Lecturers in limbo

As the number of lecturers on campus rise, debate persists over their role

Campus lecturer Kurt Spreyer teaches Environmental Science, Policy and Management 50AC in Stanley Hall.
Rachael Garner/Senior Staff
Campus lecturer Kurt Spreyer teaches Environmental Science, Policy and Management 50AC in Stanley Hall.

Robert Chester worries that by the end of the summer, he will no longer have a job.

Chester, a campus lecturer in the history department, had received yearlong teaching contracts for four years — until this year, when the campus hired him per semester for the first time. Chester is in limbo. If he is able to teach on campus for another year, he will potentially be eligible for a long-term appointment. But job security isn’t a guarantee.

Three times a week, Chester drives two hours from his home in Sacramento to Berkeley. When Chester started teaching in the UC Berkeley history department nearly five years ago, he was thrilled.

“When I first got here, I had a ball,” Chester said, who teaches American history. “The students were great; the classes were great.”

As much as he loves his work, Chester is frustrated by his role as a lecturer, a status that leaves him with much less job stability than tenure-track faculty members. Often, Chester doesn’t know whether he’ll be teaching until just weeks before the new semester, forcing him to constantly search for backup jobs.

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Robert Chester, a lecturer in the history department, is one of several lecturers on campus who feel frustrated with the instability of their positions.                                           Phillip Downey / Senior Staff

He’s not alone. Lecturers teach about 24 percent of classes at UC Berkeley, and they just finished a yearlong contract battle with the university over benefits and compensation. At the center of the conflict, though, is something much deeper — the purpose of lecturers at the university.

In past decades, lecturers served as temporary instructors, filling in for tenured faculty. But increasingly, the university relies on lecturers, who have fewer employment safeguards and lower salaries, to teach courses.

“(Lecturers) are used up and often thrown away,” said Michelle Squitieri, a former campus lecturer and current union representative for lecturers.

The university itself is divided on the role of lecturers. Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email in October that lecturers “often fill in for regular faculty who are on leave, provide additional teaching to cover surges in enrollment, and teach large undergraduate classes.”

Janet Broughton, vice provost for the faculty, said in a statement that some lecturers are hired as replacement instructors when ladder faculty are on leave, but many are hired into positions for which there is expected to be a longer-term need.

There are lecturers, however, who protest their precarious position on campus.

There is a “permanent need for the classes we teach,” said Mia McIver, a lecturer at UCLA and president of University Council – American Federation of Teachers Local 1990, at a demonstration on campus in November.

A rising issue

The role of lecturers in American universities has become increasingly important over the last few decades as their numbers have swelled rapidly. In 1975, contingent faculty such as lecturers and adjunct professors made up 43 percent of all university faculty in the United States, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. By 2011, that number had grown to 70 percent.

“(Lecturers) are used up and often thrown away.”

— Michelle Squitieri, former campus lecturer and current union representative for lecturers

At UC Berkeley, full-time lecturers teach more than tenured faculty but for a lower salary. The least amount a ladder faculty member can make, in the position of an assistant professor, is $57,600 a year. In most cases, this salary is for both research and teaching. Their pay rises every two years and includes job security and representation in the Academic Senate, the governing body of faculty on campus.

A lecturer with no seniority, teaching full time — roughly 12 campus units — makes $49,012. If the lecturer teaches an exceptionally large course or one that requires a large amount of grading, one four-unit course can take on the value of two or more courses.

2003: A new system

In 2003, after a three-year-long battle where lecturers worked without a contract for two academic years, an agreement establishing the current system of lectureship was reached between the UC system and the UC–AFT, the union that represents lecturers in the university.

The system established by the agreement provided for all lecturers to exist in a system with two types of employment — one temporary and insecure, the other long-term and stable. The system, however, leaves lecturers with a vague idea of their future at the university and further muddies the idea of the purpose of the lecturer.

Before the 2003 agreement, lecturers worked on contracts that were at most three years long, with no guarantee that they would receive another after it elapsed. The agreement created a system in which during the first six years of employment, precontinuing lecturers work on contracts — anywhere from a semester to two years in length — without security of employment, like under the previous system.

New in the 2003 contract was the opportunity for lecturers to undergo a performance review after six years of work and become eligible for a continuing appointment. The continuing appointment guarantees that, without extenuating circumstances, a lecturer will maintain a teaching position at the university.

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Kurt Spreyer                                                 Phillip Downey / Senior Staff

Benjamin Harder, chief negotiator for the UC-AFT in its negotiations with the university, described the system as one that hasn’t grappled with the dual existence of career lecturers and temporary lecturers.

“A lot of time, lecturers are hired to fill in temporary roles,” Harder said. “There’s not really careers for temporary lecturers. There are places where — in the UC’s writing programs, for example — where people are going to take first-year writing, no matter what. Senate faculty members are never going to teach first-year writing.”

But many lecturers, regardless of the curricular needs of the department, don’t make it to the performance review — they either choose to leave the campus, or their contracts are not renewed before they reach the six-year mark.

Kurt Spreyer, president of UC-AFT Local 1474 and lecturer in the campus College of Natural Resources, estimates that only about one-third of all lecturers reach the continuing appointment stage.

Chester said that obtaining a continuing appointment is “extraordinarily difficult.” He said the history department wasn’t sure if it would grant him a continuing appointment, and it concerned him that his new contract was on a semesterly basis because he had previously worked on yearlong contracts.

“Your evaluations have to be outstanding” to get a continuing appointment, Chester said.

Chester believes that lecturers don’t express an intent to pursue a continuing appointment for fear of negative consequences.

“That’s something that lecturers, as a rule, don’t do, as it does raise a red flag administratively,” Chester said. “That’s simply unwise.“

Spreyer, too, said that often, announcing interest in cultivating a career as a lecturer entangles one in departmental politics. Lecturers can be subject to termination at the inclination of a department chair, according to Spreyer.

“Teachers can become afraid to talk about the stuff they should be teaching — like racial epithets in a sociology course on the subject.”

— Gwendolyn Bradley, senior program officer for the American Association of University Professors

A 2015 flare-up

The precontinuing lecturer system became a subject of discussion after the 2015 contract nonrenewal of Alexander Coward, a popular math lecturer. Coward was not renewed as a lecturer because he violated departmental norms, such as not assigning homework — actions he defends, arguing that norms may need to be changed. The campus was not obligated to renew Coward’s contract because he is a precontinuing lecturer, hired in 2013. He filed a lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents for whistleblower retaliation, defamation and discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Coward’s situation reflects a belief among some educators that academic freedom is compromised by the current contingent faculty system.

“Teachers can become afraid to talk about the stuff they should be teaching — like racial epithets in a sociology course on the subject,” said Gwendolyn Bradley, senior program officer for the American Association of University Professors. “They may self-censor, they may not push the limits of the curriculum, they may not grade as harshly.”

At a protest of his contract nonrenewal, Coward spoke to a crowd calling for curricular flexibility.

“I don’t think that education and teaching should necessarily be stagnant. I think that having standards is good — theoretically, it ensures that all students get an education.” Coward said at the protest. “(But) if there are new methods, and they are shown to work, and students benefit … it should be taken into account.”

Lecturers_Elshahawi-01A growing trend

While their role remains nebulous, the number of lecturers continues to grow on campus, from 601 in 2008 to 749 in 2013.

Campus officials attribute this rise to a 2010 program called the Common Good Curriculum, or CGC.

Designed to reduce class size and improve undergraduate class access, the initiative committed nearly $25 million to class offerings over a five-year period and funded 479 class sections focused on the sciences, foreign languages and reading and composition for the 2013-14 school year.

During this time, traditional tenured and tenure-track faculty shrank slightly, from 1,599 in 2008 to 1,544 in 2013.

The university states that the initiative staved off an increase in class size during a time when the undergraduate population has grown.

Since the program began in 2010, the average lower-division class size has remained constant at about 43 students through the 2013-14 school year, while the total undergraduate population has incrementally increased from 25,255 to 25,712. Lower-division secondary sections, such as labs and discussions, which the initiative focuses on, have decreased from 23 students per section to 20 students per section in that time.

A new contract

On Feb. 5, the union and the university announced a tentative agreement on a new contract, keeping the lecturing system relatively in line with the system established in 2003. Lecturers, however, receive a 6 percent raise, and some lecturers who weren’t getting retirement benefits will get a lump sum equivalent to 5 percent of their annual salary.

Harder outlined three potential models for the lecturing system that lecturers could pursue in future bargaining.

In one model, even if the lecturer position became a full-time job with benefits, Harder said, the position would remain insecure, because lecturers could be replaced with tenure-track faculty.

The worst model, according to Harder, was the system before the 2003 contract, where lecturers worked solely on three-year-maximum contracts without extra security of employment.

The final path Harder outlined was the path taken by the 2003 contract, which he called an “awful squishy middle ground.”

After the conclusion of the yearlong negotiations, Spreyer is optimistic about lecturers’ futures.

“I think that developing a well-trained, professionally engaged teaching faculty is in everyone’s interest,” Spreyer said. “It depends on developing a new culture on campus that recognizes the value of teaching faculty. I look forward to this contract as a starting point.”

Moving beyond

On Wednesday, campus officials announced plans to cut costs, but Ben Hermalin, chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate and professor of economics, has previously said he doesn’t expect nontenure-track faculty such as lecturers to be laid off. The increase in enrollment, Hermalin said, renders the campus even more dependent on lecturers, who cost less to employ than tenured faculty.

“Developing a well-trained, professionally engaged teaching faculty is in everyone’s interest.”

— Kurt Spreyer, president of UC-AFT Local 1474 and lecturer

The CGC, which Broughton cited as the reason for the increase of lecturers on campus, has received more funding over time, rising from $1.8 million in 2010 to $7.9 million in 2014. Gilmore said funding for the program will continue to increase for the current academic year.

In addition to an increase in funding for the hiring of lecturers, campus enrollment continues to grow. The university plans to take in an additional 6,500 students this fall, with UC Berkeley enrolling an extra 750 students. The campus’s 2014 report on the CGC cited higher-than-expected enrollment as a reason for expansion of the program. As with the CGC funding, Gilmore said the budget for temporary academic staff, such as lecturers, will also increase.

“All universities are becoming ever more dependent on nontenured faculty,” said Michael Burawoy, campus professor of sociology. “Insofar as the university is now dependent on a labor force of lecturers, then these lecturers should have careers.”

As the number of lecturers on campus continues to increase, Burawoy sees their role in the university changing.

“The old university was where those who do research (also) teach,” he said. “The new university is a place where people are beginning to make careers in just teaching.”

While Chester does not know if he will remain on campus after his contract elapses this summer, he is certain about one thing.

“Lecturers aren’t going anywhere,” he said.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.