Students protest contract nonrenewal of math lecturer Alexander Coward

Sierra Brown/Staff

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In the shadow of University Hall, roughly 50 students and community members protested the termination of Alexander Coward, a lecturer in the UC Berkeley mathematics department whose experience has garnered significant attention on social media.

The Facebook event for the protest had nearly 4,000 RSVPs, but slightly more than 1 percent of the intended were present at Tuesday’s protest.

While Coward attended a grievance hearing with campus officials inside the hall, students told stories of Coward’s effect on their lives, chanting for campus administrators to renew his contract. A number of current and former students spoke of his devotion to his pupils, notably his habit of giving out his personal cellphone number, unsolicited, to anyone who wanted to talk.

On Oct. 31, 2014, Coward was notified that his lecturing contract would not be renewed by the mathematics department. He has stated on his website that he believes this is due to his acknowledged deviance from departmental teaching norms.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore confirmed in an email that a grievance hearing was held, but because of the privacy of personnel issues, she could not discuss details.

On his personal website Oct. 11, Coward released a series of claims against the math department, alleging that the department did not factor the largely positive teaching evaluations into its review. He then filed a formal grievance — a claim of breach of contract — asserting that portions of his contract relating to performance review were improperly handled.

According to Grace O’Toole, a campus freshman and former Daily Californian reporter who organized the protest, it is not uncommon for his popular undergraduate math lectures to end with a standing ovation.

Coward’s courses are consistently some of the most popular in his department. Out of the three lecture options for Math 1A, the introductory math class, Coward teaches two, each of which boasts nearly full rosters of 400 students. The other lecture, taught by a professor, has roughly 100 students.

O’Toole, who is in Coward’s Math 1A class, said Coward is one of the best teachers she’s had in her entire academic career.

“It shocked me how much he cares about his students and wants them to learn for the sake of learning, not for points,” she said.

Prominent themes of the protest were Coward’s high student reviews and the broad effect of lower-division math courses, which are common prerequisites for many majors, such as computer science, business administration and microbial biology.

Student evaluations from his 2013 courses, referenced in documents released by Coward, show that he received predominantly positive reviews. According to teaching evaluation coordinator Jennifer Sixt Pinney, Coward’s Math 1A evaluation scores are higher than any scores received by professors for at least the last 18 years.

“This an incredible show of student support. He touches so many students,” said ASUC Senator William Morrow, who co-sponsored the protest. “Introductory mathematics is not just for math majors — it’s vital for multiple majors.”

Morrow said he will be introducing an item at the Wednesday ASUC Senate meeting that would express support for an investigation into the math department practices that led to Coward’s termination.

Luke Thomas, a campus sophomore, said that even though he failed Coward’s Math 16A course, it was largely a positive experience.

“I told him I had bad grades in math in high school, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it’ and just worked on building up my math knowledge,” he said. “The experience you have with Coward is not that of a math teacher — it’s that of a counselor.”

Jackson Rigley, a junior studying political science, took a course with Coward and once had dinner with the lecturer. Calling attention to last year’s tuition hikes, Rigley said to the crowd, “If we’re paying more, we need to get more out of it. You’re going to have to fight for education to matter.

“Education is important in its own right,” Rigley said at the protest.

An hour into the protest, Coward, looking visibly rattled, emerged from University Hall and approached the crowd. He called the meeting “extremely unpleasant,” saying he was cross-examined by statistics professor Philip Stark and administrators.

He told protesters that he disagreed with the role of Stark in the meeting. In a Facebook post Tuesday evening, Coward said Stark’s role in the meeting was described as interim associate dean for mathematical and physical sciences.

In response to Coward’s allegation that Stark had been temporarily appointed to a leading role in the department for the purpose of that meeting, Gilmore said in an email that Stark is a professor of statistics and has held various administrative positions, including chair of the department.

In the allegations that Coward published, the then-chair of statistics, Stark, was at the center of a disagreement over the future performance of students in Coward’s courses. In the documents provided by Coward, a statistical analysis conducted by Stark presumably shows students achieving scores 0.17 grade points higher (out of 4.0) in a subsequent math course after taking a course taught by Coward.

In the documents, Stark said that there was “no statistical basis” to believe that students’ success in Math 1B was related to their education in 1A. Coward believes that the statistical analysis — which, according to his grievance, was not included in his personnel file — should be included in his evaluation.

Coward’s meeting was the first step in adjudicating his grievance with the campus. According to his grievance, the campus will respond with a determination of his grievance within 10 days.

Whether Coward will remain at UC Berkeley is uncertain. Meanwhile, Coward continues to teach his introductory calculus class — twice a day, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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