CUNY Pathways: Waiting for Leadership

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s message to the faculty about the Queensborough Community College uproar. That it doesn’t sit well with many faculty members should be obvious from even a cursory reading (Pathways, for those who don’t know, is a top-down CUNY initiative aimed at improving coursework portability throughout the system—a noble goal, but of questionable design and implementation; more on the Queensborough letter referenced can be found here):

A MESSAGE FROM CHANCELLOR GOLDSTEIN

I am writing to address several issues that have arisen recently in connection with the implementation of the Pathways resolution of the Board of Trustees.

First, earlier this month, the interim vice-president for academic affairs at Queensborough Community College wrote an unfortunate letter to the College’s English Department. The author subsequently apologized for the character and tone of her communication. We should remember that while Pathways established the structure for curricular reform and its implementation, faculty are fully engaged in developing course content. Such collaboration is very much in the tradition and spirit of a great University.

Second, Dr. Terrence Martell, chair of the University Faculty Senate, and Dr. Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress, have sent an email to the faculty in which they erroneously state that the faculty have the power to block the implementation of Pathways. This claim misstates the core principle, embodied in state law and the bylaws and policies of the University, that the authority for the governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has delegated a significant role to the faculty on academic matters, and the faculty have the right to exercise their professional judgment in fulfilling that role. However, the faculty are not empowered to ignore or violate a policy established by the Board of Trustees or the implementation of that policy by the Chancellor.

I hope this clarifies matters and allows us to continue to work collaboratively to implement Pathways in a manner that is in the best educational interests of our students.

Best wishes,

Matthew Goldstein

To fully understand the process Goldstein describes, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that the Board of Trustees does not create policy itself—like any board, it only ratifies policies brought to it (it hasn’t the expertise or the detailed knowledge of the institution to craft policy in any but the most general terms). Nor does the Chancellor implement policy alone, but as part of a larger organization. Additionally, in many ways the Board of Trustees is the creature of the Chancellor, for it is he who brings detailed suggestions to it—often at the Board’s request, certainly, but the work of crafting possible policies is done by the Chancellor’s office.

Given that reality, it is a little disingenuous for the Chancellor to imply that his role is simply that of implementer. He is the one who has orchestrated Pathways from the beginning and it is he who could instigate changes in its formulation or who could even take it back to the trustees for revision.

The Chancellor is also—or should be, and would be in a well-run organization—a creature of the broader faculty and administration. He is responsible to them as much as he needs them—as much as he is responsible to the  Board of Trustees. That is, it is not his will that makes something work, but a general consensus and consent of those who really do the implementation. All regulation or legalistic interpretation of process notwithstanding, it is ‘the will of the people’ that determines the success of any policy. A narrow interpretation of power and prerogatives, such as the one Goldstein gives, never really succeeds—and sounds more like a petulant ‘Because I’m the Mom’ than a real attempt to make something work.

Though the tone of his email belies it, Goldstein needs the cooperation of the faculty, and that is not something he can expect to gain simply by demanding it. It only comes when the faculty members feel fully invested in a project. That they do not feel so about Pathways should be fully apparent by now—the window dressing of the various involved faculty committees notwithstanding. This is the real failure of Pathways, and it should be reason enough for Goldstein to stop implementation of the program and take it back to the Board, explaining that he will go ahead again once he was worked out with the faculty a revised plan that everyone can get behind.

The problem with Goldstein’s email is a problem with leadership, a misunderstanding on his part of the roles of boards and of executives and their impact—a misunderstanding pervasive in our culture today. Right now, Goldstein does have the opportunity of providing real leadership, something that does not rely on pedantic reliance on regulation. Admitting that the plan, as it stands, cannot work and that it is up to him to find ways of making it work by opening up real discussion within the CUNY community, Goldstein could recoup his reputation and turn around a dispirited and beleaguered institution, making a positive out of what is, right now, a growing disaster.

Solution rests on his shoulders, as he implies in his email, for he remains the focus of implementation. I hope he proves up to the task.

3 thoughts on “CUNY Pathways: Waiting for Leadership

  1. Pingback: CUNY Pathways: No Faculty Support | Academe Blog

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  3. Pingback: From Great Universities to "Knowledge Factories": Another American Institution in Decline | One Flew East

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