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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.

After the scandal surrounding a CUNY administrator’s threat to dismantle the Queensborough Community College English department broke wide in the academic media yesterday, that administrator — a QCC vice president — sent a letter of apology to the department’s chair. That apology, and an accompanying letter to the college’s faculty, went further than a Sunday letter from the QCC president to disavow her initial threat, and to pledge greater respect for faculty involvement in governance in the future.

In her letter to faculty, QCC vice president Karen Steele expressed “deep regret” for last week’s missive, saying it was “over-dramatized” and “sent in haste.” There are, she said, “no plans to enact” the “hypothetical” cuts to the department she threatened, and she pledged to “work mightily … to ensure all our classes are available for students” and to ensure “continue[d] … support” for the “innovative work” of the QCC English department.

Aside from one sentence nodding to the college’s “responsibility to comply with the Board’s responsibility to comply with the Board’s policy and the guidelines issued under it,” there was no hint of the combativeness that had characterized her previous communications with the department, both in print and in her appearance at last week’s faculty meeting.

This isn’t a complete capitulation, since no final resolution to QCC’s Pathways dispute has yet been reached. But it’s a big step in that direction.

The full text of the Monday letter follows.

From: Steele, Karen B.
Sent: Monday, September 17, 2012 5:20 PM
To: _Faculty (Including CLT’s); _Adjuncts; _HEOs
Cc: _Cabinet Members; _Deans
Subject: Regarding my memo

Colleagues,

Yesterday I wrote to the English Department chair, Dr. Linda Reesman, apologizing for the email I sent her last Thursday regarding English Composition courses.  I deeply regret having sent the original email, primarily because it was needlessly hurtful to members of the English Department and to other faculty as well.  It was an email sent in haste, out of an over-dramatized fear of the possible impact on the department.

I would like to make clear that the items listed in the email were hypothetical, and there are no plans to enact them, and to echo the President’s letter:  we will “work mightily” to ensure all of our classes are available for students, that faculty members in our English Department have plenty of classes to teach, and that they continue to have support for their innovative work.

At the same time, as a member of CUNY, we have the responsibility to comply with the Board’s policy and the guidelines issued under it.

It is the tradition at Queensborough for all groups at the college to work together to solve problems.  My memo was not aligned with that tradition, and going forward I recommit to Queensborough’s outstanding tradition of the administration and the faculty striving together towards common goals.

As most of you know, the College community has been actively involved in work on restructuring our curricula to align with the CUNY Pathways Common Core, as approved by the Board, and with the Pathways majors.  The first principle that we have all followed has been to preserve the standards of our existing programs, and faculty in all departments have expended tremendous effort preparing.  It is my hope and expectation that we can continue to work together to accomplish this task that is so important for our students.

Karen

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.

Yesterday I reported on an attempt by CUNY administrators to dismantle the English department at the system’s Queensborough Community College in retaliation for the department’s refusal to approve a restructuring of its composition program.

That reporting was based on a public excerpt from a letter sent by QCC Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Steele to Linda Reesman, chair of the QCC English department, on Thursday evening. I have since received a full copy of that letter, and I am reproducing it in its entirety below. (For reference, Diane Call is the president of Queensborough CC.)

From: Steele, Karen B.

Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2012 18:17:39 -0400

To: Linda Reesman

Cc: Call, Diane B.

Subject: EN-101, 102 and 103

Dear Linda,

First let me thank you and the department for your gracious reception and serious discussion at yesterday’s department meeting. I am glad we had a chance to address some of the issues that the College and the department have been grappling with since the beginning of the calendar year. However, I may not have conveyed sufficiently the urgency of the issues for the department.

I understand the Department voted against the new English composition courses. While I appreciate the difficult choices before the department, that decision has serious repercussions for the College and the department. As I mentioned at the meeting, we will no longer be able to offer EN-101, 102, or 103 in their current configuration ( i.e., four contact hours) as of Fall 2013. Since we don’t have in place courses that will meet the Pathways requirements for the Common Core, we can’t put forward a Fall 2013 schedule of classes that includes English Composition courses. Given that fact, and the resultant dramatic drop in enrollment, we will have to take the following actions:

    • All searches for full time faculty in the English Department will be cancelled immediately
    • The existing EN 101, 102, and 103 will not be included in the common core, and therefore will not be offered in Fall 13
    • Beginning March 2013 (our Fall 13 advisement cycle), continuing and new students will be advised to take the common core requirement for I A at another CUNY institution, since the courses will not be available at Queensborough
    • Neither EN 101 or 103, nor EN 102 will be submitted to the University in the QCC list of ‘gateway’ courses for the English Major (we must submit the list of gateway major courses by October 1, 2012)
    • Of necessity, all adjunct faculty in the English department will be sent letters of non-reappointment for Fall 2013
    • The reappointment of full time faculty in the English Department will be subject to ability to pay and Fall 13 enrollment in department courses

Regretfully,

Karen

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

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