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Administrators at a California community college removed the elected student body president from office earlier this year over charges that students and faculty claim were concocted in an effort to silence his criticisms of college fiscal policy.

Officials at Moorpark College say that campus cops caught 33-year-old Jon Foote drunk on campus on one occasion and “inciting [his] fellow students into becoming a mob.” A professor who was doing calculus with Foote immediately prior to the first incident says he was not inebriated, and students present at the second say he was assisting them in dealing with over-aggressive canvassers.

In reality, his supporters argue, administrators were gunning for Foote because of the light he shone on excessive campus spending at a time when classes and professors were getting the axe. The administration’s unilateral decision to remove him from office in the middle of his term was preposterous, they say.

Another incident that took place around the same time seems to lend credence to their story. Accused of plagiarizing the homework of a study partner, Foote was barred from a physics class he was taking. When he refused to stop attending, administrators sent campus police to remove him from the classroom.

The kicker? The plagiarism charges were later dropped.

Foote remains on campus, progressing toward his degree. He’s concerned that the disciplinary charges could hurt his chances of transfer to a four-year school, but he has no plans to drop out in the meantime.

And he’s thinking about running for student government president again next year.

Most observers of the American university are intimately familiar with the long-term decline and recent degradation of public higher education in California (if you need a refresher, check out Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal’s excellent overview in the new Dissent magazine). Unless you’re inside CA, however, you may have missed word of the time bomb that’s set to explode there in just eleven days.

California’s government is hobbled by its ballot proposition process, a seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time system by which any state law or constitutional amendment may be put to a statewide popular vote. Though the idea has an undeniable good-government appeal, in practice it rewards Californians with deep pockets and a knack for writing misleading referendum questions — as when a 1964 initiative sponsored by movie theater owners actually banned cable television in the state.

In the last forty years various initiatives have mandated spending on certain budget lines while placing various limits on the state legislature’s ability to raise revenue, squeezing funding for non-mandatory spending and exacerbating the state’s already profound budget problems. This quagmire is one, though certainly not the only, contributing factor behind the defunding of public higher education in the state.

Enter Proposition 30.

Proposition 30 is an attempt to address the state’s education funding gap through two temporary tax increases — a four-year, 0.25% hike in sales taxes and a seven-year bump in income taxes for Californians with annual incomes above $250,000. Revenues raised by the new taxes would be dedicated to public education.

The current California state budget assumes passage of Proposition 30, with various cuts built in should the proposition fail. Though most of the cuts would fall on K-12 education, another $838 million would be shared by the the state’s public colleges and universities, which have already seen $2.5 billion in cuts — and a series of staggeringly high tuition increases — in the last four years.

What does this mean in practice? At the University of California it would mean a 20% tuition hike, in a system where tuition already tops $12,000 a year. At Cal State it would likely mean a 5% tuition hike, the cancellation of a planned tuition rebate, and a reduction of enrollment by some twenty thousand students. Community colleges, which have already turned away half a million students over the last three years, would slash enrollment by another 180,000.

So how is Proposition 30 doing? Not well at all. Support currently stands at 46%, down from 55% a month ago. Voters are skeptical of state government and confused by another similar proposition (if both pass, the one that gets the most votes will go into effect, but significant numbers of voters are planning to vote only for the one they prefer). Additionally, the Los Angeles Times yesterday described Governor Jerry Brown’s campaigning on behalf of Prop 30 so far as “lackluster.”

And if you want to know more about how the state got into this mess, take a look at yesterday’s public statement from UC President Mark Yudof on Proposition 30. “Public higher education in California has been battered by declining State support,” he wrote, and the UC Regents have predicted that without Prop 30, “the ability of the University of California to ensure the high-quality education that Californians have come to expect will be jeopardized.” In that light, he continued, he wanted to make it absolutely “clear that it is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

Bold words, strong words, from the head of the greatest public higher education system the world has ever known:

“It is neither my official place, nor my personal predilection, to suggest how others should vote.”

This, as TS Eliot wrote, is the way the world ends.

Yesterday I wrote a piece about a Tuesday evening meeting of the CUNY Queensboro Community College Academic Senate, but the piece wasn’t quite complete because I didn’t have confirmation of the vote results or final text of the resolutions. Well, I do now, and it’s pretty extraordinary.

To recap: A few weeks ago an administrator at QCC threatened to dismantle the college’s English Department and outsource its composition course offerings in retaliation for the department’s refusal to scale back its comp courses to comply with CUNY’s new Pathways curriculum initiative. The administrator in question eventually apologized, and the president of QCC kind-of sort-of walked back the threats.

Which brings us to Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening the Queensboro Academic Senate passed two resolutions in which they rejected the administration’s actions in the strongest possible terms. First, they denounced any attempt to shut down composition at QCC over the Pathways dispute, declaring that such a move would violate state law, put the college’s accreditation in jeopardy, and contravene various binding regulations and policies. That resolution passed in a nearly unanimous vote.

But it was the second resolution, which passed by a reported 44-12 margin, where the Academic Senate really laid down the law. That resolution began with an overview of the deep flaws in the Pathways program and the method by which the CUNY administration attempted to implement it, and then continued on to declare the faculty’s support for the QCC English Department’s refusal to compromise their academic integrity in the composition vote.

Looking forward, the Academic Senate declared that they would not participate in any further deliberations on the implementation of Pathways at QCC “until and unless Vice President Steele’s email outlining the consequences of the English Department vote is formally retracted” and the administration pledges in writing “that the academic judgment and academic freedom of the faculty will be upheld without reprisal.”

Finally, the resolution declared that “no curriculum, adopted by the faculty under pressure and constraint, should ever be interpreted by Administrative personnel … or any media organization as denoting any degree of faculty support for the Pathways initiative, which is overwhelmingly rejected by members of our faculty as harmful to our students and poor educational practice.”

The upshot of this is that the QCC Academic Senate is not merely on record declaring its opposition to Pathways, but also vowing not to even contemplate implementation of any of its provisions until the administration guarantees their freedom to resolve those issues to their own satisfaction in an open, free, and unencumbered manner.

The pushback against Pathways is heating up.

Regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago an administrator at CUNY’s Queensboro Community College threatened to eviscerate the college’s English Department — eliminate composition courses at the college, terminate all adjuncts, halt all job searches, fire full-time faculty — in retaliation for the department’s refusal to scale back its comp courses to comply with Pathways, a controversial new CUNY-wide curricular scheme. It was bizarre, and scary.

The administrator in question eventually apologized in the face of criticism from this site and a bunch of other good folks, and the president of QCC walked back — but didn’t quite close the door on — her threats. The story has been simmering on campus ever since, but there haven’t been any big public developments until now.

Last night the Queensboro Academic Senate met and made it clear that they’re standing by the department and will resist any attempt to go forward with the administration’s threats. I’m still working on getting all the official details out of the meeting, but here’s what I’ve been told so far.

First, in a “nearly unanimous” vote, the Academic Senate passed a resolution affirming Queensboro’s non-negotiable obligation to continue to offer composition courses to its students. “It shall be the official policy of Queensboro Community College,” the resolution declared, that the college “must not violate state law or regulation … jeopardize its accreditations … [or] violate its agreements … by failing to offer courses in sufficient number required for its degree programs.” It further declared that “these obligations must be honored, irrespective of whether Queensboro’s course listings adhere to the specifications of the CUNY Common Required and Flexible Cores.”

Queensboro needs to offer composition, in other words, and as far as the Academic Senate is concerned the college will continue to offer composition, whatever happens with the Pathways fight.

An additional resolution saw more debate, a little more opposition, and a few amendments, and I don’t yet have a precise picture of how that discussion turned out. But in its original form, the second resolution noted the CUNY administration’s lack of attention to “the objections of faculty across CUNY” to the Pathways plan, and called the proposal to scale back composition and similar courses a “particularly problematic” change to “already flawed … schema.” Reviewing showdown between the English department and the QCC administration the resolution declared its “strong support” for the department’s “academic freedom … to render their best academic judgments” on such issues.

In a meatier, forward-looking passage the resolution — again, as originally proposed — declared that “no further review” of Pathways course specifications “can proceed … until and unless the academic judgment and academic freedom of the faculty are fully respected, and guaranteed, in a written document” and the threats to cut course offerings and faculty “is formally retracted” in writing.

Finally, the resolution declared that “no curriculum, adopted by the faculty under pressure and constraint, should ever be interpreted by Administrative personnel … or any media organization as denoting any degree of faculty support for the Pathways initiative, which is overwhelmingly rejected by members of our faculty as harmful to our students and poor educational practice.”

I’m told that this resolution passed by a margin of about four-to-one after unspecified amendments. As soon as I have the exact details I’ll pass them along.

Yesterday I reported that the English department at Queensborough Community College had voted to reject an administration-initiated restructuring of their composition program, and that the college’s Vice President for Academic Affairs had in response informed them that the department will be largely dismantled next fall.

According to the letter, which I have since posted on this site, CUNY intends to eliminate the composition program at QCC, dismiss all Queensborough English department adjuncts, and immediately cancel all job searches in the department. The administration has threatened to terminate full-time faculty left idle as a result of the downsizing, a move that by my estimate could lead to the firing of as many as nineteen of the department’s twenty-six full-timers. Some 175 composition sections per semester would be pushed off campus by the move, threatening local students’ ability to advance in their studies and overburdening resources at surrounding colleges.

That’s the situation as I understood it yesterday evening. I have since received further information about the crisis that confirms all of the above information and allows me to provide a fuller accounting of the events of last week.

The Queensborough dispute arose, as I noted yesterday, out of the Pathways initiative, a CUNY-wide administrative attempt to systematize and centralize course offerings throughout the system. Faculty throughout CUNY have argued that Pathways is insufficiently responsive to local campus conditions and students’ needs, but the administration has continued to push forward with the plan on an aggressive timetable.

At Queensborough’s English department the primary practical issue with Pathways was its reduction of weekly course hours for composition classes from four to three. This change would cut into students’ class time, require heavier faculty courseloads and — not incidentally — dramatically reduce faculty compensation for teaching composition, a particularly writing (and grading) intensive class.

The shift from the department’s existing four-hour composition courses to new Pathways-compliant three-hour offerings required a departmental vote, and as it became clear that faculty were disinclined to approve the change, administrators made it known that a failure to approve the Pathways plan would result in harsh consequences.

Faculty were alarmed by these threats. They delayed the vote by a week, and asked that an administrator appear at their next meeting to state CUNY’s case in person. Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Steele represented the administration at Wednesday’s meeting, and according to the faculty member I spoke with, made the threat to the department’s offerings explicit prior to the vote.

When the vote was eventually held — conducted by secret ballot as a result of faculty fears of individual retaliation — the department rejected the administration proposal by a margin of 14 to 6, with one abstention.

In an email the following afternoon, Vice President Steele carried out the administration’s earlier threats. As of fall 2013, she said, all QCC composition courses will be eliminated, with students forced to enroll at other CUNY campuses to meet those requirements. Because composition makes up the great majority of the QCC English department’s course offerings, moreover, all of the department’s faculty searches are to be “immediately” cancelled, all of its adjuncts are to be terminated, and all current full-time appointments, including those of tenured faculty, are to be reviewed on the basis of “ability to pay and Fall ’13 enrollment in department courses.”

By my estimate, QCC’s plan will have the effect of eliminating all part-time faculty and approximately 19 out of the department’s current 26 full-time faculty positions, while shifting nearly two hundred composition sections a semester to other CUNY campuses.

The current situation, in short — and it should be remembered that Steele has presented this as a done deal — represents an effective dismantling of QCC’s English department. The Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s faculty union, has declared its intention to file a labor grievance in response, and is threatening a federal lawsuit. Faculty have expressed concern that the move could threaten Queensborough’s accreditation.

There’s a reason I was initially skeptical about the accuracy of the early reports I received, and a reason that others have been incredulous — this is a stunningly crude act of retaliation against a department for exercising its legitimate prerogatives in college governance.

Another meeting has been scheduled for this Wednesday. Faculty are adamant that they will not reverse their decision, and confident that they have the vote strength to hold firm.

That is not to say they aren’t worried. They’re scared to death. But they believe that this is a fight that they can and must win.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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