A Union’s War on University Quality

The recent story of the City University of New York is a tale of CUNY leadership making a series of bold and positive moves, and having each one blocked or opposed by leadership of the faculty union.

The current PSC leaders opposed the Board of Trustees’ courageous (and at the time, highly controversial) plan to eliminate remediation at CUNY’s eleven senior colleges. They opposed one of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s first major initiatives, creation of the Macaulay Honors College, which has brought thousands of Ivy League-caliber students to CUNY. They opposed the CUNY Compact, which stabilized CUNY’s funding sources before the financial meltdown. And the current PSC leaders opposed extending the tenure clock from five to seven years, to provide a better sense of scholarly production before the tenure decision, thereby reducing the number of unqualified figures who receive tenure.

So when PSC president Barbara Bowen issues a statement–as she did yesterday–claiming that she’s acting to promote an “academically rigorous” curriculum, or that she’s worried about how “the quality of a CUNY degree is sacrificed in the process” devised by the administration, her assertions don’t pass the laugh test.

Bowen’s comical remarks came as the union filed a legal complaint against the CUNY administration, demanding abrogation of the Pathways general education curriculum, which I have written about here and here. The union contends that adoption of Pathways violated CUNY Bylaws section 8.5, which states that faculty members have responsibility for the curriculum “subject to guidelines, if any, as established by the board.”

The section’s plain wording confirms that the administration acted within its authority: to address the problem of intra-CUNY transfers and wildly differing gen-ed structures among the seventeen CUNY senior and community colleges, the trustees issued guidelines on gen-ed requirements, and then called upon various faculty committees to devise curricular structures that conformed to these guidelines.

Before the complaint was filed, the union seemed focused on undermining Pathways through public protests (a favorite Bowen tactic) and also, more perniciously, from within. In a troubling move, members of the union’s Delegate Assembly proposed using the resignation of a John Jay professor from one of the Pathways committees “to pressure others on the committees to do the same.” The clear message, especially to untenured faculty: service on Pathways-related committees will be harmful to your career prospects at CUNY.

If faculty members bowed to the union’s (wildly inappropriate) pressure tactics and resigned from the Pathways committees, the union could suggest that the measure could not be implemented. But any pressure campaign was going to take time, and the union decided it needed to act quickly. Its (bare-bones) legal complaint avoided the implementation issue, and instead simply claimed that Bylaws section 8.5 was effectively annulled by a 1997 legal settlement. The lawsuit implies the CUNY trustees–and the taxpayers whose fiduciary interests they protect–have no role on curricular matters at all, and must rubber-stamp any curricular decisions that the faculty’s majority makes. Yet the union’s own filing concedes that one of the provisions of the 1997 settlement required the CUNY Board of Trustees “recognizing and reaffirming CUNY Bylaw” 8.5. How a settlement that required the Trustees to recognize and reaffirm a Bylaw provision that gives them the power to establish guidelines on curricular matters means that the Board cannot, as it did in Pathways, establish guidelines on curricular matters the union’s legal complaint does not reveal.

The logic of the union’s argument, however, extends well beyond Pathways: it would undercut the Trustees’ decisions to abolish senior-college remediation (in which the Trustees established guidelines on a curricular matter at the senior colleges) and to establish the Macaulay Honors College (in which the Trustees instructed various faculty committees to set up a special first- and second-year curriculum for the new college’s students). The union’s lawsuit does not make clear whether, if successful, the PSC will go to court to restore remediation and to abolish Macaulay, but given Bowen’s past opposition to both initiatives, a Pathways victory would almost certainly lead to future litigation.

In short, in the name of advancing “quality,” the union seeks a legal judgment that will give the faculty majority authority to restore remediation to senior colleges. Orwell would be proud.

It seems highly unlikely that any court will accept the union’s argument that the CUNY Bylaws should be viewed as a dead letter, or that a legal settlement that required the Trustees to reaffirm that they have authority to establish guidelines on matters of curriculum means that the Trustees actually lack the authority to establish guidelines on matters of curriculum. But CUNY is a closed shop, and the union has plenty of dues dollars to waste on legal fees to keep the matter alive.

KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of “Until Proven Innocent.


  • 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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3 thoughts on “A Union’s War on University Quality

  1. I think this issue is worth more exploration. SO MANY of our students spend their first (and second, and sometimes third and fourth) semesters of college in developmental classrooms, and many never make it any farther. Students have such a troubled relationship to these classes they are signs of their own shortcomings, they are being forced to go backwards before they can move forwards, and so on. I think that these courses are the ideal place to start introducing students to new ways of knowing and approaching the world. Yes, the material being covered is the same material that they were exposed to in high school (or elementary school), but THEY are not the same they bring years more experience and sophistication to the table this time around. And the setting is not the same this is college, a qualitatively different experience, and helping them gain a sense of what college is in these courses could make all the difference. The challenge is to overcome the emotional momentum attached to these subjects, and the stigma attached to these classes, and get them to really engage. All the while covering a densely-packed syllabus and preparing them for a daunting standardized exam. I am not sure exactly how to do this, but I think there is a lot of opportunity here.

  2. What exactly is remediation?
    Are you talking about having a university try to teach dimwitted students things they should already know but did not learn in high school? Students who are not and will never be college material and should never have been admitted as students to any serious university in the first place?

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