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Don't Miss The Forest for the Trees: Seamless Transfer is Part of a Larger Picture We Can't Ignore

In our last post, we started to place SUNY’s “Seamless Transfer” (SST) initiative in the larger context of what SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher calls “systemness,” a concept she defined in her 2012 State of the University address as, “the coordination of multiple components that[,] when working together[,] create a network of activity that is more powerful than any action of individual parts on their own.” In this post, we ask you to consider how one aspect of SST, which establishes the curricular infrastructure of Zimpher’s “systemness,” impacts the education students come to NCC to claim, limiting them in ways they would not be limited if they were taking their first two years of college at a four-year institution.

Under SST, community college students will have no choice but to take seven out of ten of their General Education requirements during their first two years of college. Their peers at four-year institutions, on the other hand, will be able to spread those requirements out over all eight semesters of their college education. As well, students at two-year institutions will be required to declare a major after only thirty credits of classwork, while their four-year counterparts will be allowed to wait until junior year to do the same. We will address in a later post how this aspect of SST directly contradicts the mandates laid down for community colleges in New York State’s Education Law. For now, we would simply like to point out that creating this distinction between two- and four-year college students essentially creates a two-tiered educational system, giving one group of students the relative freedom to explore the educational opportunities that are available to them, while denying that freedom to the students, our students, who are not in that first group.

Given the fact that community college students tend to be less advantaged socioeconomically, less well-prepared educationally, less able—for a whole host of reasons—to focus full-time on their education, and therefore more in need of support in order to succeed in college, it’s hard not to see some very ugly biases at work here. Indeed, as Chancellor Zimpher explains in an essay she published on the website of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute, her goal in “capitaliz[ing] on [SUNY’s] ‘systemness’” is not “simply [to] educate students;” it is to accomplish the “equally if not more important” goal of preparing them for a career. No one disagrees about the importance of preparing students for the job market. We just wonder why, and by whom, it was thought necessary to shoehorn community college students into a career track so much earlier than students who enroll in four-year schools from the start.

In that same essay, Zimpher also says this:

Strategic enrollment management [of which SST is by definition a component part] will allow SUNY to [meet] local workforce demands. In 2012, we will begin using labor statistics to determine workforce demand by region, and then we’ll adjust program offerings and enrollment patterns in each region to directly meet those needs.

Leave aside the purely logistical problems associated with adjusting program offerings based on a periodic response to “labor statistics.” The only way such adjustments would even be conceivable is if curricula throughout the SUNY system were standardized and homogenized from the top down, eviscerating shared governance and depriving students of the value that a locally developed and locally controlled curriculum has to offer. More to the point, given the recent political rhetoric lauding community colleges in particular as engines of job growth, we should be asking just whose programs Chancellor Zimpher imagines she will be adjusting and whose students will then be tracked according to those adjustments.

We’ve said it before and we will say it again: Public education has been the single most powerful democratizing force in the history of this country, not because it has focused on getting people jobs, but because it has focused on preparing our young people, in all their diversity, to become actively engaged citizens of a democracy. In contrast, Chancellor Zimpher’s notion of systemness, with its focus on “controlling cost” and “enhancing productivity” (two of the headings from the essay we quoted above), clearly emerges from a world view that treats public education more as a business than a public good. As such, it is of a piece with all the other anti-public education initiatives that have taken hold nationwide, from consistent, systemic, and systematic underfunding to the rise of charter schools; from the drive for performance-based funding in higher education to No Child Left Behind-type high stakes testing and the attempt to impose unfair teacher evaluations at the K-12 level.

It’s not that there is nothing of value in these initiatives (with the exception of underfunding, in which there is, truly, no value). Rather, it’s that their implementation has been designed to centralize, standardize, and homogenize education, removing it from the purview of those who actually educate students and putting it in the hands of those whose interests often lie elsewhere. We believe that SST, in its current form, will have precisely that effect, which is why the NCCFT Executive Committee supports the “Resolution in Opposition to a De Facto Core Curriculum,” which was passed unanimously by the Faculty Council of Community Colleges (FCCC) on October 19th.

As Kimberley Reiser noted in her email of October 21st, that resolution, “asks SUNY to halt implementation of seamless transfer [until] proper shared governance processes [are] utilized so that faculty retain the most basic of rights[:] purview over the curriculum.” In that spirit, the NCCFT Executive Committee calls on our colleagues in the Academic Senate and College-Wide Curriculum Committee not to move forward with the proposal for dealing with the 64-credit mandate submitted by the Ad Hoc Seamless Transfer Subcommittee. We believe it is in our and our students’ best interest to wait until the FCCC endorses SUNY Seamless and until our faculty have had the chance to discuss, in their departments, with their senators, and with their union representatives the full implications of SST and Chancellor Zimpher’s concept of systemness as they would apply here.