CUNY’s Pathways to Substandard Education for the “Whole People”

The trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) voted in June 2011 to implement Pathways—a project of the vice chancellor for academic affairs, Alexandra Logue, which purported to ease transfer among undergraduates, largely from two- to four-year colleges. The trustees essentially gave the vice chancellor carte blanche, using state education law to justify their micromanagement of curricula. Within a year, the process by which she proceeded generated two lawsuits, protests and petitions from fifty-five different campus constituencies, a union petition gathering about five thousand signatures, letters from professional organizations and even a few cultural consulates. Essentially a group of handpicked, often untenured faculty members from the two- and four-year colleges were guided to craft a general education program that removed disciplines and replaced requirements with outcomes—that is, critical skills, knowledge of other cultures, familiarity with scientific thinking. Lumina triumphed over faculty professionalism. The methods and objectives that we used to teach our disciplines became the curricula. It mattered not what discipline. Each of the six community and eleven senior colleges has a charter, approved by the trustees, giving them curricula and academic authority. The Charter of the University Faculty Senate, authorizing the senate to oversee cross-campus curricula innovations, was also approved by the trustees—all in the past. College and university faculty charters were overturned, de facto, and we now have a general education curriculum that will permit a student, for instance, to graduate with no history or literature or language or philosophy or political science or economics or anthropology, and so on and so forth. The means by which outcomes are fulfilled, such as knowledge of a foreign culture or global understanding, can now be met by one semester of a foreign language.Most senior colleges had between thirty-six and fifty-six general education credit requirements, depending on student preparation and the student’s intended major; now only forty-two credits are allowed, and, of those, thirty must be accepted from community colleges. Protests from English faculty members who were ordered to remove an hour from composition courses were finally heard, and that stricture was removed. That by and large STEM majors have remained unaffected demonstrates the disdain with which the humanities and social sciences are held by the broader culture and administrators who serve it. The disdain for faculty authority was so self-evident, it needs no comment.Implemented in less than a year, the immediate impact occurred as predicted—cancellations of language, history, literature, philosophy, arts sections. New faculty members that were hired found themselves with nothing to do in one case. Community college faculty members who first heralded the program—it seemed to respect their work—became as vociferous as senior college faculty members in opposing what emerged. At Brooklyn College, the faculty voted Pathways down in favor of its famous Core; Pathways has never been passed at a half dozen colleges. Administrators have rewritten handbooks, redone schedules, created sections, and implemented computer changes. A few quit, refusing to face furious faculty members.Whatever modifications are introduced by the new central administration at CUNY, the long-term damage to the humanities and social sciences will never heal. It was not that faculty members opposed smoother transfer practices: they opposed an authoritarianism that produced absurdity—such as the computer list of 2,500 choices for general education. What kind of shared values will our graduates ever develop from such an unstructured and mindless menu?

I started teaching as a TA in 1959 and have never encountered—even in the prereform 60s—such high-handed corporate behavior.

Sandi E. Cooper is professor of history at the College of Staten Island and at the Graduate School, City University of New York. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.


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