In times of crisis, when revenues dry up and costs must be cut, large institutions such as the UC system cannot conduct business as usual. Yet even in desperate times, not all desperate measures are created equal. Facing a $200 million coronavirus-related budget shortfall and a 10% cut to higher education in the state budget, UC Berkeley took drastic action and announced a campuswide hiring freeze effective April 1.
Initially, the freeze exempted pre-continuing lecturers, whose jobs are especially vulnerable because they need to be reappointed annually or semesterly until they attain “continuing” status. Revisions to the hiring freeze, however, included all lecturers, threatening the chances of their reappointment. UC Berkeley lecturers have already worked all spring without a contract, and despite promises the UC system will not lay off career employees through June 30, COVID-19 will still leave lecturers in indefinite limbo.
In the 2018-19 academic year, non-tenure-track faculty members (such as lecturers) taught 42% of student credit hours, and their potential scarcity would be conspicuous next fall. Though incoming freshmen may defer enrollment and continuing students may withdraw given an unpredictable semester of virtual classes, fewer lecturers inevitably makes for larger class sizes. Disruptions to instruction will already erode the quality of courses next semester, and no amount of “instructional resilience” can compensate for outsized classes and the disheartening anonymity of large video lectures.
In times of economic turmoil, moreover, college enrollment rates have historically risen, and far from cutting the higher education budget, now is the time for California to invest more in its universities. Gov. Gavin Newsom is right to call for federal aid to states, but in the meantime, California’s own budget should not further squeeze its schools. Universities are already making do with record low levels of funding per student, and further cuts will threaten lecturers and the students they benefit.
Notably, local unions also argue some of the university’s austerity measures may not be necessary: By diverting funds from its endowment and borrowing at uncommonly low interest rates, UC Berkeley could adapt to the crisis without hemorrhaging personnel. Though employee salaries compose a majority of the campus budget, they need not be the first target. If many pre-continuing lecturers are not reappointed, subsequent semesters may be afflicted by a “brain drain,” as qualified lecturers are forced to leave UC Berkeley and seek employment elsewhere.
UC Berkeley’s reputation may depend on the eminence of its tenured professors, but students’ daily experiences of campus tend to center far more around lecturers. If, as Chancellor Carol Christ claims, “what makes Berkeley Berkeley” is, above all, “our community,” then UC Berkeley ought to treat that community — and its most undervalued members — as its top priority.