CUNY administration backs down from threat to gut QCC English dept

StudentActivism.net reports that Queensborough Vice President Karen Steele has sent a letter of apology to the English department chair. The letter reaffirms a weakened stance presented by QCC President Diane Call in a letter on Sunday.

It was an email sent in haste, out of an over-dramatized fear of the possible impact on the department.

I would like to make clear that the items listed in the email were hypothetical, and there are no plans to enact them, and to echo the President’s letter:  we will “work mightily” to ensure all of our classes are available for students, that faculty members in our English Department have plenty of classes to teach, and that they continue to have support for their innovative work.

For the full letter, see http://studentactivism.net/2012/09/18/admin-apology/

The administration, however, maintains that it will move forward with changes forced by Pathways, which prompted the faculty’s initial stance, and a full resolution to the dispute is unclear.

For more background on this issue, see our earlier post here.

Professional Staff Congress (PSC) President Barbara Bowen responded to the apology in an email to union members:

The response to Queensborough Community College Vice President Karen B. Steele’s announcement of sweeping reprisals against the QCC English Department following its rejection of proposed curriculum changes for Pathways has been swift, intense and national. Condemnation has come not only from the PSC, but also from CUNY’s English Discipline Council, from other English department faculty, and from the AAUP.

On September 16, Queensborough Community College president Diane B. Call responded with a shift in position and tone. In a messageto the entire College faculty she wrote that Vice President’s Steele’s memo illustrated “the worst case scenario—one we are prepared to work mightily to avoid.” And one day later, on September 17, Vice President Steele herself wrote to the English Department: “I deeply regret having sent the original email, primarily because it was needlessly hurtful to members of the English Department and to other faculty as well. It was an email sent in haste, out of an over-dramatized fear of the possible impact on the department.”

On behalf of the CUNY faculty and staff, the PSC leadership thanks Vice President Steele for her public apology, and recognizes that the QCC administration has changed its position in response to the outcry the original position provoked. Faculty at Queensborough Community College are especially grateful for Vice President Steele’s willingness to apologize in public.

Given these developments, the union will hold in abeyance its filing of a legal charge of retaliation at the Public Employment Relations Board while we continue to monitor the University’s actions.

An apology, however, is not a retraction. Neither President Call’s message nor Vice President Steele’s explicitly retracts the possibility that they will implement the reprisals threatened in Steele’s initial memo. Vice President Steele writes:  “I would like to make clear that the items listed in the email were hypothetical, and there are no plans to enact them” [boldface in original].  This comment, together with the President Call’s description of the reprisals as a “worst case scenario,” leaves open the possibility that the reprisals could still be enacted in response to some undefined action. The possibility that the QCC administration will take the actions originally listed by Vice President Steele has not been removed.

The Queensborough administration’s apology and withdrawal of the immediate threat of reprisals are important, but damage has already been done. Faculty at Queensborough have now heard that their reappointment is potentially connected to their vote on curriculum. That message is not easily forgotten. And the explicit threats at Queensborough echo more subtle threats that have been made at other campuses, as administrators communicate to department chairs and faculty members about the consequences of their votes on Pathways curriculum.

The atmosphere of intimidation that now surrounds faculty votes on Pathways curriculum is antithetical to a university. The way for the CUNY administration to change it is to issue an unambiguous message that it respects the faculty’s right to vote on matters of curriculum—free from intimidation—according to their judgment of the best interests of their students and the standards of their profession.

The Pathways resolution was imposed on the University without participation by elected faculty governance. While QCC’s shift of position and public apology are important, the resort to threats exposes the fear that the Pathways curriculum would not be approved without them. At a minimum, it is time for a moratorium on implementation of Pathways to allow academic freedom and open deliberation at CUNY to be repaired. The PSC calls on the CUNY administration to suspend all implementation of Pathways until at least the end of the current semester so that this important curriculum change can receive the free and open consideration it deserves.

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