After announcing possible dismissal, lecturer alleges series of math department ‘wrongdoings’

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After announcing last week that he may be terminated from UC Berkeley next year, Alexander Coward, a widely known lecturer in the math department, responded with a post on his website alleging that his termination is part of what he calls a “practice of systematically removing the best teachers” from the campus.

The math department has decided against renewing Coward’s contract, according to a Facebook post he wrote Wednesday. The announcement has sparked concern and confusion among students, many of whom know of Coward because of an email he sent to his class in fall 2013 that went viral.

Coward, who has been a lecturer in the department since 2013 and currently teaches Math 1A, declined to comment on the reasons behind the decision but shared a post called “Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department” on his website Sunday night.

In the post, Coward outlines a series of allegations against the math department, including that the department mischaracterized his teaching in his personnel file by failing to report his student evaluations for Math 1A.

“I should mention that what I have reported above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of wrongdoing that is committed at the highest level in the UC Berkeley mathematics department,” Coward wrote in the post.

Coward has also filed a formal grievance with the university alleging incomplete documentation and procedural violations in the review process that led to his potential dismissal.

Soon after the post was published, student organizers started sharing a Facebook event for a protest on Oct. 20 to keep Coward on campus. They also began circulating an online petition which, as of Sunday evening, has more than 1,000 supporters.

On Tuesday, a former UC Berkeley student posted on Facebook regarding a rumor she had heard about Coward leaving campus next year. Coward responded to the post confirming that the department had decided to dismiss him, effective after the current academic year.

“Well, if the campus authorities don’t overrule the mathematics department’s decision to fire me, then yes, this will be my last year teaching math at Berkeley,” Coward said in a comment reply to the post. “I hope they do overrule the decision, because I absolutely love teaching here.”

The campus does not commit to lecturers’ ongoing employment until after they have taught at the campus for six years and have undergone a “rigorous academic review of their teaching,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email.

“Many lecturers have appointments that may be for a single term or up to two years,” Gilmore said in the email. “They often fill in for regular faculty who are on leave, provide additional teaching to cover surges in enrollment, and teach large undergraduate classes.”

Gilmore declined to comment on Coward’s situation, citing confidentiality in the case of individual personnel matters.

Coward received national attention in November 2013 when an email he wrote to his students went viral. The email was sent out the night before graduate student instructors and other employees across the UC system went on strike, and explained why Coward did not plan on canceling class the next day.

“Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things,” Coward wrote to his students. “I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for.”

The email, in which Coward also reflected more broadly on the value of higher education, was circulated on several online platforms and was read by more than 1 million people, according to Coward’s personal website.  

Coward has not made an announcement about the dismissal during lecture, according to multiple students in the class.  

“Everyone I’ve talked to is upset and generally confused about why he’s leaving,” said Jeff Wu, a freshman in the course. “The way he teaches is very personal, and students would be pretty upset to lose that.”

Coward and his union representative will meet with members of the campus administration on Oct. 20 to review his grievances with the department.

Chloee Weiner covers student life. Contact her at cweiner@dailycal.org and follow her on Twitter at @_chloeew .

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  • Ben Keller

    I’m heartened to read that Professor Coward is taking full advantage of the rights won by his union to fight his unjust termination. It would be even better if he apologized for very publicly crossing a picket line two years ago. The same rights that he is now relying on to keep his job were once won by “somebody else’s fight” that he short-sightedly encouraged his students to ignore!

    • Pam Berkeley

      I think he is onto something, though. Using students as your pawns in a bargaining game is unfair to the students, who are not part of the struggle. A more appropriate method of protest, which could potentially be conducted such that it doesn’t hurt students at all, would be refusing to submit final grades. (You would have to make sure you don’t hurt somebody who is applying to a job or school that requires grades. But a good 3/4 or so of grades at any given time could probably be safely withheld from the administration.

  • bob sampson

    The irony that the professor who crossed the picket line and told students they don’t have a role in the struggles of grad students and workers on campus, now needs the support of his union and other workers and students.

    • Nuclear Vogue

      I’m guessing that was just your rough draft, let me help you copy-edit:

      The irony that the Professor who crossed the picket line (so that his students didn’t suffer from lost time in the classroom) and told students “do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do” (your words in Dr. Coward’s mouth “told students they don’t have a role in the struggles of grad students and workers on campus” are so far foolishly misinformed that I’d be willing to believe you’ve never stepped foot on the Berkeley campus), now needs the support of [the] union (of which he is contractually bound) and other workers and students (who are resoundingly and by their own volition standing in Dr. Coward’s corner)

  • Mark Talmont

    I always did say the one thing the University could do to improve the lot of the typical undergrad would be to hire a permanent teaching staff with job protections similar to tenure who would be evaluated based on teaching outcomes. Enough with this false premise that teaching and research have anything to do with one another. Some of the most brilliant original researchers simply can’t fathom how anybody else doesn’t “get” what is clear and apparent to them. This is one of the things the high-end private academies have, they hire smart and effective teachers and retain them by paying well. The publics are forced into a model where they can’t make a distinction between the value of computer science or chemistry and P.E,

    • Dima S

      > Enough with this false premise that teaching and research have anything to do with one another

      If working researchers do not have direct participation in the drafting of the curriculum, how in the world will it progress over time and accommodate the new findings and new perspectives, that ultimately allow to explain things deemed advanced and complex in the past in simple terms, as their understanding of the field advances. Working researchers involvement with teaching therefore is indispensable.

      In fact, some countries’ academic systems suffered from a separation into research-only and teaching only parts (France: research institutes under the patronage of CNRS vs. universities), with most students not being exposed to current research, taught by people who largely abandoned their research careers in favour of teaching.

      • Pam Berkeley

        The current problem is really that, with the exception of professors of education, very few people teaching in universities know the first thing about pedagogy. You could have the most brilliant researcher who knows all the most current information, and they would be terrible at deconstructing it and delivering it to novices. This is not superior to having people who are more dedicated to teaching (yet still not trained, alas) who are not current on their field.

        In fields like medicine, doctors and nurses must regularly take professional development credits and exams to stay current. I can see a dedicated (and, preferably, trained) teaching staff who regularly has to re-up their knowledge of the field (which the research professors could handily supply them with) being optimal.

  • This is a crime against the people. It is worth noting that Comrade Guy Fieri came out in support of Professor Coward long ago. We should have been alerted to the administration’s insidious intentions toward the people, when Fieri was not chosen as the commencement speaker….alas, now another comrade is set to fall.