UC Berkeley needs to uphold rights of lecturers

Samantha Patten/Staff

From the perspective of students sitting in a classroom, instructors appear equal. In higher education, however, a two-tiered faculty system exists: tenure-track and nontenure-track positions. In the UC system, “lecturer” is the job title for most nontenure-track faculty, who are hired exclusively to teach and are at the bottom of this hierarchy. Lecturers make up 40 percent of the faculty at UC Berkeley and teach about one-third of undergraduate credit hours across UC campuses; nationwide, 73 percent of all faculty appointments in higher education are nontenure track.

A two-tiered system matters for students because our teaching conditions affect your learning conditions. Being at the bottom of the faculty system means that lecturers have inferior working conditions to tenure-track faculty, and this directly impacts the resources we can offer you, our students. We have much lower pay, a second-class status within our departments and inferior working conditions compared to tenure-track faculty. The job of a lecturer is often insecure, with short notice of teaching assignments and uncertainty about reappointment from semester to semester. Many lecturers are involuntarily part-time workers — they would like to teach more classes than they are offered — and part-time status may also leave them ineligible for benefits. Moreover, lecturers often lack access to resources and support within their departments that tenure-track faculty members take for granted, and many report being treated with disrespect or feeling invisible to tenure-track colleagues.

The material and social conditions of being on the bottom tier of the faculty system create conditions that hurt students. For example, the low pay and job insecurity of lecturers create an incentive to find additional employment in order to earn a living wage. When stretched too thin, lecturers are less available to provide students with the help and support they need. When lecturers do not feel included and supported by their department and colleagues, it is harder for them to be effective teachers.

All of this and more is documented in a recent report titled “Second Class Citizens: A Survey of Berkeley Lecturers,” published by the Academic Senate’s Undergraduate Council. We applaud the senate’s efforts to investigate our working conditions and bring this information to light. Although the report’s title aptly and succinctly characterizes the situation of UC Berkeley’s lecturers, we believe the report presents some aspects of our situation more positively than we experience them. While the report correctly argues that lecturers at UC Berkeley have better pay, benefits and conditions than nontenure-track faculty at other institutions, this is a poor choice for comparison. Outside the tenure system, university teaching is a low-wage job, with a nationwide average full-time wage of about $30,000 per year. It would be far more relevant to compare our pay to that of our tenure-track colleagues, given the similarities in our training, jobs and the fact that we teach the same undergraduate students.

The report also overlooks the reason why UC Berkeley lecturers and lecturers throughout the UC system have the few protections that they do have. We work together through our labor union, UC-AFT, to protect and promote UC Berkeley’s educational mission, and our relative advantages have been hard fought and won through the collective bargaining process.  We will be bargaining our contract again this spring and hope to build on our achievements thus far and further improve our working conditions.

Finally, we believe that the report misportrays the stability of UC Berkeley lecturers’ employment. There is a high turnover rate, however, among individuals within this population. Therefore, while the number of lecturers on campus may be stable, different people are cycling through those positions, lessening job security and depriving students of teachers rooted in their departments and institutions.

Overall, the report concludes that insecurity, invisibility, disrespect and low pay are the steady drumbeats accompanying lecturers as they serve UC Berkeley’s undergraduate teaching mission. Structural changes in higher education point to an ongoing reliance on nontenure-track faculty in the UC system and elsewhere.  

The good news is that there are several ways the situation could be improved.

First, departments need to honor our existing contract. Some of the conditions documented in the report — not having office space, for example — are all contract violations. Department chairs need to be made aware of their contractual obligations and expected to fulfill them. Second, lecturers should be given opportunities to be included in university and departmental governance, especially in matters pertaining to undergraduate teaching. Those who take on this work and other administrative responsibilities should be paid for it. Third, we deserve higher pay. A new, full-time lecturer earns between 56-75 percent of what a first-year assistant professor earns, depending on the instructional unit, assuming no off-scale additional pay. Fourth, we demand greater respect for our contributions to undergraduate teaching and us as fellow members of the academic community. We call on our tenure-track colleagues to challenge the culture of disrespect that is associated with our job title.

We need to stop putting lecturers on the bottom tier of the faculty system. Lecturers are deeply engaged in contributing to UC Berkeley’s mission of teaching undergraduates. We are highly qualified and committed to teaching, and many lecturers have won teaching awards and engage in creative and innovative pedagogy and professional development. Beyond teaching classes, we do extra, unpaid work to serve students and our departments. Moreover, many of us continue to do research, as well. We believe all of us, students, lecturers and our tenure-track colleagues alike would benefit from improving the working conditions of lecturers. Doing so would show that the UC system is taking its undergraduate teaching mission seriously. This spring, we will begin the process of collective bargaining with the UC system. As we approach this opportunity for improving our working conditions, we ask for you to stand with us and show support for our campaign.

Tiffany Page, David Eifler, Ben Brown, Ramona Collins, Anibel Ferus-Comelo, Kim Freeman, Kendra Levine, Joseph Lough and Joanna Reed are members of UC-AFT Local 1474.