A Struggle to Reform the CUNY Curriculum

There have been two interesting, if somewhat under
the radar, higher education developments recently in New York City.

First, on Tuesday, the CUNY Board of Trustees
continued its consideration of the administration’s proposed general-education
curriculum plan, called Pathways. The proposal calls for a mandatory 30 credits
of core offerings for all CUNY students, divided between classes in English
Composition, Math, and Life & Physical Sciences, plus six courses in a
tightly limited distribution requirement. (Individual colleges could add up to
12 additional credits.) The system
“that all colleges should design the structure of their general
education requirements so as to be as straightforward and comprehensible as
possible,” while also seeking to “ensure rigorous and transferable study across
the colleges while retaining sufficient flexibility for colleges to sustain and
develop their distinctive academic identities.

Pathways will replace the hodgepodge system in which
each of CUNY’s seventeen junior and senior colleges has its own general
education requirements. None has a common Core curriculum; Brooklyn’s comes
closest, with a narrowly-tailored distribution arrangement. The current
structure had generated both bad press for the institution and widespread
complaints from students, who had difficulty applying gen-ed credits from one
CUNY school to another, and therefore needed additional credits in order to

The plan aroused
ferocious opposition
from the University Faculty Senate (the UFS) and the
faculty union (the PSC)–on the almost comical grounds, given both
organizations’ track records, of their alleged desire to uphold quality. Yet
both entities have opposed virtually every serious reform adopted by Chancellor
Matthew Goldstein; as Goldstein has produced a record of improving CUNY’s
academic quality, neither the UFS nor the PSC has any credibility when it comes
to commenting on CUNY matters.

But the plan also attracted opposition from beyond
the usual suspects; academic traditionalists (with whom I am generally
sympathetic) faulted Pathways for not including a strict Core curriculum–which didn’t
exist at CUNY before Pathways, wouldn’t exist even if Pathways were rejected,
and would be almost impossible to implement because of the large numbers of
students who transfer into and within CUNY. These academics’ Board testimony
also faulted Pathways for not requiring a history course (which currently isn’t
required in all CUNY schools) or a foreign language (which currently isn’t
required in many CUNY schools). It seems as if the traditionalists’ complaint
was as much with the current system as with Pathways, making it rather
difficult to accept their assertions that the proposal would diminish academic
quality at CUNY.

These complaints, moreover, turned a blind eye to
the two clear advantages that Pathways would offer. The first, somewhat
distinctive to CUNY, involves the facilitation of intra-institution transfers.
(Not many other university systems have seventeen sub-units at the community
and senior college level.) The second has broader implications. At CUNY, as at
most large public institutions, declining funding for the past several decades
has left many, if not most, general-education courses taught by
adjuncts–instructors not chosen through a national, advertised search. Most
departments, unsurprisingly, allocate their resources to have tenure-track faculty
teaching departmental electives and graduate courses.

By mandating a slightly lower credit total for
gen-ed classes than what currently exists in the system while simultaneously
not lowering graduation requirements, Pathways’ net effect will have CUNY students
taking fewer courses taught by adjuncts (the gen-ed classes) and more taught by
full-time faculty (the undergraduate electives). In fact, Goldstein has touted
Pathways in on-campus appearances as providing a greater opportunity for
students to take challenging, upper-division electives outside of their majors.

Pathways might marginally improve the quality of the
weakest part of CUNY’s education curriculum, its general education offerings;
it might not do so. (I suspect that, at the gen-ed level, it ultimately will
have little impact.) But it almost certainly will ensure that CUNY students take
more courses from full-time faculty and fewer offerings from adjuncts. And it definitely
will enhance CUNY’s status as an “integrated university,” by making it easier
for students to move seamlessly from CUNY community colleges to senior

Overall, then, and given the Chancellor’s proven
track record at CUNY, Pathways seems likely to enhance the institution’s
overall academic rigor. The faculty opposition to it is deeply unfortunate.


On the
opposite side of New York City from CUNY’s headquarters on the Upper East Side,
Brooklyn’s southeastern tip will feature a special election to replace the
disgraced Carl Kruger, who resigned from the New York State Senate after
pleading guilty to corruption charges. The Democratic candidate, and
frontrunner, is City
Councilor Lew Fidler

Voters in the 27th district will cast
ballots on the basis of their own interests, but those concerned with student
rights and academic freedom could do far worse than Fidler.

In 2004, my own campus featured one of the more
transparent violations of student free speech rights that I’ve encountered.
After Brooklyn’s then-provost, the diversity-obsessed
Roberta Matthews
, embraced a politicized classroom (as “teaching,” she
agreed, was a “political act”), the student government approved a non-binding
academic bill of rights resolution. The college president (who, like Matthews,
has since departed) responded by dissolving the student legislature, claiming
that its officers had been improperly elected. At the time, I was the faculty
counselor to one of the student political parties, and can still recall my
amazement as I read the president’s letter.

The student representatives reached out to several
local politicians–given that Brooklyn’s president had prorogued a legislature,
we expected widespread outrage. But only one elected official answered the
call: Fidler. He met with the student representatives, considered their evidence,
and then contacted the college administration to express his displeasure at the
president’s behavior and his support for student rights on campus. Fidler
didn’t seek publicity for his efforts, and his involvement carried with it
little promise of political advantage–he acted because it was the right thing
to do.

While Fidler applied private pressure, FIRE took up
the students’ cause. After a typically persuasive FIRE letter to the
administration, the president caved, and the student government was re-established.

For those interested in higher education, one of the
biggest disappointments of the past fourteen months has been the performance of
new GOP-majority states. Rather than tackle hard issues such as bolstering
student rights or considering ways in which better oversight or targeted
funding might minimize the groupthink atmosphere on campus, GOP-led governments
have focused on the irrelevant (letting students bring guns on campus) to the
positively harmful (AG
Cuccinelli’s crusade
against science professors at the University of

The record should serve as a reminder that,
regardless of party, we can always use more defenders of academic freedom in
state government.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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