CUNY Pathways Project’s Implications for Class and Race :

the soft bigotry of lowered expectations

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

There are subtle forms of racism remnant in American society today.  The CUNY Pathways Project has at its core a recognition of this and, in its acquiescence to it, the initiative carries on a pernicious form of racism as it is continuing some of the most harmful insinuations of racial differences that further debilitate those already victims of racism through disparity in opportunities and supports.  Structural racism is a defining feature of contemporary American society, and the Pathways Project is one more example of the problem.   It is the burden of this work to make evident this ugly feature of the Pathways Project that efforts to conceal have hidden beneath rhetoric intended to be politically pleasing.

While proclaiming that the Pathways Project is all about improving on the transfer of credits from one college within CUNY to another and that the curricular reforms are about increasing academic rigor, the truth lies elsewhere from those repeated declarations.  A careful analysis of the proposed changes will indicate that Pathways Project waters down the curriculum, and that while it may increase graduation rates, it leaves too many CUNY students less prepared for the rigors and expectations of the modern workplace.  In effect, it makes too many CUNY graduates "second class citizens"   in a competitive marketplace.  And most of those so left behind, or at lower points in their possible careers, will be the poor and people of color, Black and Latino, those already disadvantaged with the weakest academic preparation and weaker in the Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

There are the repeated claims that the Pathways Project was made necessary due to problems with the transfer of credits from one CUNY college to another which two previous policy actions of its Board of Trustees had not remedied.  Those focal claims are accompanied by the repeated claims that the changes wrought by the Pathways Project will increase academic rigor in the degree programs of the University. This repetition is a technique of merchandisers, publicists and propagandists throughout history.  It is a public relations achievement that the Pathways Project has been effectively presented by its creators as being pro-student while actually, and in a most cynical manner, it is anti-student as it adversely impacts many students and, in particular, those already most disadvantaged in American society and in the university.  The repetition thwarts the exposure of the “soft bigotry of lowered expectations” George W. Bush warned against when speaking of the nation’s educational programs. Yet, no matter how often repeated, a careful examination reveals not only that the evidence will not support those claims but will also reveal the structural racism supported by the Pathways Project as it will adversely impact those in the lowest economic classes. 


In a publically declared and accentuated effort to resolve problems with the transfer of credits from one unit in the university to another, the CUNY has instituted a massive change in the basic curricula of its Associate and Baccalaureate programs.  The number of Liberal Arts and Sciences courses required in degree programs has been reduced to a mere handful totaling eight or nine classes of a total of forty where before there had been as many as twelve to twenty in degree programs that included insuring graduates were fluent in more than one language and had some understanding of both World and American History. Why was this done?

In the Pathways Initiative the CUNY Board of Trustees passed a series of resolutions.  One in particular would appear to solve any problems with the transfer of credits.  It reads as follows:

Resolved, that all courses taken for credit at an undergraduate CUNY college be accepted for credit at every other CUNY undergraduate college, regardless of whether a specific equivalency exists at the transfer college, to an extent consistent with grade requirements and residency rules at the transfer colleges, and be it further…

Why then are there nine (9) other resolves in the action taken by the Board?  The reason is that the resolves were needed to alter all undergraduate education programs in the CUNY in order to increase the rate of graduation through a simplification of its curricula through their reformulation to offer fewer required courses and fewer demanding courses while defecting attention from these intended consequences of the resolves.  Thus, these measures were proposed and enacted while CUNY proclaims repeatedly that there is the intention to increase academic rigor in its programs.

The CUNY has offered no attempt to respond to the notice of the conflation of transfer resolution with General Education reform as it has offered no argument and no evidence to establish that curricular reform was the only method or even the better or best method to accomplish resolution of the remnant issues with transfer. The CUNY has repeatedly focused on the need to improve on transfer making the process more efficient and economical while eliding the targeting of all curricula for reformulations.  In so doing the values of an educational institution to transfer knowledge and develop new knowledge and develop intellectual skills was supplanted by the institutional values of economy and efficiency in producing graduates.  The social good of producing an outcome of an educated student who is a well rounded and contributing member of society is being replaced by quantifiable outcomes:  graduates and graduates who are employed.   In so doing the CUNY has not attempted to articulate just what it is hoping to produce that is of value to society other than sending more graduates into a social setting in which most people who find employment will change both employers and fields several times within their first two decades of employment and again before retirement.  In an economic order with considerable flux t hose with the broadest of educational backgrounds tend to fare better as they mature and gain in experience through several positions.  The broader exposure to and some depth in the Liberal Arts and Sciences now being eliminated will produce the intended result or “outcome” of more graduates regardless of the educational, social, or ultimate cost that it will entail for many of those graduates and for a society that has need of not only simple employees but also people who are well informed and capable of rich social interactions who are prepared not merely for employment but for success in a world now characterized by multiple orders of change.


There are the repeated claims that the Pathways Initiative will increase academic rigor in the programs of the CUNY and yet no effort on the part of the CUNY to support those claims.  There is no evidence that CUNY has even begun an effort to design, let alone carry out, a study to establish the current level of rigor, whatever that might mean.  Far from it, there has been and continues to be the frequent repetition of the claim that in some way the Pathways Project represents an increase in rigor, without definition of the term nor measure of current levels.  Why is this so?  In clear light of the reduction of required college level courses in Science, Mathematics, Foreign Languages and Literature the repetitions of increasing academic rigor appears more as intentional deflection of attention from careful examination of what is actually being done and any consideration of the long term consequences  for those graduates who will receive the least remediation of their K-12 under-preparedness for college and who are in large part in the lower and lowest socio economic class and people of color.  


Arriving at the CUNY through the public policy of open admission of all high school graduates those who are underprepared need to have additional support if they are to succeed in college level programs of study.  Reports indicate that there is an extremely low rate of graduation for those in greatest need of academic assistance to remediate their under preparedness.  There are also reports within the CUNY that there are particular courses , deemed to be “killer courses” by some, that appear to be most difficult for those who are underprepared so that they often cannot accomplish the learning outcomes of those courses and so fail to progress to graduation.  These courses, including those in Mathematics and Science, involve higher order cognitive skills and levels of abstraction for which those with the lowest orders of college readiness appear most challenged.  If the number of such challenging courses, are reduced, then the stumbling blocks to graduation are reduced and the CUNY graduation rate should increase. Here is that “soft bigotry” at work.

Other courses that pose real challenges for the underprepared would be those offered at a higher level than introduction to a discipline and the second course in a discipline for which a prior course was set as prerequisite.  If the number of higher level courses in challenging fields of study that are required for graduation  are reduced  then graduation rates should increase.

The Pathways Project clearly reduces the number of required courses in the Liberal Arts and Science core of all CUNY Associate in Arts and Associate in Science and Baccalaureate degree programs.  It actually bars CUNY colleges from requiring that students take more than one course in the same discipline within the new streamlined, smaller core.  It reduces the number of Science courses to a single course and reduces the study of Mathematics to a single required course and one for which a less demanding curriculum can substitute for the traditional courses associated with college Mathematics. It aims to increase the freedom of students to choose the least demanding courses, given their backgrounds and to avoid the development of their intellectual skills through a program of study of some depth in more than one particular field or academic discipline.  If the Pathways Initiative is not to be described as a “dumbing down” of the curriculum it can be described as a “narrowing and shallowing”.

The CUNY will be able to give prominent attention to and public notice of the few who do excel, who do earn scholarships and fellowships and awards, mainly in Mathematics, Technology, Engineering and the Sciences.  There will continue to be the few of a total of 270,000 students who will receive effective support and guidance that nurtures their growth.   Public display will make their number appear larger and more typical. Nevertheless, the long term success in life of CUNY graduates, not immediately evident or easily measurable nor quantifiable, will not be put on display let alone comparisons with the graduates of colleges with deeper and richer curricular requirements in the Liberal Arts and Sciences. The CUNY will display the results of studies showing maturation increases in the basic rudimentary skills of reading, writing and critical thinking over a period of 3 to 6 or even 8 years associated with CUNY course work.  It will intend for these reports to be taken as indicators of what students have learned at CUNY while showing no evidence of the exact knowledge a typical CUNY student has upon entering as compared to when leaving CUNY as a graduate, let alone the breadth and depth of knowledge of a CUNY graduate.

What does any of the alteration of intellectual rigor and intellectual skills development matter if the overall graduation rates at the CUNY increase?  Is it not the desire of the public to have such an increase?  Does not the public demand an accounting of the use to which its support is directed and the results? Is it not a social good to have more people graduate college?  It is undeniable that there are fewer college graduates unemployed in difficult economic times, but there are still unemployed college graduates, only fewer than non-graduates.  It is also undeniable that jobs that previously required only a high school diploma are now going increasingly, and in some positions exclusively, to college graduates.  It would then be rather obvious that increasing the number of college graduates would be a social good and a benefit to those graduates.  But what of achieving higher graduation rates as CUNY is proceeding to do?


Reports indicate that the percentages of those who are underprepared for college work are higher in high schools in minority neighborhoods.  It is not uncommon to have critics of the public school system point out the disparity in preparation for college work and the high school graduation rates amongst economic groups.  Calls for redress most often are directed to improving the amount and quality of instruction to narrow and eliminate the disparity.  Indeed, there were efforts to insure that no children would be “left behind” due to disparity in effort, some of which is born of disparity in appraisal of their abilities.  Most observers would not accept dissolution of the gap through a process of social promotion whereby children are moved along year to year and then graduated without necessarily accomplishing the educational goals of the curricula. The “soft bigotry” was not to be tolerated. Nonetheless, while graduation rates from high schools, already dismally low, may have risen the percentage of those graduates who are deemed “college ready” has not.  This exposes the painful reality of a disparity in preparation and a disparity that too often correlates with race and socio-economic class.

While minorities are, on the one hand, the apparent recipients of easier pathways to graduation by being required to take less challenging and fewer courses that will broaden their knowledge, on the other hand, they are the less prepared for the social interactions in adult life that will support their continued intellectual growth and their esteem in the eyes of others that often leads to positions of higher rank within institutions and in employment.  The Pathways Project is a plan for education that has been developed by people who are already rather successful that will subject the poor of any race to an education that is not of the caliber of the colleges and universities associated with leaders of industry and the nation. Of course, students of any background who will make effective use of academic advisement will receive a rather good education in CUNY, but many will not, as the Pathways Project will impact more significantly those who, as already and presently economically disadvantaged , must seek a quick and easy graduation from college for their own sakes and that of their families.

And just how is the Pathways Project a racist program?  In the acceptance of the disparities in college level preparation the CUNY program accepts the consequences of the disparity in resources and efforts to assist those traditionally victimized and rather than redress the disparity the CUNY alters its programs of study to create another less obvious form of “social promotion”. 

The CUNY undertook no study to estimate the social impact over time of the Pathways Initiative on minorities and those who are economically disadvantaged.  No attention was directed to the long term consequences on its graduates of such sweeping reforms of its curricula. No light was to be shed on such matters by the University perhaps because there has been an acceptance on the part of some, perhaps many, with political influence that the CUNY is for the most part not going to produce many of the leaders of industry or leaders in any of the major components of society.  That task is to be left to the Ivy League caliber universities that will accept those with broader and deeper preparation in the Liberal Arts and Sciences as prerequisite to enter such Universities which then expect their students to go further and even deeper into studies that will prepare them not simply for employment but for leadership positions and for making more significant contributions to society than do the basic employees of any enterprise.


And so now we come to the racism inherent in the Pathways Initiative.  The large numbers of students entering CUNY at this time who are the most underprepared are students within groups that are under supported and even victimized by the legacy of the racist past and, some would add, present.  They are the students who face the greatest academic challenges.  Rather than expend resources on their support to succeed at the highest levels of study or even at the basic level that offers genuine college level work, the leadership of CUNY appears to accept that these students are simply not up to the challenges of the curricula of the 1960’s or even the 1980’s and so the curricula must be changed to accommodate “them” and graduate “them”. 

 If the faculties of CUNY resist this obvious concession to the lowest denominator, then force it upon them through a top- down set of impositions from the Board of Trustees and Chancellery.  Make it appear as if theirs is not a principled opposition to the changes due to concern for the proper preparation of students for intellectual and social advance and exercising their best academic judgments but instead make it appear as if their opposition is motivated by self interest in the preservation of the status quo that supports their teaching positions.

 If society will not provide for the support needed for effective education and true college ready level of preparation in high school graduates and will not provide the CUNY with support to effectively remedy the K-12 deficiencies in many of the entering class of students then what is to be done to produce more graduates other than to alter the level of academic challenge in the programs of study?

Throughout its history the CUNY has been seen by far too many people of influence as a place where the immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants can get an education for employment but not a place where the country can expect to get its leaders.  The CUNY has been seen as an opportunity for economic advancement but not for social advancement.  Numbers support that as CUNY has become more a place for people of color it has been increasingly undervalued and so underfunded.  Expectations for CUNY have been diminished.  Now, in effect, that downgrading has extended within CUNY with those who would raise graduation rates for the sake of public appeasement of the need and demand for employable graduates and drastically diminish the programs of study that might better prepare its graduates for long term success beyond mere employment and for a life that might include achieving leadership positions within their place of employ and within their neighborhoods and within society.  For such success the languages of the Liberal Arts and Sciences are the common tongue.  CUNY graduates will need to speak those languages amongst communities of leaders to gain their esteem and their support.  The Pathways Project’s social debilitation of many CUNY graduates will fall disproportionately on those people of color who are already victimized by poor K-12 preparation and social promotion, less skilled in command of the languages of the Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Employers will learn of the diminished or limited potentials of CUNY graduates and look elsewhere for those from whom they expect long term advancement and leadership.  

The attempt to make perspicuous the racist implications of the Pathways Project will be resisted by those who conceived them, constructed them and presented them to the Board of Trustees.  They will claim that there was no such intention as to discriminate against any groups and that minorities will be advantaged by the Pathways Project as they will increase graduation rates for all groups.  These claims will have ample support for their veracity.  However, it is the “soft bigotry” racism that manifests in the consequences of actions and not in the intentions. The failure to consider the long term consequences or the impact of the Pathways Project on CUNY graduates is the index of racism.  Examination of all the documents located at these sites:

CUNY Pathways to Degree Completion

UFS documents relating to the Pathways to Degree Completion

offers nothing that considers the impact of the Pathways Project on minorities or those groups with more people who evidence severe K-12 under-preparedness for college level work.  There is no discussion of what the long term consequences might be for those who have a reduced exposure to the Liberal Arts and Sciences not only in the competition for jobs but for lifelong success and advancement and for leadership in their institutions of their employment as well as those of society.

The “soft bigotry” racism inherent in the Pathways Project will be buried in the public relations efforts that will focus attention on the basic graduation rates and attention on those few who will achieve great academic success and recognition and success in their fields.  The proportion that such celebrated graduates will represent of the total number of graduates will not be studied and cannot be publically acknowledged.  The CUNY will thus acknowledge that it knows its place in the pantheon of academic institutions and its place within society as the supplier of base level employees and occasionally a success or two beyond the CUNY norm.  CUNY will know its place in acquiescing to the current patterns of differentiation based on race and class in academic preparation of graduates and members of society. Some in CUNY are reported to have made statements to the effect that the great books curricula and strong Liberal Arts courses are for the sons and daughters of the rich and not for CUNY students.

Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at