CUNY Faculty Sue Over New Curriculum

Professional Staff Congress/CUNY

A controversial plan to create a core curriculum at the sprawling City University of New York (CUNY) is now a legal battle as well as a fight over how to teach undergraduate science. It promises to be a bitter dispute between two groups with an already long history of mutual mistrust.

Two professional organizations yesterday asked the New York State Supreme Court to block the university's decision to implement the Pathways Initiative. The initiative, adopted last June by the university's board of trustees, aims to provide a common starting point for all 155,000 full-time students, many of whom enter the 24-school system at one of CUNY's seven community colleges and later transfer to a senior college or professional school. By standardizing the transfer requirements, the new general education requirements are also intended to reduce the overall cost of a degree and shorten the time to graduation. Those goals are high-priority areas for state and federal legislators as well as key elements in the Obama Administration's campaign to increase the number of students with post-secondary degrees.

The suit, brought by the Professional Staff Congress and the University Faculty Senate, argues that the board has violated a 1997 agreement giving faculty a central role in policies that include deciding degree, credit, and course requirements as well as the scope and content of the curriculum. The suit claims that the university failed to provide faculty with an appropriate voice in creating the rules for the so-called Common Core, which requires every student to pass 10 three-credit courses in several areas. Senior colleges can require up to 12 additional entry-level credits in additional or related fields.

Science faculty members have not been shy about expressing their displeasure both with the process and with what they see as the negative impact of the new policies. They believe that the initiative will undermine efforts to improve science instruction by squeezing out laboratory courses and allowing non-majors to take less math and science. Manfred Philipp, a chemistry professor at Lehman College and a former faculty senate president, sees Pathways as the latest step by the university to wage what he calls "a frontal attack on science education," with "the laboratory—rich natural sciences" feeling the brunt of the attack.

The university immediately announced that it will ask the court to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the board "has full authority to make academic policy for the University." Its statement included a dig at "the faculty leadership … who now claim to be concerned about the quality of a CUNY degree," citing their opposition to previous reform efforts. Alexandra Logue, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, also issued a two-page statement "correcting" a press release from the faculty groups.