About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 14, 2011

City University of New York to turn into a glorified high school

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Apologies to my readers for the seemingly parochial topic of this post, but in fact what you are about to read is part of a national trend toward dismantling liberal arts education, in the apparent conviction that our society doesn’t need intelligent and critically thinking citizens, but simply workers who are trained to do whatever the market and the reigning plutocracy bids them to do. Much more about the trend and its dangers can be found, among many other places, here, here, here, here, and here.]

City University of New York’s Chancellor Matthew Goldstein is about to turn the prestigious system of senior and community colleges into a glorified high school. And few people seem to even want to try to stop him. This is bizarre, as Goldstein is a CUNY graduate himself and has been credited with major accomplishments since he took the lead at CUNY in 1999 (e.g., he raised admission standards, created the William E. Macaulay Honors College, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism).

Goldstein has recently begun what is known as the “Pathways to Degree Completion” initiative, which is being quickly rammed down the throats of the faculty members at all CUNY Colleges, in blatant disregard of faculty governance, interfering with curricula and the structure of majors, and possibly resulting in the elimination or great reduction of entire departments, mostly in the humanities (beginning with foreign languages, arts, assorted studies programs, history, and philosophy). The science and math requirements also are being reduced to ridiculous minimum common denominator standards, all in the name of increasing the graduation rate and decreasing the time to graduation of CUNY students — apparently the only currencies understood by the inept (to say the least) State legislators up in Albany.

According to CUNY’s central administration official mantra, Pathways is “designed to create a curricular structure that will streamline transfers and enhance the quality of general education across the University.” In reality, it will do little in the way of the first goal, and achieve exactly the opposite as far as the second goal is concerned. The centerpiece of this stunning coup that Goldstein and his associates are perpetrating on a system of 23 campuses serving 480,000 students is a reduction of the General Education requirements from above 50 credits (out of 120 necessary for graduation) — which is typical across CUNY’s senior colleges — to 30. Because, you know, our students already have far too much general education.

More specifically, Pathways is about to force the Colleges to adopt a common “required core” of 7 credits in English composition, 4 in mathematical and quantitative reasoning and 4 in life and physical sciences, accompanied by a “flexible core” of 15 credits distributed among very rigidly defined areas that include “world cultures,” “US experience and its diversity,” “creative expression,” and “individual and society.” This sounds good only until you realize that the individual Colleges are already requiring all of the above and then some, and that the core structures will severely limit the flexibility of the Colleges to establish their own curricula.

One of the major positive features of CUNY is that it is a system, where a student can go from community college to 4-yr college to Masters to PhD for comparatively little money and getting a pretty darn good education. Within the system, the individual colleges operate as quasi-independent laboratories of higher education, constantly trying different things, competing for admissions, and cross-fertilizing each other through a variety of instruments, including the inter-college disciplinary councils. Goldstein’s idea is not only a solution in search of a problem, it will essentially destroy what makes CUNY such an extraordinary place for both faculty and students.

The Chancellor and his hand-picked, faculty governance independent “task force” are moving at great speed, for instance allowing only two weeks to the Colleges to respond to the Pathways proposal (and, rumors have it, being prepared to reject pretty much any substantive counterproposal they may receive). By comparison, Harvard took two years to develop its GenEd curriculum...

Of course, there has been some resistance to this egregious abuse of power. The cross-CUNY Councils of a number of disciplines have met and asked the administration to reconsider. The Philosophy Council, on which I serve, for instance, has passed a resolution where it “urges the Board of Trustees to defer action on the current proposed framework and undertake to address the problems of degree completion and course transfer through a careful and consultative process that is better suited to the complexity of the issues, and in keeping with the principles of faculty governance.” We received no answer at all.

Hunter College, one of the most prestigious institutions within CUNY passed the following resolution, back in October:

“We, the undersigned Chairs and Program Directors of the Hunter College School of Arts and Sciences, oppose the process and implications of the Pathways Project proposal. While we all recognize the need to address the issue of student transfer policies, this proposal as it is being implemented will reduce the overall quality of a CUNY education and will erase the unique identity of its individual colleges. It lowers the standards of science and mathematics programs at a time when the U.S. is falling behind in these areas. It dilutes the rich liberal arts offerings of our college. Furthermore, in an increasingly globalized world, we do not see how CUNY can justify eliminating foreign language requirements and imposing curriculum changes that would undermine the value of pluralism and diversity. By undermining the expertise of CUNY faculty and our right to determine curricula, the Pathways Project will erode the national reputation of the university. Our goal is to offer the highest quality education to all of our students, not just the fastest and easiest path to a degree.”

As far as I know, this also was met with stone silence. Various bodies at the College of Staten Island have also issued anti-Pathways resolutions. Here is the one passed by the College’s General Education Committee (approved with no dissenting votes):

“The breakneck pace of the deadline Pathways imposes on CUNY Colleges and the Colleges' governance committees makes it impossible for such a radical change of our general education program to be given proper analysis and evaluation. Despite its best efforts, the General Education Committee has not been able to give due consideration to even this first stage of the Pathways master plan under this kind of pressure. The timetable would oblige the General Education Committee to overstep its bounds of authority by having it make major curricular decisions without guidance from the Departments, Curriculum Committees, and the Faculty Senate. We have been made aware that the student government and a growing majority of departments have made known their opposition to Pathways on pedagogical, social, legal, and ethical grounds in formal resolutions. For these reasons, the General Education Committee of the College of Staten Island believes the Pathways Proposal should not be implemented unless it is ratified by all of the CUNY Colleges in accordance with their governance procedures on curricular change.”

Again, nothing happened in response. The latest to act has been Queens College, whose Senate passed the following strongly worded resolution (just before releasing this I found out that Lehman College's Senate also approved a very similar document):

“Whereas the problem of improved student transfer facilitation, for which we recognize a need, can be addressed without the imposition of a standardized new curriculum on the colleges of the City University and

Whereas the Pathways initiative has shown a disregard for the legally defined and traditional rights of faculty governance over curriculum and

Whereas the imposition of a curriculum by a board of trustees, contrary to the national best practices of curricular reform, will make CUNY an outlier in the educational community, and so will erode the national reputation of the university and

Whereas Pathways would substantially cut the general education curriculum and devalue our students' education and the reputation of Queens College and the City University of New York and

Whereas Pathways undermines the College's stated goal in the strategic plan of ;advancing the schools academic programs; and

Whereas Pathways threatens to make the College less able to recruit and retain outstanding scholars due to its devaluing of the curriculum and undermining of shared governance and

Whereas the disregard shown to the faculty in the Pathways planning process undermines the College's stated goal of; building a culture of community;

Therefore the Academic Senate of Queens College concludes that the Pathways to Degree Completion Initiative cannot be redeemed by minor changes to its individual components and rejects Pathways on pedagogical, intellectual, and legal grounds.”

Despite these and other voices of dissent (including Brooklyn College), what is stunning is the inaction or complete silence by two other outlets that should obviously be deeply involved or interested: the faculty union and the local press.

PSC-CUNY (the Professional Staff Congress) has vaguely motioned toward the idea that what Goldstein & co. are doing (and the Board of Trustees has recklessly and hastily approved) may be in violation of faculty governance (you think?) and that the union will consider the possibility of legal action (consider? Why didn’t they file a suit immediately to stop the darn thing in its ill conceived tracks?).

What about the press? Ah, there too the silence is almost complete, and thereby all the more infuriating. WNYC, the local NPR affiliate, has a single entry on the matter, penned by education reporter Beth Fertig back in May (!!). It’s a good piece, but there has been no follow up since. As for the New York Times, I seem to remember something appearing during the spring, but I’ll be darned if I can find it on their web site, regardless of which combination of “CUNY,” “controversy,” “curriculum,” “transfer students” and “Pathways” I put in. Now, how is it possible that the leading newspaper and the leading radio news station in the city have been almost completely ignoring a huge controversy that is about to wreck New York’s largest institution of higher education, and which is going to impact, as I said, almost half a million New Yorkers and their families? If I were a bit paranoid I’d suspect political collusion, but it is as likely to be sheer indifference or incompetence.

So, dear readers, since few seem to want to do something about this mess, perhaps you can help stopping this train wreck of a reform by forwarding this post, or better yet by writing a brief note, directly to the people who ought to be interested and pay attention:

* Chancellor Goldstein.
* CUNY’s Board of Trustees.
* The University Faculty Senate.
* CUNY’s Union.
* The New York Times “news tips.”
* WNYC education reporter, Beth Fertig.

And whoever else you may think appropriate. Thank you.


  1. Update: the PSC Union has apparently decided to file a lawsuit, though it has not done so yet:


  2. And here is the link to the New York Times article (not a particularly good, but oh well) that I couldn't find earlier:


  3. Good post about a serious problem, but do not forget that the university faculty senate has been tireless in its action against pathways and that the exec of the UFS has long since censured the office responsible for the proposal.

    There was some press response by various papers,but it was often full of misinformation, made little effort to do anything but repeat the university's official views, and, in the worse papers, occasionally took the opportunity to demonize the faculty. It was disgusting to read such gratuitous hatefulness, written in total ignorance. I am faculty; why should I be reviled for hoping my students get as much as they can from college?

    And do not forget that the so-called public hearing at which this proposal was passed by the BOT was a shameful, shameful travesty, with a bending of the official sign-up time for speakers so as to force the faculty voice to be postponed till late in the day. How this can be permitted by open hearings law I do not know, but I will recall this event as the most dishonorable and insincere event I have ever witnessed.

  4. I have a work titled: “CUNY Pathways Project’s Implications for Class and Race: the soft bigotry of lowered expectations”. see here:

    Phil Pecorino, QCC
    Department of Social Sciences

  5. It's crap like this along with charter schools, vouchers, testing vilification of teachers and teacher unions that will make education in this country almost worthless. Thus we will be left in the dust as an ignorant backwater nation as the countries that care about quality education for their citizens become ever more successful and advanced societies. To think I remember a time when we thought ourselves lucky to have been born in this country.

  6. As a Student at Brooklyn College I'm Deeply Infuriated with Chancellor Goldstein and his spokespeople after today's stunt on Good Day NY! They totally Dont care for their students and their Needs and it has been highly seen numerous occasions not just with the pathways program but with TUITION HIKES!! he dont care about anyone but making MONEY as it seems, he needs to be stopped or forced to leave CUNY!! enough is enough its time he gives a %&^*!! Excuse my French on the last four letter word i had to star out :)
    I feel he is taking away from a good education and as a future Teacher myself im infuriated! Guess who wont be attending a CUNY FOR THEIR MASTERS!!!

  7. You need math and science majors! And it’s unlikely the current/past general requirements will make that happen. Every Cuny student across the board has to be proficient in math…and all Cuny colleges make sure of that. The thing with math is that after a point, you are unlikely to encounter it again, unless you’re a science/math major (I went up to calculus, from personal experience). Being a science major is difficult, and being forced to take 3 semesters or more of learning another language is just not possible. The do away with science lab for non-majors makes sense as we want literacy in science (sounds a lot more practical). Cuny pathways is an improvement hands down and I don’t see how a more flexible system and giving students more freedom is a step down, when these changes have little to no impact on education (I can grantee you that). I am completely disagreeing with this article (too many arguments, no real data).


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