The Fight Against Pathways at CUNY

When the administration unilaterally imposed curricular changes, faculty fought back.
By Alex Vitale

On June 27, 2011, the board of trustees of the City University of New York broke with tradition by attempting to assert direct control over the curriculum through an initiative called Pathways. For years, then–chancellor Matthew Goldstein had been trying to expand central control over a wide array of CUNY activities, including budgeting, marketing, and data services like the widely disparaged CUNY-First computing system. Contending that the board has authority to make policy for the university, Goldstein asked the trustees to authorize a complete rewriting and standardization of general education throughout the university’s eighteen senior and community colleges. Ostensibly for the purpose of easing transfer between the junior and senior colleges, the Pathways initiative was developed by a series of committees whose membership was chosen by the chancellor, ignoring the historic decision-making authority of elected faculty governance bodies in determining the curriculum. The reaction to this initiative has been almost unanimous opposition by the faculty on the grounds that the new standards undermined academic excellence and that the process of developing them was an affront to the basic tenets of shared governance and academic freedom.

Faculty governance leaders at various CUNY institutions were the first to raise the alarm. Several of them quickly organized votes opposing Pathways and alerted faculty members on the chancellor’s committees to the precarious position they were in. Soon after, dozens of well-known faculty leaders drafted public letters opposing Pathways. That fall, governance bodies at Baruch, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Bronx Community College, City College, Hunter, John Jay, Lehman, Queens, and Queensborough all passed resolutions either opposing Pathways outright or calling for major changes to its structure and process. This flurry of resolutions prompted many faculty members on the chancellor’s committees to resign, undermining his claim that this was a faculty-driven process.

Time after time, faculty members, faculty governance bodies, and even members of the hand-picked committees reported that their efforts to make changes to Pathways were rebuffed by the chancellery. In some cases, college presidents and provosts also reported to their faculty that they were unable to achieve modifications to the basic framework in response to demands from faculty. In addition, a study by the CUNY-wide University Faculty Senate showed that, to the extent that there were bottlenecks in the transfer process between community and senior colleges, they occurred within majors, not in general education. By early 2012, it was becoming clear that the chancellor was committed to a specific framework and not interested in any kind of meaningful dialogue or give-and-take with faculty. As a result, a growing number of faculty realized that faculty governance efforts alone would not be sufficient to stop or substantially change Pathways. In the past, faculty governance bodies had relied on their formal authority within the individual colleges and on the administration’s recognition of their fundamental legitimacy to make decisions about the curriculum. When that argument failed to carry the day, more concerted organizing and new avenues of power were needed, and the body that was best equipped to provide these things was the faculty and professional staff union, the Professional Staff Congress–CUNY (PSC), which represents twenty-five thousand full-and part-time faculty, professional staff, lab technicians, and researchers at CUNY. (PSC is affiliated with the AAUP.) Beginning in early 2012, the PSC officers supported letter-writing and visited with members on campuses, seeding further resistance through small-group conversations. In March 2012, in conjunction with the University Faculty Senate, they launched a major campaign against Pathways. The effort started with a town-hall meeting at which hundreds of faculty shared stories about the risks of Pathways and strategies for fighting it. Later that month, the two groups filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the right of the board of trustees to change the curriculum unilaterally, followed by a second one in April claiming that the CUNY administration and board had violated the state’s “open meetings” law in its use of unofficial committees to make curricular decisions. In April, the union delivered close to six thousand signatures on a petition calling for Pathways to be scrapped.

The national AAUP also supported the effort to restore faculty control of the curriculum, writing several letters to the CUNY administration which outlined serious concerns about the program and its implementation, and passing a resolution in support of faculty control of the curriculum at CUNY. Over the next several months, a majority of the CUNY campuses, including College of Staten Island, Baruch, LaGuardia, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Brooklyn, and Queens, passed moratoriums or called for the scrapping of Pathways. In addition, many departments and college governance bodies refused to approve new classes designed to comply with the Pathways framework. In some cases, departments chose to opt out of general education rather than participate in Pathways. In other instances, departments refused to draft new courses that reduced standards, mostly by eliminating a fourth credit hour in science and composition classes. On several campuses, faculty governance bodies passed resolutions specifically barring the approval or offering of new Pathways-compliant courses. 

The results of these efforts were twofold. For the first time, the CUNY administration was forced to make substantial modifications to Pathways. It agreed to allow science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students to take four-credit general education science courses with proper labs, and English departments were allowed to add in a fourth hour of composition instruction—though students were still only awarded three credits. Second, the efforts forced local college administrations to directly intervene in the governance process by first pressuring individual faculty and departments to adopt courses and then, when that failed, by unilaterally creating courses and placing them in college bulletins without the approval of governance bodies formally charged with that authority.

In some cases this process of pressuring faculty crossed into outright threats and intimidation. At Queensborough Community College, the English Department refused to develop new Pathways courses. In response, the college’s academic vice president threatened to close down the department. In an e-mail message to faculty, she indicated that all untenured faculty might be released and that students would be forced to take composition courses at another CUNY campus. The administration then tried to intervene in the department’s election of a chair in hopes of securing a more administration-compliant leader. Responses to the administration’s actions were swift both within CUNY and nationally. As a result, the administration quickly retreated and was forced to reaffirm the department’s right to make its own decisions free from such coercion.

In 2013, the union raised the stakes in its organizing by going public. Since pressure from faculty and governance bodies within CUNY was unable to stop Pathways, the union decided to invest considerable resources in general advertising. The first step was a series of print advertisements, which generated some news coverage—including an article in the New York Times. This series of advertisements prompted the CUNY administration to launch its own publicity campaign. Using testimonials from a few well-placed faculty, most of whom had no direct involvement with general education, and supporters of the chancellor in major foundations and educational reform groups, the administration placed ads and produced a glossy color brochure extolling the virtues of rational curriculum planning.

The next step in this public campaign was to make clear to the media and government officials that opposition to Pathways remained near universal among the faculty and not, as the chancellor claimed, the view of a few malcontents. To do this, the PSC organized a referendum of all full-time faculty. In May 2013, in an election conducted by the American Arbitration Association, 92 percent of faculty cast votes of “no confidence” in Pathways. Turnout for the referendum was close to two-thirds, meaning that an absolute majority of full-time faculty cast votes of no confidence. The union built on this result by printing T-shirts with “92 percent” emblazoned on them and by organizing a major rally at the next board of trustees meeting.

Another aspect of this public campaign was an effort to enlist the support of elected officials and community leaders. The PSC held a major policy briefing in June 2013, and out of that meeting came a decision to hold a hearing at the City Council on Pathways. At that meeting, dozens of faculty brought stories about how Pathways was failing their students by eliminating foreign language requirements, lab-science courses, and speech screenings. This effort is continuing, with faculty asking legislators to question university administrators directly about their efforts to undermine faculty control of the curriculum.

The success of this hearing led the union to undertake another major initiative. Since Pathways has now been implemented on all campuses in one form or another, the union has decided to conduct its own evaluation of the negative effects of the new curriculum. Dozens of faculty have been providing letters detailing the ways that educational standards have been compromised. This fall, the union will be releasing the results of this evaluation, which it will use to generate more support from elected officials and to pressure the new chancellor.

In the spring of 2014, Chancellor Goldstein announced he would retire that summer, opening up the possibility of pressuring the new chancellor to make substantial changes to Pathways. As a result, some campuses are pursuing yet another strategy. The crux of this strategy is to engage faculty in a redesign of general education without reference to Pathways. At some campuses, including Baruch, a non-Pathways model already exists with a high degree of faculty support. At others, faculty are actively engaged in a redesign. At Brooklyn College, the faculty council is far along in the process and expects to announce the outlines of a new curriculum in the fall. In support of this effort, the PSC chapter there organized over half of the entire full-time faculty to attend a meeting at which they voted for a referendum to support the faculty council initiative and declared no confidence in the efforts of the board of trustees to interfere in the curriculum. The resolution passed with 92 percent of the vote. Similar strategies will be initiated at other campuses. To the extent that new faculty-developed curricula fail to comport with Pathways, the chancellor will have to decide whether to intervene directly to prevent their implementation or to modify Pathways further to give campuses more freedom and direct control.

The struggle to defeat Pathways is ongoing. Whatever the outcome, it has served to galvanize faculty across the university to take a greater interest in the initiatives coming from the CUNY chancellery and board of trustees, and it has alerted faculty to the ways the educational restructuring occurring in K–12 settings is migrating to higher education, once again under the false guise of efficiency and effectiveness. Just as important, this effort has created new mechanisms of mobilizing, expressing faculty opinions, and exercising faculty power at CUNY. Faculty will have to look to these tools of mass publicity, face-to-face organizing, litigation, and assertions of faculty governance rights if we are going to hold back the tide of misguided “reforms.”

Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology and chair of the Professional Staff Congress chapter at the City University of New York Brooklyn College. He is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He can be reached at [email protected].