that’s not addressed, union members said, it has a damaging effect on both recruitment and retention. Bill Ashton, an associate professor of psychology at York College, said he enjoys his work, but that CUNY has to be mindful of the cost of living facing faculty and staff in New York City, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. “I love teaching in New York,” he told Clarion. “And I would hate to lose that opportunity because I can’t afford to live here.”
PSC bargaining team members say that teaching load, adjunct job security and HEO advancement are also union priorities for a new contract.
“A good contract is well-deserved. Three years has been too long,” emphasized Albert Sherman, chair of the PSC’s chapter for College Lab Technicians.
With Pathways taking effect this semester, PSC members voiced concern about its effect on academic quality. The lower limits on general education credits and class time mean that introductory science classes are dropping laboratory sessions, and foreign language instruction is being scaled back.
‘No’ to Lower Standards
“We’re going to be cheating our students of a good education,” said Maya Sharma an associate professor of English at Hostos who said she was “against the push to get students in and out as soon as possible.” The emphasis on speeding up graduation rates without providing additional resources fails to recognize the complex life circumstances of CUNY’s predominantly working-class and immigrant student body, Sharma said.
The administration is trying to improve graduation rates “on the cheap,” by lowering standards, union members say – and that’s why they see Pathways as a form of “austerity education.” This kind of corner-cutting does not give CUNY students the education they deserve, said Sigmund Shen, associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. “When our students graduate, they have to deal with a very harsh and competitive world,” Shen told Clarion. “We want to give them the best education we can.”
The Board of Trustees resolution that authorized Pathways also calls for the curriculum overhaul to be evaluated annually for the first three years after its implementation. The PSC has called for the evaluation to be carried out by an independent, unbiased panel with academic expertise – not a panel handpicked by the CUNY administration (see Clarion, September 2013).
“The University is always talking about assessment,” said Medgar Evers Chapter Chair Clinton Crawford. “Now, we need to assess what they have imposed on us.”
For Bernardini, who often teaches English composition classes to first-year students , protesting Pathways and asserting the need for a new contract at the same time made perfect sense.
“There’s a connection between a lack of a contract and Pathways,” he said. “For the faculty and staff who make CUNY run, and the students who we serve, the board’s approach is all about streamlining and cutting costs. What is required instead is investment, in the broadest possible sense, in CUNY’s base.”