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As UC Berkeley EECS TAs win millions, students face negative repercussions

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JANUARY 28, 2020

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived an esteemed electrical engineering and computer sciences department and a lovely little legion of TAs. Unfortunately, though, all was not well. Campus was denying its student instructors of well-deserved tuition remission.

Then one day, a mysterious stranger appeared. She was called the UAW — or U-Knight for short. The U-Knight raised her sword and declared that EECS shall reign no longer; after much fighting, the department was drubbed. Thus the TAs lived happily ever after, and the power of collective action reigned supreme.

So goes the story, anyway.

This is the epic saga being circulated by the United Automobile Workers Local 2865 of its recent victory over the UC Berkeley EECS department. On Jan. 13, an arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor, ending a years-long dispute over whether campus could hire undergraduate TAs at a rate of eight hours per week to avoid paying their tuition fees (a requirement for appointments that were 10 hours or more per week). Campus must now front millions of dollars to retroactively compensate past eight-hour hires. And henceforth all TAs, regardless of hours hired, will have their tuition covered.

As a former eight-hour undergraduate TA and union member myself, I am not entirely opposed to this telling of the story. I don’t think it is entirely incorrect, but I do believe that such a telling obscures how this decision will have consequences that may hurt both TAs and students in the long run.

Let me begin by saying that while I don’t see this change as inherently bad, I don’t see it as necessary or practical.

The change was not necessary because, in my opinion, undergraduate TAs were already being compensated fairly. If we convert our semesterly stipend to wages, eight-hour TAs were earning between $25 and $30 per hour. Most of us only taught between two and five hours each week, which means that we were also being paid for prep work, communications, staff meetings and exam reviews. Furthermore, eight-hour TAs were almost exclusively undergraduates. We were not graduate students with 20-hours-per-week contracts who were promised funding upon acceptance into a program. Our primary qualification for hiring was getting an A in a course.

The change is not practical because it will likely lead to a decrease in both the number of TAs employed and the total number of hours available for TAs. The EECS department has a limited supply of funds, which based on past precedent, campus will not supplement. So the department will likely switch to using cost-effective, 20-hours-per-week TAs exclusively. This would reduce the total number of TAs hired by up to two-thirds. In addition, the fee remission requirement will make all TA labor hours more expensive, cutting the number of available TA hours by at least one-third. We could end up with fewer TAs who collectively work fewer hours.

Keeping all this in mind, we can now consider three probable consequences of the EECS TA decision.

First, one of UC Berkeley’s most vibrant teaching communities will weaken. Over the past several years, the UC Berkeley Computer Science Division has nurtured a network of thousands of undergraduate teachers. Joining course staff has been a unique opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of material, gain pedagogical experience and collaborate in revising course content to better suit their peers’ needs. With the dramatic reduction in TA numbers, this network will take a significant hit.

Second, computer science class sizes will shrink. It’s difficult to imagine how, with more than one-third fewer TA hours available, the department will be able to maintain its current scale of massive classes. Course enrollment caps will shrink, and that will mean fewer seats for students who decide to study CS late, don’t qualify for the major or simply want to learn how to use programming to enhance their work in other disciplines.

Finally, the major will become more exclusive. Smaller class sizes will require that fewer College of Letters & Science students be admitted into the computer science major. Department leads will thus need to revise their selection criteria, and I fear that they will opt for the disastrous option of raising the minimum GPA requirement (already a 3.3 cumulative across computer science 61A, 61B and 70). Doing so would only amplify a mechanism that encourages competition, devalues mental health, advantages students with strong STEM backgrounds, advantages upper-class individuals who can afford the opportunity cost of studying versus working and transforms professors into grade-distribution guardians whose primary concern is writing sufficiently difficult exams.

We have, then, a profoundly pessimistic take on the future of computer science at UC Berkeley. But what of it? Who are we to care?

Well, it turns out there is another factor at play here: power. Each of the relevant institutional actors is deeply dependent on students. Students have the power, therefore, to pressure UAW to distinguish between undergraduate and graduate TA contracts in its next round of negotiations; to pressure the EECS department to prioritize diversity, accessibility and equitability (not equality), as it deals with the oncoming resource scarcity; and to pressure campus to increase funding for courses that are in exceptionally high demand.

The story of EECS and its TA legion may indeed have a happy ending, but stakeholders must ensure that it is their voices, not time alone, that tell it.

Schuyler Ross is a UC Berkeley alumnus; he studied sociology and computer science.

JANUARY 28, 2020