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CUNY College’s English Dept. Is Threatened With Cuts in Dispute Over Course Hours

(Updated, 11:57 p.m., with the college president’s response)

In a move that the City University of New York’s faculty union characterized as “extraordinary retaliation,” the English department at the system’s Queensborough Community College was warned last week that it could see sharp cuts in course offerings, adjuncts’ jobs, and possibly full-time positions next fall because of a dispute between faculty and administrators over whether weekly course hours in English composition classes should be reduced from four hours to three.

The staff cuts and course eliminations were listed in a letter from a college vice president that is cited in the statement by the union, the Professional Staff Congress, and on the Student Activism blog.

The letter, e-mailed on Thursday by the college’s interim vice president for academic affairs, Karen B. Steele, to the English department’s chair, came a day after the department voted to reject the administration’s plan to begin offering three-hour composition courses next fall. Ms. Steele wrote that because the department’s existing four-hour composition classes do not align with the systemwide Pathways initiative for standardizing common-core classes across CUNY’s campuses, the courses will not be offered next fall, and Queensborough students will have to take them at other campuses.

Adjuncts who have taught the classes at Queensborough will not have their contracts renewed, the letter states. It also says that “all searches for full-time faculty in the English Department will be canceled immediately” and that the reappointment of current full-time faculty members will be reviewed, “subject to ability to pay and Fall 13 enrollment in department courses.”

That message set off alarms that continued sounding over the weekend. On Sunday, however, the college’s president, Diane B. Call, said in an e-mail to faculty and other leaders that Ms. Steele’s letter was meant as a “worst case scenario—one we are prepared to work mightily to avoid.”

“It is my belief,” Ms. Call wrote, “that through continued communication and collaboration with our faculty, a constructive resolution to ensure student learning will be achieved.”

CUNY’s trustees approved the Pathways policy in June 2011 despite faculty fears that it would dilute academic standards and undermine their role in shaping academic policy at individual campuses. One of the policy’s goals is to streamline credit transfers across the system’s 23 campuses. (A Chronicle graphic from 2010 shows how one CUNY college’s mathematics course was valued differently by other campuses in the system.)

Angus Johnston, a historian who teaches at CUNY and runs the Student Activism blog, wrote in one of several posts as the situation developed that the cuts listed in Ms. Steele’s letter would largely dismantle Queensborough’s English department. Composition classes make up the great majority of the courses offered by the department, he said, and eliminating them “could lead to the firing of as many as 19 of the department’s 26 full-timers.”

The Professional Staff Congress said the college’s initial response “threatens the most basic understandings of both academic freedom and faculty authority.” The administration is not justified in eliminating courses that do not comply with Pathways, it said. In its statement, posted on Saturday, the union called on Ms. Steele to rescind her message immediately. If she did not, it said, the union would file a complaint with the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. The union said it was also exploring filing a federal lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.

(Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated  that the dispute was over whether to reduce credit hours for the courses. As a commenter has pointed out, the courses are and would remain three credits. The dispute is over class time.)

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