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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.

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



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.)


•          •          •

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.

Pell Grant expenditures by the federal government fell by more than six percent last year, according to new figures from the federal government, despite the fact that they were expected to rise by some $4.4 billion.

The $2.2 billion (or $6.6 billion, depending on how you look at it) savings won’t be fully explained until more detailed numbers are released, but there are likely three overlapping explanations.

The first, and likely largest, factor was the government’s elimination of year-round Pell eligibility last year. Congress zapped summer Pell Grants as a cost-saving measure, and that policy change was expected to reduce outlays by some $4 billion.

Another $1.4 billion of the gap came from declining grant awards to for-profit colleges, which saw Pell enrollment fall by more than a hundred thousand students, or about five percent.

As for the rest? Experts interviewed by Inside Higher Ed suggested that it might have come from a shift from full-time to part-time enrollment, possibly spurred by higher costs of attendance.

The elimination of year-round Pell was obviously a setback for higher ed access, and if students are dropping down to part-time for financial reasons that’s troubling too. But the shrinkage of for-profit enrollment is good news for a few reasons.

For-profit colleges charge students more than publics, and they pass those costs on to the government. Because average Pell outlays to students at for-profits are higher than those to students at the public colleges they’d most likely be attending otherwise, for-profit colleges have for years consumed a disproportionate share of Pell Grant spending. A decline in for-profit colleges — which often engage in predatory enrollment tactics, deliver shoddy instruction, and dump students into loan default after graduation — is good for students, good for the economy, and good for the government’s bottom line.

Tuesday’s provincial election was a pretty good day for the Quebec student movement.

The Parti Québécois, which had opposed the Liberal government’s tuition hikes and its anti-demonstration Loi 78, won a clear, though not overwhelming, victory at the polls. Though they fell far short of winning majority control of the provincial legislature, their party leader — in a post-election call to the head of one of Quebec’s student unions — promised to reverse the tuition increase by decree, a move that would make a legislative vote unnecessary. Action on Loi 78 is expected to follow.

PQ’s margin of victory was smaller than anticipated, with the party winning just 54 seats in the 125-seat legislature. The Liberals won 50, though their better-than-expected showing was dimmed by the defeat of party leader Jean Charest, architect of the tuition hike in his own race. In another election-night surprise, 20-year-old student activist Léo Bureau-Blouin defeated a three-term incumbent on his way to winning a PQ seat in the city of Laval. Bureau-Blouin, whose decision to run was controversial among some activists, will be the youngest ever member of Quebec’s legislature.

But while this was a big battle, the war is still ongoing. The reversal of the hike sets up a new struggle over higher education funding, and PQ has pledged to index tuition to inflation going forward. Though students at several holdout campuses where students had continued to strike returned to classes on Wednesday, neither the issues nor the tactics of the spring have evaporated. For now, Loi 78 remains on the books, and the fate of students already under investigation for violating the act remains unresolved.

And the Maple Spring was never just about short-term tuition policy or a single authoritarian law. The movement has always been bigger than that, and a (promised, approximate) return to the January 2012 status quo hardly fulfills the movement’s larger goals.

So don’t put away your red squares just yet.


About This Blog

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

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