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NiLP Guest Commentary 

CUNY's Pathways Initiative is Problematic,

But Latino Faculty and Students Should Be Cautious in Opposing It

by Lisandro P�rez (April 19, 2012)


Lisandro PerezA couple of guest commentaries on the City University of New York's Pathways Initiative (the effort by the CUNY administration to impose a standard general education framework on all CUNY colleges) have already appeared in this NiLP Network on Latino Issues. One, by Professor Felipe Pimentel of Hostos ["Latinos and the City University of New York: Is CUNY's Pathways a Path to Mediocrity?"] was critical of Pathways, advancing very valid points about the consequences of Pathways for the quality of academic programs at CUNY and about the inflexible manner in which the CUNY administration has imposed this overhaul of the General Education requirements on the campuses. The other commentary, by Professor Arlene Torres of Hunter ["Latino Faculty Engaged in Currcular Reform in Light of CUNY's Pathways"] struck a largely positive note about Pathways, highlighting the extent of Latino faculty participation in the process.


My position is that, despite everything that is wrong with Pathways, Latino faculty and students at CUNY should be cautious before embracing the growing opposition to Pathways. I, for one, have not joined the more than 4,000 of my colleagues at CUNY who have signed the online petition opposing the implementation of Pathways. I am certainly not happy about Pathways, but I am concerned about some of the cross-currents that flow through the anti-Pathways movement.


I write as the Chair of a Latino Studies department in CUNY as well as the Chair of my College's committee on general education, tasked with adjusting the current John Jay general education curriculum to the new general education framework imposed centrally, as Pimentel well notes, by the CUNY administration at 80th Street. I also served last Fall on the CUNY Pathways Working Committee thst contributed to crafting the details of Pathways.


There is, indeed, a lot to fault in Pathways, and I agree with virtually all of Professor Pimentel's arguments. The entire process has been pushed through from the top down at an incredible speed, with neck-breaking deadlines and with little concern or time for broad-based faculty input. The Pathways framework that all CUNY colleges now have to adopt is very parsimonious and will result in a lowering of the intellectual rigor of the curriculum required of all CUNY students.


The principal problem is the mandated limitation of the Common Core to 30 credits, with Colleges able to add only 12 more credits. Last year at John Jay we worked on a new general education curriculum revision that brought the number of required credits down to 47, and we judged that to be a barebones general education. Pathways forces us down to 42. Science, technology, Engineering and mathematics (STEM) education will be especially compromised. A year ago, when the idea of Pathways was first floated by the CUNY administration, the CUNY-wide Puerto Rican/Latino/Latin American Studies Discipline Council, which I chair, sent a statement to the Chancellor expressing its concern regarding the negative impact of the 42-credit limit on the future of ethnic studies at CUNY.


And yet, I am cautious about embracing the movement to turn back Pathways. There are simply too many interests and agendas weighing in on this, and I am leery of some of them largely because of the implications for Latino students and Latino Studies in CUNY. Let me focus here on just two of my concerns, rooted in what I regard, respectively, as elitism and traditionalism.


1. Elitism. One of the ostensible (and even justifiable) reasons why CUNY has imposed a uniform framework is that some of the senior colleges currently have outrageously large general education requirements, totaling about 60 credits. This poses a legitimate transfer issue that especially affects community college transfers (and, therefore, especially affects Latino and minority students), as those transferring find that they have to take additional lower-level general education courses required by the senior college in order to graduate, increasing the time and money it takes students to graduate. That has had the effect of discouraging students from transferring to those senior colleges, with the latent (or perhaps intended?) consequence that those colleges can then boast about the "quality" of their students and their graduates, especially when they buttress that elitism with selective freshman admission standards.


What Pathways will do is increase the number of community college transfers to those senior colleges. I found it illuminating to hear, during the course of the debates in the Working Committee on Pathways, faculty members from those senior colleges bemoaning the "loss of their academic standards" that will result when a seamless transfer process brings any and all community college students knocking at their doors.


2. Traditionalism. One of the reasons some faculty throughout CUNY oppose Pathways is that it is based upon a "learning outcomes" approach and not upon traditional disciplinary requirements. To explain: a learning-outcomes based curriculum is one that requires students to take a course or courses that are designed to satisfy a particular learning outcome, such as, say, "learning from the past." A traditional discipline-based requirement, on the other hand, is one that requires students to take a course or courses in, say, the History Department.


One can readily see how a general education curriculum based upon learning outcomes would facilitate the participation of Latino Studies departments or programs (or any interdisciplinary academic unit, e.g., African-American Studies, Gender Studies,) in a general education curriculum. As long as those interdisciplinary departments propose courses that meet the learning outcomes, they can make their unique contributions to the general education of the students.


Under a traditional discipline-based approach, Latino Studies and other interdisciplinary academic units would be shut out of the general education requirements. It is no wonder, therefore, that faculty members from the big traditional departments want to keep a discipline-based general education structure, and, by the way, those are the faculty members who, by sheer numbers, tend to predominate in faculty governance bodies. They want the students to have no choice but to go to them to satisfy the requirements.


The Pathways Initiative imposes a learning-outcomes approach that undermines that traditional disciplinary control over general education. Pathways is also friendly to Latino Studies in that it explicitly contains learning outcomes in areas that are labeled "World Cultures and Global Issues" and "U.S. Experience in its Diversity." Pathways, therefore, presents an unprecedented opportunity for the further development of Latino Studies in CUNY, assuming the various Colleges, and their Latino Studies units, take advantage of that opportunity. Once the structure of Pathways was fleshed out over the summer of 2011, the original concern regarding the negative impact of Pathways on ethnic studies was assuaged, at least from my point of view.  


There is, therefore, a lot about Pathways that I like. Am I, therefore, unsympathetic to the growing ground swell of opposition to Pathways throughout CUNY? No. I hope the CUNY administration is listening and can bring itself to be much more flexible and responds to the legitimate concerns of many of my colleagues regarding the impact of the draconian 42-credit limit on the overall quality of our students' education. Pimentel is right. But I see strands of elitism and traditionalism in that opposition that would be harmful for Latino students and Latino Studies at CUNY.


Lisandro P�rez, a sociologist, is Professor and Chair, Department of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College, City University of New York. Until the summer of 2010 Dr. P�rez served for twenty-five years on the faculty of Florida International University (FIU) in Miami where he founded and directed its Cuban Research Institute after two terms as Chair of its Sociology and Anthropology Department. He also served as the editor of the journal Cuban Studies from 1999 to 2004 and is the co-author of the book The Legacy of Exile: Cubans in the United States, published by Allyn & Bacon. He authored the chapter on Cubans for the The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965, published by Harvard University Press. During the 2004-2005 academic year, Dr. P�rez was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, where he carried out research for a book on the Cuban community in New York City during the nineteenth century, under contract with New York University Press. An essay based on that research project appeared in the edited book New York 400 published in 2009 by the Museum of the City of New York. He served as consultant for the 2010 exhibit Nueva York sponsored by the New York Historical Society and exhibited at the Museo del Barrio and wrote a chapter for the exhibit's companion book, published by Rizzoli Publishers. In addition to the Cullman Center, Dr. P�rez has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He can be contacted at