UC lecturers deserve better job security, more respect as UC faculty members

Illustration of people holding signs that read "faculty equity=student success"
Samantha Patten/Staff

When you choose a class to take, you probably check to see who the instructor is and what other students say about them.

But how often do you investigate your faculty member’s job title?

Not very often, right? Most of the time, from a student’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the faculty member leading the class is a lecturer or professor. But for lecturers, there are huge disparities in salary, benefits, resources, and stability.  We carry out the educational mission of the university under stressful and unjust conditions. An examination of these conditions would lead some to conclude that nobody can be bothered to care about teaching in the UC system.

Lecturers are contract faculty: UC administrators employ us on short-term, temporary contracts, most of which last only for one semester or one year. The UC administration refuses to provide health insurance to more than one-third of us. The pay is so low — and the jobs are so part-time — that many of us need second and even third jobs to make ends meet.

A university that values education must invest in its teaching faculty. Contract faculty teach about one-third of undergraduate student credit hours across the entire UC system, which means we’re an integral part of your education. Quite simply, the conditions in which we work determine how much and how well you can learn. Our labor union, University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), is currently negotiating with executives and lawyers from the UC Office of the President (UCOP) in order to dramatically improve the support and resources available to your teaching faculty.

More than 1,500 UC-AFT faculty taught at UC Berkeley during the past year. About one-third of them will be prevented from returning next year by an administration that is neglectful at best and callous at worst. Turnover rates at other UC campuses are roughly the same. The high turnover means that the same lecturers who welcome you to campus your first year will probably have been purged by the time you graduate.

Lecturers aren’t leaving because we want to. We’re being forced out as a result of a UC administration that systematically destabilizes students’ education by treating faculty jobs as revolving doors through which master teachers are constantly being thrown out. We all have brilliant colleagues who have lost their jobs despite being extraordinarily talented teachers. They were purged seemingly because the university wanted to save money or because their presence was inconvenient.

Our overall goal in our negotiations is to demand that the UC system recenter education at the heart of the university’s mission. There’s a lot at stake for students in this demand. We need clean, safe, modern classrooms. We need more mental health resources so that everyone in our campus community can learn and work without fear or anguish. We need the UC system to support our professional development so we can stay on the cutting edge of our fields and bring that knowledge to UC students. In short, we’re demanding that the UC system treat teaching faculty with the same level of respect and dignity that tenure-track faculty receive.

In response, what we hear at the bargaining table is that the UC administration values flexibility above all else. Flexibility to a university administrator seems to manifest as the arbitrary power to hire and fire for any reason — or no reason at all. It means failing to invest in the experts who love sharing their expertise with students. This type of flexibility is a corporate value, not an educational value. UC students deserve faculty who are able to devote time, care and attention to teaching. A university that treats its employees as disposable does a gross disservice to its students.

We have a fight ahead of us. At our last bargaining session, the lawyers and executives from UCOP demanded that we give up the right to be considered for reappointment. They don’t want to assess, evaluate or rehire teaching faculty after our contracts expire. Every UC student should find this a highly offensive assault on undergraduate education.

The time has come for all of us — lecturers, students, permanent faculty, staff and administrators — to stand up and declare that this isn’t right. Students and faculty both deserve better. Our next contract must reflect the importance of your education. Faculty equity is the best path to student success.

Mia McIver is the president of UC-AFT and a lecturer at UCLA.