Deviating from the norm

After sparking controversy with the second viral post of his career, Alexander Coward awaits a grievance hearing scheduled for Tuesday

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Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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The campus will consider a case Tuesday brought by a widely known math lecturer who has amassed an army of student support over the past week.

Alexander Coward and his union representative will meet with members of the campus administration in a grievance hearing to demand a reappointment review process that considers a number of documents previously excluded from the evaluation of his personnel file. After the original review, conducted in October 2014, the math department decided Coward’s contract would not be renewed after the 2015-16 academic year.

Coward announced his termination along with a series of allegations against the math department — in a post on his website publicized through social media last week. The accusations have raised concerns regarding the review process that led to Coward’s termination as well as broader questions about the role of lecturers and the effectiveness of the campus’s current approach to teaching lower-division math.

The post rapidly circulated among UC Berkeley students and received 250,000 views in the first 24 hours, according to Coward. Students also shared an event page for a protest scheduled for Tuesday, which currently lists nearly 4,000 attendees on Facebook.

“You don’t put things on the record without the expectation that people will look at it. That’s what it means to blow the whistle,” Coward said. “There’s no point if it doesn’t make tons of noise.”

Higher standards

Coward was previously the subject of national attention in November 2013 when an email he wrote to his students went viral. Coward, who sent the email the night before graduate student instructors and other UC employees went on strike, explained why he would not cancel class the next day.

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

“Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing,” he said in the email. “It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.”

Among the claims Coward laid out in his recent grievance was that department leadership excluded student evaluations from his personnel file. The post also pointed to a department study that tracked Coward’s students from Math 1A to Math 1B and found that his students’ average grade was 0.17 points higher than that of students who took Math 1A with a different instructor. According to Coward, an analysis by members of the math and statistics departments found that the data was not statistically significant.

Beyond Coward’s gripes concerning the review process, he also alleged that the department repeatedly insisted he adhere to “department norms” — such as graded homework, the use of a particular textbook and regular quizzes — which he claims are detrimental to learning.

Coward has taken up this departure from department conventions as a rallying cry for his cause, which he said extends past the issue of his employment.

“The end goal is not to get my job back. The end goal is to provide the students of UC Berkeley and the rest of the world with a world-class education,” Coward said. “Currently, this is not consistently the case, and that’s a problem.”

A short-term solution

In contrast to the overwhelming number of students who have vocalized support for Coward on social media, the campus and math department have, for the most part, remained silent on the issue, citing confidentiality in the case of individual personnel matters.

According to an email from campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, the terms of the collective bargaining agreement make clear that lecturers who have worked for a department for less than six years have an appointment with a specific start and end date.

“When that ending date is reached, the appointment expires automatically; the lecturer is not fired,” she said in the email.

Lawrence Craig Evans and Arthur Ogus, the current and former chairs of the math department, respectively, declined to comment.

Increased job security for precontinuing lecturers such as Coward has been the subject of contract negotiations between the university and University Council-AFT, the union that represents UC non-senate faculty and librarians, said Bill Quirk, associate director of UC-AFT, in an email.

“The University treats all lecturers as temporary appointments when there is clearly a permanent need for excellent teaching faculty,” Quirk said in the email. “Mr. Coward teaches calculus courses for which there is an indefinite need. Nothing temporary here, and yet, UC often insists on churning lecturers out of these positions.”

After disclosing that a representative from his union filed a grievance on his behalf, Coward received criticism from students who say it is hypocritical for him to rely on UC-AFT after announcing his intent to cross a union picket line in his email to students in 2013.

Coward said that although he is not against organized labor, he does not consider unions a priority.

“I prioritize being there for my students and that’s the metric by which I make my decisions,” Coward said.

Different styles 

Though Katrin Wehrheim, a math professor, is one of more than 3,000 signatories of an online petition to reinstate Coward’s employment, she is one of the few members of the math department to publicly demonstrate support for the lecturer.

Wehrheim said she is “not at all surprised” by the department’s alleged behavior, citing past difficulties reconciling the department’s teaching style with her own.

“A number of grievances like Coward’s could be filed by other members of the department, but they know their efforts would be futile,” Wehrheim said.

Public discourse from math department faculty has been kept to a minimum, but Wehrheim and other professors weighed in on the topic in a Facebook thread originally posted by Michael Hutchings, another professor in the department.

In the post, Hutchings compared Coward’s situation to that of an employee who is hired to make red stop signs “on a temporary contract which may be renewed” if performance is satisfactory, but begins producing signs that are pink or yellow, against the employer’s wishes.

“You continue to make stop signs the way that you are convinced is best. Your employer does not renew your contract. You claim that you were fired because your employer felt threatened by your superior stop signs. Really?” Hutchings said in the post.

While Coward has characterized his unconventional teaching style as one that is beneficial to students — citing positive student reviews, high class attendance and his students’ reported advantage in Math 1B — he has faced questions regarding the execution and effectiveness of his approach.

According to a graduate student instructor who previously worked under Coward, the lecturer had a minor role in his course’s grading process last spring.

“His philosophy was that grades detract from learning, so he wanted to avoid them altogether,” said the graduate student, who requested to remain anonymous. “When it came time to grade exams, he didn’t join or manage the grading process at all. Despite the fact that he doesn’t like grades, I disagreed with how he washed his hands of the whole process.”

The graduate student also recalled some confusion among students who found it difficult to follow the course narrative because Coward maintained a flexible lecture schedule and often pursued tangents. The graduate student said that too much flexibility can be risky in teaching math because the subject builds on itself.

“It’s important that every instructor can make sure that if students go into a new class, they’ll know certain concepts,” the student said. “Communicating the breadth of ideas necessary for more advanced math courses is not just about inspiring people or about being charmed by your professor.”

Gilmore also noted the importance of uniformity of academic preparation in service courses: classes that fulfill general education requirements or are prerequisites for upper-division courses in a major.

“All of the students who take the course are supposed to receive the same academic preparation in the service course, no matter which professor or lecturer teaches it,” Gilmore said in an email. “Consequently, a department may direct everyone who teaches the course to follow the same syllabus and other class requirements.”
Evans, along with other members of the department and the campus, will be present at Tuesday’s hearing. Coward is entitled to receive a response within 15 days of the meeting.

Chloee Weiner covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_chloeew .