Major, and Welcome, Setback for CUNY Faculty Union

In a major victory for academic quality, CUNY students’ ability to complete their degrees in a timely fashion, and basic common sense, New York Supreme Court judge Anil Singh has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), seeking to eliminate the Pathways curricular initiative. (I wrote about the Pathways fight previously.) Even more important, Judge Singh’s decision affirmed the principle of shared governance, rejecting the PSC’s demand that the faculty be the sole source of curricular authority at CUNY.

A quick background: Pathways was the final initiative of former chancellor Matthew Goldstein. Long an advocate of making CUNY more of an integrated university, Goldstein acted after widespread student complaints with intra-CUNY transfers, in which CUNY students from one CUNY college found their general education credits rejected by another CUNY school, forcing them to re-take introductory courses. Goldstein also wanted to find ways to limit the overall credits CUNY schools devoted to gen-ed classes (which are often taught by adjuncts) to allow students to take more upper-division electives, including from topics outside their major that might nonetheless interest them intellectually.

Given that the union–whose leadership is trapped in the intellectual climate of late 1960s Cornell or Columbia–opposed every major proposal by Goldstein to improve quality at CUNY, it came as little surprise that the PSC resisted Pathways as well. PSC campus officers pressured faculty not to cooperate with the initiative, and the union even rigged a plebiscite with ballots that presented only the union’s arguments. Even then, almost 40 percent of the faculty abstained from the vote; and CUNY-wide faculty committees designed a new curriculum, which the trustees then ratified.

PSC president Barbara Bowen wasn’t done, however; the union filed a lawsuit claiming that adoption of Pathways by the Trustees violated the CUNY Bylaws, since the faculty has sole power over curriculum at CUNY. The PSC reached this peculiar argument even though the Bylaws explicitly state that the Chancellor has the power “to initiate, plan, develop and implement institutional strategy and policy on all educational and administrative issues affecting the university, including to prepare a comprehensive overall academic plan for the university, subject to the board’s approval.”

While the Bylaws did not sustain the union’s claim that the faculty possesses sole authority on curricular matters, neither did New York State law. To the contrary: the state’s education law gives the Trustees, not the faculty, “control of the educational work of the city university”–a power that rests “solely” with the Board of Trustees. Ironically, Judge Singh observed, the major New York case cited by the union “firmly rejected” the PSC’s erroneous interpretation of the Trustees’ power.

Since the union had neither the Bylaws nor state law on its side, Judge Singh described the PSC’s case as “devoid of merit.”

Even if the PSC’s case had merit–which, to reiterate, Judge Singh said it didn’t–poor lawyering eliminated any chance the union had of victory. Given the plain wording of the bylaws, the PSC had no chance of prevailing on that aspect of its claim. But the union also alleged that passage of Pathways violated a 1997 settlement between CUNY and the union on an unrelated issue. Alas, as Judge Singh noted, to have effectively raised that claim, the PSC would have needed to have filed a lawsuit within four months of Pathways’ passage by the Board. Instead, for reasons the union has never explained, the PSC waited nine months to file its lawsuit. Whether there will be any accountability for what amounts to a massive waste of the faculty’s dues moneys seems doubtful.

The union has created a special website devoted to Pathways. As of the time of publication, that website contained no mention of Judge Singh’s decision.

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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