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Blowing the whistle on the whistle blower

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OCTOBER 16, 2015

The recent wave of social media activism to keep math lecturer Alexander Coward on campus has achieved widespread support and elicited a passionate response from students. But for all the petitions, protest planning and sharing of Coward’s manifesto, the sweeping movement is largely based on a set of one-sided facts, not the full story.

Coward’s post, “Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department,” accuses the math department of systematically laying off faculty who “teach too well” — including himself. In the post, which went viral Sunday night, Coward wrote that he was “fired” or, more specifically, that his contract as a lecturer would not be renewed despite his immense popularity. But before students rush to rally behind the beloved lecturer, they need to consider where their information is coming from and the complex intricacies behind personnel decisions such as this one.

The overwhelming student response in support of Coward originates purely from his own posts — his own experiences and his own opinions. The fact that students have so quickly and so adamantly latched onto this one-sided story serves to reveal the hypocrisy within a great deal of UC Berkeley students’ activism: pledged support of popular, trendy causes that appear to buck the system without the facts to back up the rhetoric. Indeed, many of those sharing Coward’s manifesto or imploring others to “like” the campaign to keep him on campus have never taken a class with him — or any in the math department, for that matter.

Coward’s claim to fame comes from a 2013 email that exploded on many news outlets, which was sent the night before a strike by graduate student instructors and proclaimed that Coward was going to hold class instead of canceling it in solidarity with the GSI union. Undergraduates rallied behind Coward’s dedication to their education, but the incident reflects another time that students embraced charismatic rhetoric rather than critically thinking about the entirety of an issue.

In regards to the present issue, the leadership of the math department has not commented because individual personnel decisions, such as Coward’s, are confidential — especially while a union-represented appeal is ongoing. As a result, one person has complete control over what information is disseminated and in what way.

If the math department is truly committing a grave injustice by not renewing Coward’s contract for whatever reason, then students should absolutely be protesting. If the math department is systemically flawed, students within the math department who are aware of the issues should take them up — though as of now, we don’t have enough of the facts to come to any such conclusions.

It’s true that lecturers get the short end of the stick in terms of workload, pay and job security. But the contents of Coward’s manifesto mostly concern his own teaching style and justifications for his continuance rather than critiquing the difficult position in which lecturers are often placed. What would be valuable is advocacy on behalf of all lecturers, not just ad hominem arguments for and against faculty members and the leveraging of one’s popularity.

Students crusading for Coward — who has masterfully pushed his case into the public sphere — should seek to find causes about which they are truly passionate, which aren’t necessarily the ones accessible on social media. If students are truly dedicated to activism on campus, they will take up movements that inspire them for more than just the fleeting moment when they see posts on a Facebook page or retweets on Twitter.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

OCTOBER 15, 2015