Dialoguing CUNY Pathways… Or, at Least, Trying

This came to my email inbox yesterday (my responses are in italics and in green, in case anyone in the CUNY administration is listening). I wish that the CUNY administration really would open itself up to dialogue instead of providing questions of its own devising and providing answers crafted to its own questions. I would love for the administration to really listen to the concerns of an uncomfortable CUNY faculty and respond carefully to those concerns. Right now, many of us on the faculty are feeling a little like the mouse in Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale,” listening to the cat say “I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury.” We’d love it if this could turn into a more open and more participatory process.

From the beginning, we in the CUNY community have been told, basically, that the verdict is in, that Pathways is a done deal. But, in education, nothing need remain in stone; all can change. The faculty is open to being convinced about Pathways (at least, I am–and many others I know are, as well). We only wish that the administration would be open to considering our objections rather than simply barreling ahead. That, after all, is what the century-long tradition of faculty governance requires.

My questions are real, and some of them certainly come from ignorance about a process I was not involved in until quite recently… but they still deserve, I believe, consideration:

CUNY Newswire – April 25, 2012                                            

Six Questions and Answers Regarding Pathways

Dear Colleagues,
Attached is a document with information about the Pathways project, “Six Questions and Answers Regarding Pathways.” I hope that this information is useful to you.
Alexandra W. Logue
Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost
The City University of New York
1. What prompted the Pathways initiative?

Pathways was initiated solely to help students. Many students at CUNY start in associate degree programs. Those who want baccalaureate degrees generally transfer to senior colleges. What’s more, students transfer in all directions within CUNY (e.g., senior college to community college; senior college to senior college) for a variety of academic and personal reasons. We owe it to students not to put obstacles in the way of their academic progress.

I agree with this goal completely, though I am not sure a major restructuring of the core is the best way to go about reaching it. It seems a bit like trying to kill an ant with a sledgehammer, forgetting what the impact might be on the cement the ant is crossing. If this were the only goal, I think a much more elegant solution could be formulated. Perhaps finding a way to equalize existing courses in terms of requirements, outcomes, and even numbering would do the job more efficiently. Were other options considered by CUNY? If so, why were they rejected?

In the past, CUNY’s colleges each developed their own variants of general education, which differed significantly in their course requirements and in their number of credits. This made it difficult for students to transfer within the CUNY system without facing new requirements, delays, and uncertainties as a result of credit evaluation. Too often, credits that met general education or major requirements at the home college were transformed into elective credit at the receiving college. This does students a disservice. Over time, general education requirements have grown and have become more complex, to the point where they have become a major stumbling block for students trying to complete their degrees. In many cases, CUNY colleges’ requirements are far more numerous than those at other public university systems.

Yes, and as we both say, this need does need to be addressed… but is it really a “major stumbling block” for a significant number of students? For how many does it become a problem (out of the total student population)? Even if it affects a large number of students, is the problem significant enough to warrant such a major restructuring? Why? And why, then, was it not addressed in the past? Is the problem worse now than in the past? Why the rush to do this so quickly now?

2. What effect will Pathways have on CUNY’s standards?

Standards will be strengthened. The new general education requirements will bring CUNY in line with other leading universities. In addition to general education requirements, students will continue to fulfill all major, liberal arts, residency, and GPA requirements to earn their CUNY degrees. Under Pathways, more students will have enhanced opportunities to engage in intellectual exploration, to pursue double majors or minors, and to take additional upper-level courses.

Please explain how the Core areas are “in line with other universities.” By defining six new areas for distribution requirements without re-defining the academic disciplines, what Pathways does is increase the complication of requirements–even as you, yourself, say. Yes, students, in some cases, will have fewer hours of common core courses to take, but I am not sure that will provide “enhanced opportunities to engage in intellectual exploration.” After all, the number of hours for degrees remain the same. Can you explain exactly how Pathways will enhance opportunities through examples contrasting Pathways with the old system?

In the past, senior colleges have had little influence on the general education courses taken by community college students, many of whom transfer to senior colleges. A 1999 Board of Trustees policy mandates that students who transfer with AA or AS degrees can be required to take only one additional general education course. Under Pathways, all students transferring from a community college to a senior college will be required to take at least six credits of general education as determined by the receiving senior college. And all community-college students-as well as senior-college students-will take general education courses that have been approved by a university-wide committee consisting of senior members of the faculty. 

The requirement of six credits determined by the particular senior college isn’t much of an increase. Furthermore, the approval system only allows this “university-wide committee” to see descriptions of the courses tailored to specific learning outcomes. The members of the committee get to see, really, very little of any one course, and only those courses submitted to the area of their particular subcommittees. No one on the committee, and certainly not the whole, will be able to see the breadth or connectivity of the program possibilities. Is anyone going to look over the whole and judge its efficacy? If so, who would that be? Who is going to judge the success or failure of this program? 

3. How will Pathways affect what courses colleges can offer?

The Common Core is very flexible. Colleges have already shown that they can create their own distinctive approaches to the core. For instance, those that want to require four semesters of foreign language for most of their students can do so-as Hunter College plans to do. Those that want to offer-or require-science labs can do so. Those that want to require American history can make this choice, as can those that want to require psychology or any other liberal arts or interdisciplinary field. It is the colleges that decide which courses to submit for each area of the Common Core. Senior colleges also exclusively decide on the content of their 12 College Option credits.

If there is flexibility, it is in the four-year, not the two-year programs. Pathways may well crowd out other requirements for Associate degrees. This is an area outside of my own knowledge, for the most part, so I would like to see examples of how programs could be built around Pathways with the sorts of possibilities you put forward here. Could you provide those?

4. How have faculty been involved in the Pathways initiative?

Hundreds of faculty members have participated, and continue to participate, in shaping Pathways. The Board of Trustees has the sole authority under New York State Education Law and its Bylaws to make educational policy at CUNY. In the case of Pathways, the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution that created a basic framework consisting of a Common Core of 30 credits and an additional six to 12 College Option credits for senior colleges. The resolution did not include any provision about the curricular areas within the Common Core; it delegated the power to make recommendations to a committee overwhelmingly made up of faculty. The committee’s recommendations were accepted by the chancellor.

The Board of Trustees may have the power, but power wielded without consultation is often power poorly exercised. Rather than starting from the top with a resolution and then delegating power, it would have made more sense to bring the faculty into the first discussions, eventually presenting a resolution that had faculty backing rather than delegating a narrow set of responsibilities to committees the make-up of which you, and not the faculty, control. Is there any willingness on the part of the administration to delay Pathways so that a new look can be taken?

Under Pathways, faculty members at colleges maintain their full authority over the development of courses and will decide which curricular areas to emphasize in the Common Core.

I don’t mean to be catty, but this sounds rather paternalistic to me… like asking a child if she wants to see The Lion King or Aladdin without ever considering that she might have something else in mind. Are you willing to bring us into the totality of the conversation and decision-making rather than just offering us choices you have already determined?

5. How will Pathways affect foreign language courses?

Under Pathways, all colleges have the option to require foreign language study, as Hunter College is doing. Senior colleges can require students to take at least four semesters of a language other than English, and community colleges can require two semesters of a language other than English. Colleges may also decide to tie course requirements to proficiency levels, requiring a larger or smaller number of language courses depending on a student’s existing language proficiency.

Right now, at City Tech, we require three semesters of a language for the Associates degree in Liberal Arts and Arts. Pathways is forcing this degree to change without City Tech participation (there won’t be room for a third language course within the 60-hour requirement under the new system). How many other degrees will find themselves in the same situation?

6. How does Pathways address science courses? Will science courses transfer to other universities?

The teaching of science remains a priority at CUNY through the Pathways initiative. The facts are: 1) students must take at least six credits of science in CUNY’s new Common Core; 2) colleges can structure these courses as they wish to include lecture, lab, or both; and 3) to satisfy the Common Core, students can take science courses required for science majors, and these courses can consist of as many credits and contact hours as the college chooses.

Here again, “colleges can structure these courses” but only within severe limitations, limitations requiring an entirely new approach to lab sciences, for six hours does not work in existing frameworks of eight-hour sequences. This is really something that should come from the faculty, and not from administration, so that the teachers themselves can determine the best possible sequence for their students and their programs. Imposing a total from outside does not allow this. Would you be willing to work with science faculty to revise this requirement, if science faculty could convince you that a sequence of two 4-credit courses is necessary? This might require changing the entire structure of Pathways. Would you be willing to do so?

There is a good deal of evidence indicating that students will be able to transfer Common Core science courses to other universities. These courses will have been developed and vetted by their colleges. Some CUNY colleges currently require three-credit/three-contact-hour general education science courses for non-science majors, similar to the requirement at most SUNY campuses, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, Penn State, and many other colleges and universities.

Could you please show us the evidence? You name a few schools, but there are hundreds that our students may transfer to. How many of those will accept three-credit science courses? What percentage of the whole will do so? Is it really worth making this kind of change in our own science requirements? Why? What other options have been considered?