Since our last issue, the situation at the Queensborough English department has been far from quiet. Rather than accepting the recommendation of vice president Karen Steele to follow Pathways course hour limits, the English faculty decided to continue to offer their English 101 and 102 courses in their current configurations.
The issue was brought before the college’s Academic Senate who voted on October 9 to stand in solidarity with the English department faculty’s right to determine curriculum for their students. Part of this resolution was the determination that the college will not put itself in a position to lose accreditation or violate state laws by following the course cancellations outlined in Steele’s now infamous email. Whether or not the courses follow the Pathways edict, Queensborough faculty will offer the courses their students need. Furthermore, the Academic Senate reaffirmed that all curriculum changes in any department must be made by faculty free from “pressure and constraint,” and any decisions made under pressure would be considered as lacking faculty support. The Academic Senate simultaneously took a stand for academic freedom, obligation to students, and shared governance.
Even though the Academic Senate’s near-unanimous resolution is a powerful statement, it was merely preliminary compared to the events within the Queensborough English department. The issue of shared governance, as affirmed by the Academic Senate, struck the English department when the English faculty decided to recall their departmental chair, the first instance of this in the college’s history.
The Governance Plan of Queensborough Community College, which was ratified by both the college and the CUNY Board of Trustees in 1976, states in its preamble that “The Governance Plan of the College takes precedence over the Bylaws of the Board of Trustees.” Thus, when the Governance Plan enables department faculty “to create a provision concerning the recall of the department chairperson” (III, E3), that power to recall a chair cannot be overridden by the board.
On October 24, the full-time English faculty voted to recall Linda Reesman with twenty-one in favor of the recall, seven opposed, and two abstentions. Immediately following this vote, Deputy Chair David Humphries ran without opposition for the chair and was elected with twenty-two yeas, seven nays, and one abstention.
The faculty who supported the recall felt that Linda Reesman did not represent the department’s committed resistance to the administration’s continued efforts to implement Pathways. This recall had little if nothing to do with Reesman personally or her other duties as chair. The Pathways response trumped all, and the department wanted new leadership as it gears up for the fight over their composition courses. Reesman used Vice President Steele’s email verbatim as the agenda for a departmental meeting, with the first agenda item being “reconsider the vote” on Pathways-induced curriculum changes. A faculty member in the department said Reesman “felt that it was wrong of some of us to be standing in the way of this kind of curricular change.” Furthermore, the faculty’s request that a union representative be added to the agenda “to educate us about our rights with regard to academic freedom were,” according to sources, “unsuccessful.” This department meeting was therefore understood by the faculty as a directive to change the departmental vote, and seemed to indicate that the chair was imposing the administration’s will rather than defending the faculty and their already ratified decision.
The recall was not unanimous. There was some disagreement within the department about the recall, based on the secretive nature of the petition to recall and the secret ballots for the recall itself. Not all faculty members were approached to sign the petition for recall, and the reasons for recall were not publicly stated on the petition.
The secretive nature of the recall process ties back to Pathways. While the petition for recall only required a majority of full-time faculty, untenured members of the faculty were worried about individual retaliation for their support of the recall. Not an unfounded fear, based on experience with Vice President Steele’s original email threatening department closure if faculty didn’t accept the administration’s curriculum decisions.
For this reason, confidentiality was considered paramount, only the deputy chair and the Faculty Executive Committee would see the completed petition. According to department faculty, the plan was that if Reesman would agree to step down and resign, the petition could just be destroyed and never reviewed by anyone. The sealed petition was delivered to Alexandra Tarasko, the chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, who scheduled and oversaw the recall election by secret ballot.
Sources within the department were pessimistic that the recall would be respected by the administration, worrying that the president would use the CUNY Board of Trustees by-laws to override the recall and new election. The Board of Trustee’s by-laws state: “In any case where the president does not approve the election of a department chairperson, or at such other time as the interests of the college may require the removal of a chairperson and the appointment of a new one, he/she shall confer with the department and thereafter shall report to the board, through the chancellor any subsequent action by the department with respect thereto, together with his/her own recommendation for a chairperson.” (IX.2c) While the by-laws do later state that “designation of the department chairperson should take place only after careful consideration” of the faculty’s nominee, the president is not required to accept the department’s own choice, according to the Board of Trustees.
At 4:00pm on Friday, October 26—the standard timing for “Take Out the Trash” messages that hope to be buried over the weekend—Queensborough President Diane Call sent out an email to all English full-time, adjunct, substitute, tenured, and tenure-track faculty inviting them to a meeting on October 30, which was then postponed due to Hurricane Sandy until November 6, Election Day.
Around thirty faculty members were able to attend the meeting. President Call began by asking the faculty to speak. This caught the faculty off-guard, since they had not been asked to prepare statements ahead of the meeting, nor did they really know the details the president would discuss. After a few faculty members spoke, President Call addressed the audience. Standing in front of a cheery Election Day reminder scrawled on the whiteboard that read “Don’t forget to vote,” President Call proceeded to announce that she would not recognize the faculty’s election of their new chair, David Humphries. Instead, President Call reinstated the retired former chair Sheena Gillespie to take over the administrative duties of the chair, even though Gillespie had not been eligible to run in the election and is no longer actively employed in the department.
President Call also announced that Vice President Karen Steele would consult on a national search for a new chair. Rather than accepting the vote of the department, Call decided to put the search in the hands of the person who threatened the department over the faculty’s Pathways position. Furthermore, since there was no department chair—the retired Gillespie will only handle administrative duties—all reappointment and promotion for untenured faculty would go through the college-wide Personnel and Budget committee. Faculty would be represented at this college-wide committee by Vice President Steele—the same person who said all adjuncts would be given letters of non-reappointment and untenured faculty had no guarantee of continued employment in her Pathways email would now be in charge of determining those department reappointments and promotions.
The reasons President Call gave for this unprecedented action was that the department is deeply divided and needs to heal and people had told her that they do not feel safe in the department, and However, her actions overriding the department governance seem to further divide the department and place junior faculty in more precarious “unsafe” position directly represented to Personnel and Budget by a vice president who threatened to fire the whole department.
The president further defended her decision by claiming there had been outside interference in the English department. The extent of this “outside interference” was not addressed or was the identity of this interfering party explained. Department faculty had been in consultation with their union representatives and other English departments across CUNY who are facing similar circumstances, but those would hardly be considered “outside interference.” President Call thanked faculty who spoke in passionate defense of shared governance and recognition of the election, but she did not answer questions or respond to their concerns, merely reiterating her previous stance that the election must be overturned so that the department could “heal.”
Intimidation of untenured faculty over the Pathways initiative continues, with the expressed protection of the Board of Trustee’s by-laws and in disregard of faculty governance. Overriding a department’s election is an unprecedented action in the history of CUNY and is sure to chill resistance to Pathways, while simultaneously stirring up outrage across the university.
But we must remember that this whole ordeal was imposed on the Queensborough English department faculty because they dared to put their students first. At a school where students speak more than 120 different first languages, the English department added one extra hour to their first year composition classes to provide the additional instruction their students need. Pathways requires that Queensborough cut back on that composition education. Rather than weaken the quality of their students’ education, the Queensborough English faculty stood up to the “outside interference” of Pathways and reaffirmed their department’s four-hour composition curriculum.