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UC-AFT leaders speak on UC’s lack of support amid COVID-19, online instruction

Leaders of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, a University of California employee union that represents nonsenate faculty and librarians, said the University of California is not providing safe or effective working conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Samantha Fredberg

April 13, 2020 8:44 p.m.

A University of California employee union said the UC is not providing safe and effective working conditions amid the COVID-19 outbreak at a Friday press conference.

Leaders of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents nonsenate faculty and librarians, hosted the press conference over Zoom. They shared personal experiences they said led them to call out UC’s lack of support, specifically with technical difficulties, communication and job security.

Josh Brahinsky, a continuing lecturer from UC Santa Cruz, said although the UC has recognized educators’ work is crucial, it has not given them essential tools now that all UC instruction has moved online.

Such tools include stable internet access and a quiet space to teach, said Alison Black, a pre-continuing lecturer at UC San Diego.

Black said she struggles to find a space to teach without being interrupted by her toddler.

The UC Office of the President is working to provide lecturers with essential resources, including internet access and empty office space on campus, said Andrew Gordon, UCOP spokesperson, in an emailed statement.

However, UC-AFT president Mia McIver, a continuing lecturer at UCLA, said the reality is that most faculty members are not able to teach on campus, and UCOP has not provided adequate resources to teach at home.

“The idea that we can still teach on campus is absurd,” McIver said. “Many of us don’t have offices on campus, buildings are locked and traveling to be physically present on campus is forbidden in some areas. Even if it weren’t, teaching faculty cannot travel to campus without exposing themselves to possible infection.”

Katie Rodger, a continuing lecturer at UC Davis, has been teaching her online classes from a shed in her backyard. She said though her setup is not ideal, it is nicer than what some other lecturers have.

“We’re not just sitting here saying ‘Give us better equipment’ because we want nicer computers, or ‘I want faster Wi-Fi’ for my own benefit,” Rodger said. “These are necessary tools.”

Beyond logistical and technological shortcomings, several union leaders said the UC has displayed a lack of empathy toward its faculty throughout the pandemic.

The UC usually gives instructors a full quarter to prepare to teach an online course, said Joy Hagen, a continuing lecturer at UCSC. With the switch to online instruction, however, instructors had just a few weeks to completely redesign their courses with little understanding or compensation from the UC, she said.

Additionally, the UC has made no protocol for what to do if a lecturer contracts COVID-19, Rodger said. That leaves a lot of the decisions up to individual departments, Rodger said.

“In my department at (UC) Davis, we have 60-plus full-time lecturers teaching writing, and they are desperately trying to stay healthy,” Rodger said.

Despite this, lecturers who have poor Wi-Fi connections at home are still encouraged to go to campus to use Wi-Fi there.

John Branstetter, a pre-continuing lecturer at UCLA, said the UC has made a no layoffs pledge until June 30, but for him, that does not mean much. Branstetter’s contract ends June 30, which means he will receive his last paycheck June 1 and lose his health insurance June 30.

“UC hasn’t made any effort to extend my contract, at least, through the summer so (that) I can count on health coverage during this really crazy time,” he said. “They haven’t even made a decision of if I will be able to teach next year.”

Pre-continuing lecturers are lecturers who have taught less than 18 quarters or 12 semesters at a UC campus. As a pre-continuing lecturer, Branstetter said he has less rights than a continuing lecturer with regard to contract renewal

At UCLA, the teaching faculty turnover rate is 45%, which means almost half of the lecturers lose their jobs every year, McIver said.

“I’m trying to teach classes, and I’m trying to do a good job for my students, but I’ve got this economic worry hanging over my head,” Branstetter said. “While the University goes around saying ‘We’ve done this great thing with no layoffs,’ it’s completely empty for the majority of UC-AFT lecturers because our contracts expire May 30.”

UC-AFT would like to see the UC produce a comprehensive emergency response plan and contract extensions, but has been unsuccessful in receiving this from any UC campuses, McIver said.

“If the University of California wants to claim that it is the greatest research and educational institution in the world, it needs to now stand by that claim and implement the best infrastructure for online education,” Rodger said.

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Samantha Fredberg
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