CUNY’s Pathways Initiative and the Future of Higher Education Reform

Photo of Brooklyn College, CUNY, by Salim Virji, 2009, Flickr creative commons

What began as a fight between English faculty and the administration at a small urban community college is quickly becoming the front line in a national struggle over the future of higher education. As of this writing, two of the largest faculty organizations in the country, the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors, have taken strong public stands against the City University of New York’s controversial Pathways to Degree Completion initiative, which supporters claim will streamline transfers between branches of the university system and increase graduation rates. These denouncements follow the creation of a national petition against Pathways and a spirited and growing campaign by the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s faculty union, to resist the proposed changes.

At its annual convention this January the MLA Delegate Assembly voted almost unanimously in favor of a resolution criticizing Pathways. The resolution, which will soon be voted on by the entire membership, urged support for CUNY faculty who are resisting the initiative and criticized administrators for violating standards of faculty governance and curricular control. The AAUP president, Rudy Fichtenbaum, also issued a strong statement in support of CUNY faculty, calling this “a watershed moment for higher education,” and urging all AAUP members to sign the national petition demanding a moratorium on the implementation of the plan. The AAUP has been actively investigating the situation at CUNY almost since the program’s inception and has been in contact with the university chancellery and board of trustees several times to express concern over the negative effects of Pathways on student learning and faculty governance.

Why are organizations like the MLA and the AAUP so outraged over an initiative whose supporters claim is intended to make transfer within CUNY easier for community college students? The answer is simple: CUNY’s Pathways initiative is about a lot more than CUNY. Indeed, Pathways and degree completion initiatives like it have become the vanguard of higher education reform, and similar initiatives are underway or have already been passed at some of the nation’s largest public university systems, including the University of California, Florida State University, and the University of Wisconsin.

Driven by the ideology of such philanthropically funded national education reform organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, Pathways is yet another veiled attempt to impose economic and intellectual austerity upon one of the most ethnically diverse university systems in the country. In an effort to make CUNY more efficient (that is, graduate more students for the same number of dollars), Pathways would undermine the traditional liberal undergraduate curriculum—where students are expected to study and master the basics of a vast array of different subjects—and replace it with a stripped down “common core” that simplifies graduation and transfer at the expense of rigor and academic standards. By fetishizing graduation rates and the idea of quick and seamless transfer from community to senior colleges, Pathways discourages intellectual exploration, eliminates laboratory requirements for many science courses, and guts contact time for composition and foreign language courses. Because of this, Pathways would diminish the reputation and value of a CUNY degree and would make transferring credits between CUNY and other university systems much more difficult and complicated—a fact that undermines the very premise of the plan.

The problem with Pathways, then, is not necessarily its stated goals, but its narrow focus and its ham-fisted implementation. Most faculty members, if asked, would agree that they want more of their students to graduate and that they would like them to be able to transfer more easily from one institution to another (without needing to repeat courses they have already taken and done well in). But many faculty, and an increasing number of students, don’t want such priorities to be met at the expense of science and foreign language labs, time spent in class, contact with professors, and manageable class sizes and faculty course loads. Furthermore, many faculty members are outraged by the fact that the most basic curricular decisions are now being taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of administrators.

Such an aggressively unilateral administrative approach to curricular reform follows the overall game plan for private reform of public higher education: consolidate more decision making and policy power among a few ideologically pure administrators and legislators, who can then implement unpopular but supposedly necessary changes to their state universities. This is straight out of the Lumina Foundation’s strategic playbook, which emphasizes the need for top-down legislative solutions to the supposed problems of higher education. (The Gates and Lumina foundations have both had an enormous impact on Obama’s education policy, and some of the most powerful administrators in public higher education, including UC President Mark Yudof, are Lumina board members.)

Such an aggressively unilateral administrative approach to curricular reform follows the overall game plan for private reform of public higher education: consolidate more decision making and policy power among a few ideologically pure administrators and legislators, who can then implement unpopular but supposedly necessary changes to their state universities.

Just as the Lumina Foundation and its many imitators and allies have successfully influenced higher education policy by using their money to gain leverage, collaborate with government, and manipulate public sentiment, CUNY’s Pathways initiative would impose an entirely new system upon the faculty and students at CUNY. And while the CUNY administration would argue that it has only the students best interests in  mind, the real goal is control: control of curriculum, control of standards, control of departments, and control of faculty—all of which university administrators see as necessary to control costs. Rather than creating more opportunities for learning and providing more contact time with instructors, CUNY administrators have embraced the mantra that more college graduates, regardless of how they are created, and regardless of what happens to public education, is a public good.

The Lumina Foundation, which was founded by former Sallie Mae chairman Ed McCabe and created with the sale of a billion dollars in student loan debt, has come under increasing scrutiny for its ambitious and highly improbable—they like to describe it as “audacious”—call for a national college completion rate of 60 percent by 2025. (Currently only 39 percent of the U.S. population has an associate degree and only 30 percent have completed a bachelor’s.) As others have noted, this figure would be wildly unattainable without either a massive influx of federal and state dollars—a highly unlikely scenario—a massive increase in student loan debt—already underway—and/or a radical reduction in the overall quality and scope of higher education. To achieve such numbers colleges would not only have to recruit and provide services to millions of new students, but would have to drastically reduce the number of students who fail or drop out for reasons that frequently have nothing to do with core curricula or problems transferring credits from one institution to another. Indeed, as many studies have shown, college completion has a lot more to do with economics than with what’s being taught.

By limiting intellectual exploration and imposing what critics have rightly claimed is a kind of “soft bigotry of lowered expectations,” initiatives such as Pathways are essentially turning public institutions like CUNY into education ghettos and transforming public higher education, for all but the nation’s privileged few, into professional training for the “knowledge economy.” Even this diminished dream is fleeting: despite the most recent economic collapse and the growing student loan debt bubble, the Lumina Foundation and CUNY continue to act as if a college degree somehow magically confers prosperity upon its owners and those around them. Meanwhile, elite private universities and small liberal arts colleges continue to invest in a greater variety of course offerings, more individualized attention from faculty members, smaller classes, and more electives precisely because they know that is the best way to ensure real learning.

Pathways and other programs like it are anathema to everything that CUNY stands for and will only further the already deep disparities between public and private universities and colleges. CUNY was founded with the goal of providing free, quality education to the poor and working-class children of New York City. If it is to continue to succeed as an institution worth fighting for, it would do well to jettison its narrow focus on graduation rates and return to that original mission.


James Dennis is an instructor of English and journalism at CUNY.



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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