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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.

URGENT UPDATE, September 16:

I’ve spoken with a QCC faculty member who has confirmed the report below and added important new details on crucial elements of the story, including the vote count from the faculty meeting, the nature of the administration’s threats, and the department’s plans for the future.

Please read and distribute today’s post before continuing.

•          •          •

This is an astounding story.

On Wednesday the English department at Queensborough Community College voted not to adopt a policy of the City University of New York to reduce composition course credits from four to three. In so doing, they rejected the CUNY Pathways initiative, a proposal for streamlining and centralizing CUNY curricula which many faculty regard as antithetical to students’ needs.

Administrators didn’t like this. And in fact they disliked it so much that Queensborough announced two days later that they’re dismantling the QCC English department in retaliation.

In an email sent to the department chair yesterday QCC Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Steele announced that because the English department insists on granting four credits for composition courses, those courses will no longer be offered by the college and QCC students will be sent to other CUNY campuses to fulfill their composition requirements. Since composition represents such a significant portion of the department’s offerings, moreover,

  • All searches to fill full-time positions in the department will be cancelled.
  • All English department adjuncts at Queensborough will be fired.
  • And the appointments of all current full-time faculty in the department will be “subject to ability to pay and Fall ’13 enrollment in department courses.”

When I first read this, I assumed that there must be some spin involved — surely the administration wouldn’t be so brazen as to explicitly state that they were prepared to essentially eliminate a college’s English department over a credit-hour dispute.

But they are. It’s all there in black and white. (PSC, the CUNY faculty union, is filing a labor grievance, threatening a federal lawsuit, and urging the department to stand strong.)

Horrifying.

•          •          •

Update: It’s worth underscoring one element of this that I mentioned only in passing in the original post.

CUNY community college students are pretty much the definition of “at risk.” They’re disproportionately returning students, first-generation students, the working poor, English language learners, recent immigrants, parents, caregivers. If you make them leave their home campus for one of their foundational courses, a significant proportion just won’t make it through that hoop. And when you knock a CUNY student out of college, there’s a good chance they’re never coming back.

So what’s happening here is that the QCC administration is announcing a plan of action — and again, this isn’t phrased as a threat, it’s presented as a done deal — which will have the effect of dumping some of the college’s most endangered students out of CUNY as collateral damage in a curricular turf war. It’s truly reprehensible.

Second Update: I’ve just been over to the Queensborough website for a little digging.

From what I can see, 175 of the English department’s 206 sections this semester are in composition, which means that the administration is planning to eliminate nearly 85% of the of the department’s current offerings. Given that English has a total of 26 full-time faculty listed on its departmental page, and given that the full-time CUNY community college courseload for three-credit courses is 4/5, the elimination of composition would mean the firing of nearly three-quarters of the department’s full-time faculty even after the termination of all part-timers.

Third Update: Earlier this evening, in response to some skepticism about this post, I put together an update going through the email message posted at the PSC website and explaining how it backs up what I reported above. In it, I addressed the possibility that the QCC email was fraudulent.

I’ve taken that update down and replaced it with this one because I’ve just had communication with a QCC faculty member confirming the validity of the email posted at the PSC website and the accuracy of my description of its contents. This is real, and if anything the full story is even worse than what’s been reported so far.

I’m going to bed now, but I’ll have much more in the morning.

Fourth Update: I’ve obtained a complete copy of the Queensborough letter, and have posted it here. More soon.

Fifth Update, September 16: Again, there’s much more information at this new post, including inside news from last week’s faculty meeting and more on the department’s plans for the future.

A study of California’s community college system released yesterday finds that despite shocking enrollment reductions, budget cuts are making it impossible for hundreds of thousands of students to get into the courses they need to maintain progress toward their degrees.

Community college enrollment has been reduced by 17% in the past four years, but course offerings have been cut by 24%, leaving some 470,000 students on waiting lists as the fall semester gets underway. The system’s budget, which has been cut by $809 million since 2008, will be slashed another $338 million this winter if California voters reject a tax increase referendum in November.

The problems in the state’s community colleges are compounded by the fact that California has cut enrollment at four-year schools in recent years, increasing demand for CC slots:

“We have all of these students who want to take courses — high school graduates, then a whole group who had planned to go to the University of California or Cal State but can’t afford to, and with the economy, all of these people coming back to college because they need skills,” one college’s spokeswoman told the LA Times. But “we’re all being forced by the state to offer fewer courses for students.”

Student support services have been cut to the bone as well, which means that enrollment counseling is harder to come by, along with help in sorting out financial aid problems. One college has completely eliminated tutoring and student visits to four-year colleges, and ended publication of its student handbook, the report says.

Yesterday’s national action was the largest such day of coordinated campus protest since the Occupy Wall Street movement went viral last fall. But it was also the third early-March day of action to emerge from the national student movement that began with Occupy California two years earlier.

Occupy Wall Street has given the American student movement a boost, certainly. But in doing so it is merely returning a favor.

Yesterday student activists took to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York like Occupy Wall Street. They congregated in the park that was until recently home to Occupy Oakland, and marched from there to Morgan Stanley offices in San Francisco. They erected tents at UC Santa Cruz, and hung banners in the Massachusetts statehouse like last spring’s proto-OWS anti-Walker occupiers did in Madison. But they also took over administrators’ offices at DePaul University in Illinois and at UC San Diego. They also rallied for increased library hours at Harvard. They also held teach-ins at Ohio State, teach-outs at Berkeley, and a mock telethon for student debt at SUNY Buffalo.

And yesterday was no stand-alone event. Activists used Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza as the kickoff point for a 99-mile march to Sacramento, planning to arrive in time for a Monday occupation of the state capitol. That same day, students throughout New York will be descending on Albany for their own day of action.

#M1 has been described as a kickoff for the new semester, though there have been at least a dozen major campus actions in the US since January. It has been described as a reflection of an OWS “shift to the universities,” though OWS is as much the child of recent student activism as its parent. In reality, it was neither of those things. It was something quite different, and far more interesting.

It was just another day.

Matt Yglesias recently linked to the above chart on college enrollment as an illustration of the huge size of the American community college student body. His thoughts on that subject are well made and worth reading, but it’d be a missed opportunity to end the discussion there.

Here’s a few other things that jumped out at me:

  • American higher education is overwhelmingly public. A full 77% of American college students are enrolled at public colleges and universities.
  • The for-profit sector is a tiny sliver of higher education enrollment, despite its outsized share of government grant and loan money.
  • Private research universities enroll only 4% of American undergrads, just one fifth as many as public research universities do.
  • Traditional non-profit private universities and colleges enroll only 15% of undergrads, and about a quarter of students in bachelors degree granting programs.
  • Taking private and public institutions together, only 24% of US undergraduates are enrolled at research universities.

Yglesias is right to point out the cultural invisibility of community college students, but our myopia extends far beyond the two-year/four-year split. Americans’ image of undergraduates is based on a higher education model that hasn’t existed in reality in generations, and those distortions have far-reaching effects on public policy and public opinion.

(Note: I haven’t been able to find the source for this chart, so it’s possible that some of its figures may be off. It does seem to reflect Carnegie data, however.)

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

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