There’s a radical “academic renaissance” underway at the City University of New York, but it’s cause for concern, not celebration. This fall, CUNY is scheduled to undertake the full implementation of its Pathways Initiative, a program Chancellor Matthew Goldstein insists will enable a smoother process for students seeking to transfer from junior to senior colleges within the system. While a more efficient scheme of credit transfer within CUNY is a goal few educators can oppose, Pathways introduces sweeping new measures that harm the interests of the student body.
Pathways will water down the mandatory core curriculum for CUNY students, reduce the number of classroom hours students receive in critical foundation courses, concentrate control of teaching and learning decisions in the chancellor’s office, and undertake further cost-saving measures that have already crippled the system. These goals undermine student progress, but fit securely within the chancellor’s austerity approach to public education.
Resistance to the Pathways project has originated with the university’s unionized faculty, who criticized the proposal process early on for violating principles of shared governance in curricular decision-making. Failing to consult sufficient objective experts in designing the initiative, university administrators relied instead on a handpicked crew of faculty, many politically pliant and happy to promote what the chancellor wanted to hear. Excluded from the initial planning stages, tenured and contingent faculty members and graduate students have since publicly pushed back against the proposal; thousands have signed petitions, testified at hearings, and protested at CUNY administrative meetings.
The most militant actions against Pathways to date have arisen at Queensborough Community College, where the English Department refused to implement the curricular changes mandated by the initiative. The department’s unified stand provoked a nasty skirmish with administrators, who threatened to cancel all writing courses, cut all adjunct contracts, and review all full-time contracts. While the faculty eventually overcame the intimidation and threats of reprisal, and succeeded in appointing a new department chair who hasn’t been shy in speaking out against the initiative, the larger battle, at Queensborough and other campuses across the system, is far from over.
CUNY undergraduates have been considerably less visible in the struggle against Pathways, with many students either unaware of the intended measures or outright supportive of them. The chancellor and the board of trustees have crafted an excellent sales pitch: their approach hinges on the central hook that the initiative makes intra-campus transfer easier and time-to-graduation quicker. Both of these claims may well prove true. But to suggest that Pathways improves the quality of education offered or strengthens the professional position of CUNY students upon graduation is highly dubious. As the university graduates increasing numbers of academically ill-equipped students, the value of a CUNY diploma will almost certainly depreciate, a development which would have adverse consequences for all students within the system.
Pathways offers CUNY undergraduates a raw deal and robs them of opportunities to learn. By reducing the basic requirements for graduation—including dramatically scaling back courses in math and science, foreign languages and literature, and English composition—Pathways ensures a second-class education for students where intellectual nourishment and skills development are sacrificed in the name of efficiency. Pathways also reveals alarming insight into how the chancellor’s office views the student body. Lowering the barriers to graduation for students struggling to complete their college education suggests that the chancellor either believes the students to be incapable of meeting rigorous standards, or is simply unwilling to invest in the support structures which would help them do so.
Moreover, the chancellor’s scheme to ease student transfers within the system introduces a consequence he’s uneager to discuss. While the diluted core curriculum of Pathways would facilitate movement between CUNY campuses, it would simultaneously limit the opportunities for any student leaving CUNY for another institution. By knocking down general education courses that traditionally demand four contact hours a week to three, Pathways doesn’t just deny students valuable time with their professors. It also renders CUNY’s core curriculum incompatible with general education standards at most other universities, forcing students exiting CUNY—for whatever reason—to start with a big disadvantage.
If there’s any chance in rolling Pathways back, it lies in undergraduates entering the fight, arriving at a sense of common cause with faculty, and demanding more from their university. There are plenty of reasons to believe this is possible. Student mobilization across the constellation of CUNY campuses is at its most robust in decades. Over the past several years, students have organized a dizzying number of protests against CUNY’s neoliberal education agenda. They’ve said no to rolling tuition hikes and reduced course offerings, to fewer opportunities to study with tenured faculty and to increased class sizes. They’ve rejected consistent pay raises for CUNY’s top brass as the chancellor has told students that austerity demands shared sacrifice. It’s time for undergraduates to stand up to Pathways as well.
Like austerity initiatives everywhere in education, Pathways has less to do with protecting the interests of students than it does with meeting the needs of an administration seeking to cut costs at the bottom and consolidate power at the top. Similar proposals will likely spread to other public university systems, especially if these measures gain traction within CUNY. As Columbia University’s Jonathan Cole—a Pathways supporter—has noted, the proposed common core “will become the standard that other complex educational systems try to emulate and match in quality.” The movement at CUNY is therefore a critical point of resistance against broader intent to dismantle institutions of public education in the US, and requires unified action across the ranks of faculty, staff, and students to succeed.