If you get a job and do it well, should you expect to keep your job? For most people, this is a no-brainer: If you’re performing up to standard, of course you wouldn’t and shouldn’t be let go.
For 6,500 lecturers in the UC system, however, this is the exception instead of the rule. Even the best lecturers are hired and fired at an alarming rate because there are no mandated evaluation and rehiring processes for their first 12 semesters.
Lecturers have been bargaining with the UC administration for nearly 22 months in order to improve this broken system, which doesn’t do justice to teaching or learning. Lecturers are the UC system’s teaching specialists, dedicated primarily to providing excellent classroom instruction to UC students. As a lecturer at UCLA and lead negotiator for our volunteer faculty bargaining team, I’ve come to understand the gravity of the problem and the inadequacy of UC management’s response to it.
The average UC lecturer teaches for less than two years before losing their job. Most teach a year or less. Between 2019-20 and 2020-21, UC administrators put nearly 2,000 lecturers — 45% of the most contingent teaching faculty — out of work in the middle of a pandemic.
When it comes to teaching faculty, the UC system isn’t an employer. It’s a dis-employer.
One motivation for such massive turnover rates could be to avoid providing lecturers with the raises and job security our union has previously negotiated. But even when there’s no malicious intent, the lack of dignity and respect for our jobs pushes talented lecturers away.
Because the UC administration employs most lecturers part-time, the median annual lecturer salary is $19,000. The starting full-time salary for lecturers qualifies as low-income at six of the nine UC campuses. Some lecturers even make less on a per-class basis than their graduate student instructors. Nearly half of lecturers are unable to receive health insurance through the UC system. More than half are locked out of our nation’s primary safety net, Social Security, because the UC administration refuses to pay into the system.
Even when you love teaching, who wants to stick around at a job lacking such basic necessities? Most lecturers can’t afford to. We have to buy groceries, make our car payments and pay for child care. Our families need the stability that lecturer positions currently don’t provide.
The university has a serious problem retaining teaching faculty. Even worse, it’s a problem UC management is perpetuating, most likely because it seems to keep costs down and faculty — and the students they advocate for — disempowered.
During bargaining sessions with lecturers, representatives of the UC Office of the President suggest that dis-employment — churning us out of jobs — could potentially elevate educational quality. According to this logic, teaching is better when it’s done by those with little to no experience. UC management’s position suggests that students learn well when lecturers are terrified that they won’t be able to provide for their families. In actuality, research shows that poor pay and instability for contingent faculty correlate to less learning for students.
Under our current union contract, rehiring decisions can be arbitrary and are not necessarily based on performance. Some might imagine that constantly having to reapply for your own job would lead to a merit-based competition, but we believe without consistent evaluation and rehiring standards there is no way to determine which faculty are actually meritorious. Many lecturers tell me they have never been observed teaching by faculty peers or colleagues. With the odds against them, there is no guarantee that the best lecturers will survive to teach again.
The message being sent to UC students seems to be that their education isn’t important enough to provide faculty jobs with dignity.
Students, however, are pushing back. More than 2,300 have already signed a petition indicating that a stable teaching workforce is essential for a high-quality student experience. The UC system shouldn’t be run as a gig employer. Our great university isn’t Uber or Lyft, and teaching UC students shouldn’t be just a gig or a side hustle. It’s a career that faculty dedicate themselves to because they love mentoring and creating knowledge with their students.
It’s not as if there’s a lack of work. Applications to the UC system are up 16% this year. The classes are there. The students are there. But nearly 75% of the lecturers who taught during 2015-16 are no longer at the UC system. Many of them were brilliant scholars and gifted teachers who were arbitrarily dis-employed.
Applications from Black and Latinx students have also skyrocketed this year. As the university admits more and more historically underrepresented students, we have to ask: What kind of education are they getting access to? A university that does not retain first-rate faculty can only provide a second-rate education. True equity for students means there must be stability for the lecturers who do so much to support their success.
In collective bargaining, lecturers have proposed to advance equity through fair, transparent and consistent evaluation and rehiring practices. Our bargaining proposals are not pie in the sky. They’re not even unusual. Evaluation and rehiring processes for part-time faculty and lecturers already exist at every California Community College and at the Cal State University system. We want our university to align with the industry standard for public higher education in California.
My lecturer colleagues and I have been negotiating with UC executives and lawyers for nearly two years to bring dignity, respect and stability to UC teaching jobs. Although we’ve brought many ideas to the table for reducing dis-employment, UC management has never made a single proposal for a rehiring process during a lecturer’s first 12 semesters. The administration made a proposal for an evaluation process once, in Jan. 2020, which it later retracted.
We want to agree to a fair contract now. A fair contract must include a fair shot for lecturers to keep their jobs. The ongoing brain drain is bad for students, bad for faculty, bad for the nation’s foremost public university and bad for the people of California. We all deserve a university that values and rewards great teaching rather than pushing it out through a revolving door.
Mia McIver is a lecturer at UCLA and president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, the labor union for UC lecturers and librarians.