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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.

Sarah Jaffe has a great new piece up dismantling a bunch of complaints about the Chicago teachers’ union and their strike. The whole thing is well worth reading, but I wanted to piggyback on one particular bit.

Jaffe quotes Times columnist Joe Nocera’s claim that “the status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable,” and responds with this:

“Here’s a deep-seated bit of ideology that’s really worth unpacking for a second. This is the image of unions in the American psyche these days. Most people think of them as little-c conservative institutions holding on to a dead past, trying to protect what their members have against a sweeping tide of change.

“It’s wrong, and the CTU couldn’t be a better example of just how wrong it is. Karen Lewis and her union are the ones actually fighting for reforms in the schools, starting with things we know work: smaller class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, support for teachers and school staff. They might legally only be allowed to strike over salary and benefits, but they’ve been out there at every turn arguing for change, not the status quo.”

The problem is obvious, and it’s symptomatic of the biggest problem in debates over American public education (primary, secondary, and higher) more generally right now: The most sensible proposals for reforming public education have been written out of “reasonable” public discourse.

In short, Nocera believes that CTU is fighting for the status quo because their proposals have been rendered invisible.

Just seven months ago, CTU released a comprehensive report on how Chicago’s public schools could be improved. It’s thoughtful, ambitious work, and it turns out that the pricetag on the union’s whole better-schools wishlist amounts to just 15% of the system’s annual budget. That money would buy improvements in everything from facilities to art and music instruction to school lunches, while increasing teacher pay, implementing universal pre-K and full-day kindergarten and dramatically expanding school libraries in the parts of the city that need them most.

If that’s what you get for $713 million, you could get big chunks of it for a lot less, and it’s not like the current impasse is free — not for the city, and not for the city’s taxpayers.

So why aren’t we talking about any of this? For the same reason we’re not talking about cutting tuition at public colleges, or increasing in-state enrollment, or hiring more full-time faculty. Because the dominant narrative of austerity, not the country’s actual financial situation, is driving public discourse.

And that narrative has no room for hope. Or change.

Harvard University announced yesterday that it is investigating more than a hundred students in a single section of an introductory Poli Sci course on suspicion of cheating on an open-book final exam. When the news broke I tweeted my suspicion that the structure of the final might have contributed to the temptation to cheat, and a new article in the Harvard Crimson appears to confirm my suspicion.

The final exam in professor Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course was designated as “completely open-book, open-notes, open internet,” but students were warned “not [to] discuss the exam with others,” including their fellow students, tutors or anybody else.

The test included what the Crimson describes as “three multi-part short answer questions,” questions that one anonymous student — who is not suspected of cheating — described as “find the answer and basically say why this is the way it is.” Students were apparently confused by at least two of these questions, with one writing in a course evaluation that more than a dozen had descended en masse on a teaching assistant’s office on the day the assignment was due:

“Almost all of [us] had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking,” that student said. “On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.”

The professor’s own office hours that day were canceled on minimal notice.

Students have an ethical obligation not to cheat, of course. But faculty also have an obligation not to create situations in which cheating is likely to occur. To give an “open internet” take-home exam in which any conversation with your classmates is defined as “cheating” is — even in the best of circumstances — to establish a context in which some cheating is all but inevitable, and virtually impossible to detect. When you declare behavior that you can’t police, behavior that may be entirely benign, to be cheating, you erase the bright-line distinction between proper and improper behavior that is essential to academic integrity. And when you craft a take-home test that’s potentially confusing and deny students any licit mechanism for resolving their confusion, you place students in an entirely untenable position.


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

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