On Sunday, Alexander Coward blew the whistle on the shadowy practices of hiring and firing lecturers at the University of California. He issued a powerful statement after his year-to-year contract was not renewed by UC Berkeley’s mathematics department.
This is not the first time Coward has thrust himself into the spotlight. Coward, who was a lecturer at Berkeley, made headlines two years ago when he issued a braggadocious broadside undermining his fellow UC workers.
In the fall of 2013, the UC hospital workers, groundskeepers and janitors who make up the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 union went on strike to rectify the dangerous staffing policies that put patients at risk at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and other UC hospitals. The strike garnered two very different responses.
Teaching assistants at UCLA and across the UC system, who make up the United Auto Workers Local 2865 union, responded by striking in sympathy with their fellow workers, joining the fight to make the UC better for everyone it serves.
Coward responded differently. He declared, in a post that went viral, that his decision to cross a picket line and replace striking TAs amounted to an act of educational and political heroism.
It did not.
As of Sunday, Coward finds himself the victim of the very UC administration he sought to embolden. But how can UC Berkeley summarily fire him? Isn’t Coward a professor? Don’t professors have tenure that protects academic freedom and makes them difficult to dismiss for petty or political reasons?
Coward isn’t a professor; he’s a lecturer. If the distinction seems hard to understand, it’s because it’s completely spurious. Both lecturers and professors are faculty members who have earned terminal degrees (generally doctorates or the equivalent in their fields) and are hired to instruct students, design curricula and supervise TAs. The difference is that while professors benefit from the pay and job security that comes with tenure, lecturers don’t. Lecturers are paid less, employed as temporary instructors, forced to work more and denied many of the rights and privileges that help tenure-track faculty perform its research, teaching and service duties well.
University Council-American Federation of Teachers is currently working through collective bargaining to transform the unfair labor conditions that deny dignity, benefits, fair compensation and job security to lecturers like Coward.
While it may be tempting to enjoy the irony of a scab who sold out his colleagues and is now reaping what he sowed, this is not the right response. Just as Coward should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow UC instructors and employees fighting to make the UC a better place, so too should all of us in the campus community stand with UC-AFT, the union that represents lecturers and librarians on all UC campuses. I know that my fellow TAs who make up UAW Local 2865 will support UC lecturers, including Coward, just as we stood with the janitors, groundskeepers and hospital workers.
Cody Trojan is a graduate student and teaching assistant at the UCLA Department of Political Science. He is also a rank-and-file member of UAW Local 2865.