Coherence or cost? Core causes conflict at Canisius
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
This is the second in a series of articles about the core curriculum by Opinion Editor Patrick Healy. Read the first article by clicking here.
Clarification: Last week in describing the current core, I misstated the relationship between fields and academic departments. Departments frequently offer courses that are approved for a particular field or attribute, but all determinations regarding which classes count for a field or attribute are made by the Core Curriculum Committee, not individual departments.
The core isn’t a new battleground. As I described last week, the mid-aughts reform took nearly seven years from task force formation to final implementation. Debate over the core has continued since. Readers of The Griffin remember Aidan Ryan, editor-in-chief of a decade ago, for columns such as “Cura personalis starts in the core.” Ryan’s 2021-22 counterpart Mike Pesarchick also frequently took up the mantle of magis in these pages.
Few forget what happened over the last three years. 2020 turned the core into a flashpoint; faculty positions were eliminated as part of President Hurley’s desire — per a 2020 Pesarchick article recently admitted as “Exhibit H” in a lawsuit over those layoffs — to “streamline” students’ academic experience and save money.
In a July 22, 2020 resolution, the Board of Trustees ordered the faculty senate’s Core Curriculum Committee (“CCC”), which oversees the core and approves classes for each field and attribute, to “streamline” core course offerings by the start of the 2021-22 academic year.
The resolution read in part: “As part of the college’s restructuring, the Board of Trustees has determined that the college’s core curriculum needs to be realigned and streamlined so as to involve fewer courses taught for core credit (but not necessarily reducing the number of core requirements) with a view toward creating a core experience for students that is more coherent and consistent.”
The resolution ordered the president and vice president for academic affairs to work with the CCC to develop 1) “A reduction in the number of offerings available for core credit,” and 2) “A plan to revise the process of selection and approval of core courses moving forward.” It ended ominously: “the Board of Trustees maintains the right to revoke the delegation of authority for the core curriculum to the faculty senate if sufficient progress toward this revision is not being made.”
Dr. Stephen Chanderbhan, chair of the CCC, told The Griffin that the Board’s resolution and the administration’s actions were not antagonistic. The philosophy professor said the Board of Trustees was not interested in cutting the core but in limiting the number of courses eligible for each field/attribute as to increase consistency between each student’s core experience.
President John Hurley and Vice President for Academic Affairs Sara Morris told Chanderbhan that neither wanted “significant changes to the core.” They said they were merely concerned that existing faculty couldn’t deliver the core as currently constructed. Chanderbhan said that coherence and accreditation — more than cost — were the Board’s priorities in passing the July resolution.
Kudos to Chanderbhan and company. In a conversation with The Griffin, Dr. Morris said the Academics Committee has “spoken very highly of the work of the Core Curriculum Committee over the last year and a half.”
Noting that she isn’t a Trustee, Dr. Morris added context. “Given everything the college was dealing with in the summer of 2020, the Board wanted to make sure that the curriculum we were putting out was actually one that we could provide to the students.” She denied that it was about cutting the core. “[The focus] was, are the courses that we are saying we are going to be offering still the ones that we’re going to be offering? Are we still able to staff the core that we want to make sure the students are getting?”
While consistency between students’ core experiences was one goal, the second half of the resolution was to streamline core assessment procedures in preparation for college’s 2024 accreditation review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Chanderbhan said that, in years past, faculty would volunteer to review (with scant compensation) how well their colleagues’ classes adhered to their core attributes.
Now, in response to the resolution, faculty evaluate their own classes and report to the CCC. The change removes an unwelcome burden from other faculty members by trusting faculty to interpret the results of their own syllabi.
Middle States demands that students study ethics and diversity and develop skills in oral and written communication; our core fits those requirements so nicely that one might think it was written by them. As a former Middle States reviewer, Morris said that — though the core happens to fit nicely with the accrediting body’s standards — “at the time I was involved with the core revisions, I really did not know Middle States. [The revisions] were just part of our Jesuit traditions that we were trying to connect with.”
It is said of Congress’s upper house that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. Few actually make the leap from legislator to executive, though, and those who do — such as Lyndon Johnson and Joe Biden — often find themselves frustrated by the institution they left. Morris, a former faculty senator and now Canisius’s chief academic officer, hasn’t had the smoothest relationship with her senatorial successors; tomorrow is the first anniversary of the faculty senate voting “no confidence” in her.
In April 2020, according to documents filed in Erie County Supreme Court, Morris intimated a willingness to ignore the “extremely faculty friendly” Academic Program Board bylaws. One month later, then–Board of Trustees Chairman Lee Wortham concurred with then–Vice Chair Nancy Ware that “the notion of addressing areas which we were previously prevented from doing so (i.e. tenured faculty) is right on point.” Three months later, nearly two dozen faculty positions were eliminated.
Morris was a member of the 2002 task force that initiated the most recent core curriculum reform, as well as the 2007 faculty senate that finished it. As an associate vice president, she modernized the curriculum management system. Appointed vice president for academic affairs in 2020, administrative supervision of the core curriculum is now, per the faculty senate constitution, her “continuing responsibility.” Some have suggested she prioritized her career when advocating for core change; I think it’s enough to point out that curriculum has been vital to her CV.
After the task force’s proposal was rejected by the 2005 senate, Morris ran for senate as part of the pro-reform Slate for Constructive Change the following year. The Slate would sweep the senate elections in 2006, portending a more reform-friendly senate.
Careful not to speak for her colleagues, she recalled that while some in that movement wanted more room for students to take a minor or second major, “the people that ran for the senate at that time had a variety of different reasons for running.”
Some Slate members were concerned that the “core at the time was so rigid that it required most of our students to take primarily lower level classes and precluded many of our students from taking upper-level courses in a couple of different disciplines.” While the core ostensibly applied to all students, many majors were exempted from parts of the core and individual exemptions were “extremely common, if not ubiquitous.”
The group wanted “something that is able to fulfill the needs of all of our students.” “Instead of having one extra three-credit class in a particular discipline,” students would take classes with specific goals in mind: real-world skills and Jesuit values. Because of national standards for business majors or certification requirements for the school of education and human services, “a lot of students had virtually no flexibility in their curriculum.” Attributes, which can apply to classes outside of the core and prioritize skills instead of subjects, were born.
15 years later, Morris said 2007’s change has produced its intended results. “From the standpoint of all students having the same core, more students are now able to double major than used to in the past, every student can minor, then yes, those goals have been met. Students can go into more depth in some areas and we are getting a more consistent core for all students.”
I asked her if majors have stayed true to their promise of not adding more requirements. “I can’t say nothing has increased, but it takes somebody arguing really strongly why there should be an increase without an associated decrease for something to change.” A subcommittee of the Academic Planning Board is responsible for these exemptions.
“We want every student to come out who has had a course that focused on oral communication, advanced writing, ethics, justice. By decoupling them from specific classes, it would allow not only more flexibility, but a core that was for everyone.” Though each of the fields now requires only one class instead of two, the attributes can still allow students to use two classes in a certain field for core credit. She pointed to the ethics attribute, which is typically a philosophy class, as an example.
Responding to a recollection of events by another ex-faculty member, she said they’re “making an assumption about the motives there, and you’re right that people were arguing for a smaller core but to say it was for their majors that’s something — I think we had it in [the proposal] — no major was allowed to expand. That was a really, really important thing. The extra courses were supposed to be for students to explore areas of interest either broadly or add minors or an extra major.”
The change wasn’t personal, Morris said. She hopes “people and departments who feel like their subjects have been devalued” to understand that the students’ education experience, based on both Jesuit values and the core’s relevance, was at the heart of the change. “I’m sorry that people do have hard feelings, but any time there’s a change to any curriculum, it tends to have some pretty rough feelings.”
Where is our resolve?
The Board said its resolution was aimed at creating a more coherent core experience for students. Chanderbhan, in his meeting with the administration, was told that there was also a more practical reason: it was about the ability to staff the core. Morris confirmed as much. On their face, both are acceptable goals. One is a fair long-term goal; the other, an emergency measure. The problem is that the Board and its appointed administrators have an obligation to respect the core as designed by the faculty and to staff the faculty to fit the core, not the other way around.
Dr. Marshelle Woodward told The Griffin in February 2020 — months before her position was eliminated — that shared governance is why faculty are considered “managers” and thus can’t unionize. The CCC is an instrument of the faculty senate; pressuring it to enact a change to the core, bypassing the senate and not consulting the CCC beforehand, is not indicative of respect for faculty management of the core.
In a pamphlet released to alumni in 2020, Canisius cited “a robust core curriculum experience that comprises half of every student’s education at Canisius” as something that remains at Canisius despite budget cuts. That’s a glass half full approach or — to less charitably borrow the words of then-President Trump — “fake news.”
The maximum number of core classes, for students who take the minimum number of classes required to graduate, is not even half (18/40) of a student’s four-year course load. For most students, the numerator is lower and the denominator is higher. Either way, it’s telling. The administration recognized that alumni value the core, and thus it was even willing to stretch the truth to show alumni that they did, too.
The Board brought the core up. They were the ones to bypass established protocol. And, Morris said, their Academics Committee “spoke very highly” of the work done by the CCC, despite such a “very quick time frame” (and despite being in the middle of the pandemic with two CCC members recently fired).
This isn’t to say their moves weren’t justified, considering the circumstances they found themselves in. This is to say that it wouldn’t be unreasonable — or impossible, as the CCC has demonstrated — for faculty to reverse the Board’s decision, or at least have their own input on how to make the core more coherent. The faculty-created core has its weaknesses, but the Board must respect the faculty’s right to manage the core on behalf of students.
The faculty are not an obstacle to be hurdled in the Board’s race to stability. Trustees are accomplished citizens, but they are not involved in the day-to-day decisions of the college. It makes financial sense to work with the faculty to plan a core that can be accomplished feasibly, rather than threaten one of their key responsibilities when finances get tight.
Resources for the core — faculty positions — should be steady like capital projects such as Science Hall and athletics facilities. The Board took the unprecedented step of meddling with the core; they have a responsibility to secure it long term. They should either resolve to support what the faculty creates or transparently publish their own goals for the core, so that faculty know them up front — before another “financial exigency.”
Next week: Chanderbhan explains upcoming changes to the core and Morris discusses the possibility for the Board of Trustees to revoke power over the core from the faculty. Update 2/18/22: Read the third article by clicking here.