CUNY Faculty Fears Course-Transfer Proposal Could Jeopardize Its Say on Curricula

April 20, 2011

The City University of New York is weighing a plan to simplify the 23-campus system's extraordinarily complex transfer landscape, but faculty members object to the plan, saying it would water down general-education requirements and take away campus control of curriculum.

As the university's Board of Trustees prepares to vote on the plan at its June 27 meeting, more than two dozen faculty committees have passed resolutions condemning the proposal.

"CUNY seems to be trying to solve an administrative problem by putting forward a radical curricular overhaul," said Scott D. Dexter, a professor of computer and information science at CUNY's Brooklyn College and the director of his campus's core curriculum, in an interview this week. "That's what has people deeply concerned."

Mr. Dexter and others are also worried about a proposal to revise the university's bylaws, which also happens to be scheduled for a vote at the trustees' June meeting. That proposal includes dozens of mostly cosmetic revisions, but one in particular has drawn faculty activists' ire: A paragraph about the faculty's rights and responsibilities would be altered to declare that the faculty "shall be responsible for the formulation of policy recommendations" on matters of curricula and academic practice. To many faculty members, the term "recommendations" sounds like a demotion from a historic understanding that they, not administrators, have direct responsibility for shaping the university's curricula.

In a letter sent on Tuesday to the American Association of University Professors, Glenn Petersen, a professor of anthropology and international affairs at CUNY's Baruch College, wrote that the new language "appears to many of us to be a pre-emptive strike against the faculty as retribution for having recently questioned CUNY Central over an issue of general-education transfer policies within the university, on the grounds that curricula are specifically defined as a faculty responsibility.

"We are also being stripped of our responsibilities for admissions, scholarship standards, awarding of credit, and the granting of degrees, among other things," he continued. "That is, the core of CUNY's shared-governance practices are being summarily terminated by the university's central administration."

Such assertions are overblown, said Frederick P. Schaffer, the university's general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, in an interview this week. For one thing, he said, the bylaws revisions have been in the works for three years, and they have nothing to do with the disputes over credit transfers and general education. More fundamentally, he said, the new language is substantively equivalent to the existing provision about the faculty's duties.

"It was my intent, in different words, to arrive at the exact same place," Mr. Schaffer said. "It has always been the case that the faculty bodies make recommendations to the board, and the board either acts or doesn't act favorably on them." He pointed to a New York statute that declares that "the control of the educational work of the city university shall rest solely in the Board of Trustees."

In any case, Mr. Schaffer said, the revised language has not been set in stone. It might be altered before it is formally put before the trustees. He is scheduled to discuss the matter on Thursday with leaders of the University Faculty Senate.

Clearer Pathways?

The general-education proposal grew from an October report that found that CUNY students waste an enormous amount of time and money navigating a system in which the four-year colleges can choose which community-college courses they will accept for credit. Students who complete associate degrees before transferring are partly immune from that problem, but most transfer students within CUNY move to four-year colleges without having finished an associate degree. The report calculated that the system generates more than $72-million in "excess costs" annually because transfer students take far more than 120 credits before graduating with a bachelor's degree. (Those figures were disputed in a rebuttal prepared by Terrence F. Martell, a professor of finance at Baruch College who argued that the true amount is only slightly more than $4-million.)

The administration's plan would streamline the transfer process by requiring CUNY colleges to grant transfer credit for all liberal-arts and science courses offered by other CUNY colleges, even if there is no specific equivalent course at the receiving campus.

The plan would also create a universitywide general-education framework, whose details would be developed next year by a committee of faculty members, students, and administrators. For community colleges, the general-education requirements would be limited to 36 credit hours. CUNY's four-year colleges would each be allowed to add six more hours of such requirements, but no more than that.

A systemwide overhaul is the only way to solve the transfer problem, said Alexandra W. Logue, the university's provost and executive vice chancellor, in an interview this week. "Bilateral articulation agreements between campuses won't do it," she said. "We have more than 700 different academic programs and more than 23,000 different courses."

But Mr. Dexter said that the proposal would effectively destroy each campus's ability to craft its own identity. Brooklyn's core curriculum has evolved over decades. Mr. Dexter noted that the curriculum's rigor recently earned the college a rare A grade from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a traditionalist group.

Possibility of Reduced Offerings

If the administration's proposal goes through, "the size of our offerings will shrink," said Mr. Dexter. "By my count, we offer 51 credits of general-education courses, which range from the liberal arts to English 1 and 2 to a foreign-language requirement to a speech requirement. There obviously would be no way to fit all of those requirements in if these changes go through."

Emily S. Tai, an associate professor of history at Queensborough Community College, echoed Mr. Dexter's concerns. She knows first-hand that students often face hurdles when they transfer, but she said that the solution is to improve communication between campuses, not to restrict the scope of general-education programs.

Simpler transfers will not do much good, Ms. Tai said, if students never pick up fundamental writing and quantitative skills. "This proposal would ostensibly streamline their progress toward a four-year campus," Ms. Tai said, "but I worry that they'll move forward without having the skills they need to keep them at a four-year campus."

Sandi E. Cooper, a professor of history at CUNY's College of Staten Island and the chair of the University Faculty Senate, said that robust general-education programs with higher-than-average course requirements make sense for CUNY.

"If we're talking about a student population that has poor preparation in high school," she said, "what's the advantage of speed? They're going to graduate and compete with kids who have real degrees that are highly regarded, and what's going to happen to them in an economy where job opportunities are shriveling? I consider it fraud."

Last week, the faculty senate passed a resolution endorsing an alternative proposal that would allow campuses to have more latitude in creating their own general-education programs. The senate's proposal would create a universitywide 30-credit general-education framework, and each four-year college would be encouraged to add 16 or more credits on top of that.

Ms. Logue said she is skeptical of that alternative plan, because it might still make it too difficult for transfer students to focus on their majors. "That's really what you should be doing in your second two years of college," she said. General-education requirements of more than 45 credits effectively make it impossible for students to double-major, she said.

"We are one university," Ms. Logue said. "We want students to be able to transfer seamlessly and without loss of credit. At the same time, we very much want faculty to set the standards and maintain the standards and increase the standards of all of our coursework. So we're trying to set a balance."