The working conditions of lecturers are learning conditions of students

Illustration depicting lecturers on strike
Karissa Ho/Staff

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Before the end of the Fall 2021 semester, there is a high possibility that the lecturers at UC Berkeley will go on strike. As a coalition of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, we are appalled and alarmed that after two years of negotiations, the University of California has yet to agree to a new contract with lecturers and their union, University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT.

It is time we all support the lecturers who play an essential role in teaching our classes, yet are continuously unsupported by the University of California. 

On the surface, little differentiates instructional faculty on campus. However, lecturers, in contrast, are paid solely to teach, rarely receive security of employment and have no formal say in campus governance. In the past decade, the number of lecturers at UC Berkeley has grown dramatically, from 637 in April 2011 to 1,029 in April 2021. There are now almost as many lecturers on campus as there are Senate faculty and the official figures don’t include several hundred employees who have teaching responsibilities but different job titles.

According to the Academic Senate’s own study, lecturers teach 40% of student credit hours at UC Berkeley. That means that most undergraduates are almost as likely to be taught by a lecturer as a member of the Senate faculty. 

So why does campus now rely so heavily on the work of lecturers to fulfill its teaching mission?

State funding has fallen and the administration appears to have given up on making a sustained case for a reversal of that situation. Instead, the current system relies on debt-financed tuition revenue (now boosted by the new cohort tuition plan that allows for 5% rises for each cohort) from skyrocketing undergraduate enrollments and private donations for donors’ pet projects.

This leaves student debt, classroom overcrowding and underpaid lecturers with no security as the campus’s go-to solutions to paying for the daily running of the institution. Hence the intransigence of campus negotiators when faced with lecturers’ reasonable demands.

Accordingly, over the past decade, as undergraduate enrollments have shot up and the number of faculty positions has barely risen, lecturers have been hired in increasing numbers to fill the gap. Simply put, lecturers are cheaper than Senate faculty and can be hired and fired on demand. The median salary of a lecturer was just $19k in 2019, as opposed to $163,742 for Senate faculty.

As the majority of lecturers are hired to teach on a part-time basis for a semester or a year, 29% of lecturers on our campus do not even qualify for health benefits. More than a quarter of lecturers are “churned” every year — that is their appointments are not renewed. 

This is a disgraceful way to treat our colleagues without whom the campus could not function and students could not graduate. The working conditions of lecturers are the learning conditions of students. Insofar as (actual, if not official) campus practice is not to rehire lecturers as they approach the threshold where they are eligible for security of employment, lecturers’ focus on teaching is disrupted by the constant search for new work. The unpredictability lecturers face produces uncertainty for students, too, as they face losing inspirational teachers and mentors. 

If UC Berkeley is to maintain its position as the best public university in the world, it must ensure that no instructional faculty endure such unpredictable, precarious and poorly paid working conditions. It is especially galling that lecturers are treated so poorly given that they are often women and people of color and research scholars whose expertise is neither recognized nor funded.

UC-AFT has been negotiating for two and a half years with the University of California for a fair contract for lecturers. They are demanding a living wage and a transparent and consistent rehiring process based on evaluations, not churning.

UC-AFT is eager to not declare a strike, and yet that outcome appears increasingly likely — unless Senate faculty and students can demonstrate sufficient support for their cause. Without that show of support, it is unlikely that UC President Michael Drake and the Regents will get the message.

The Berkeley Faculty Association, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents graduate students on campus and the ASUC will stand together alongside UC-AFT in rallies that will be held at noon on Wednesday, October 13 and Thursday, October 14, on the steps of the MLK Student Union. At this rally, UC-AFT will be calling on the University of California to approve a contract that provides the working conditions lecturers need to teach our students. Such a contract will support the campus’s public mission.

We urge the student body at UC Berkeley to join us in supporting their, and thus all of our, cause.

Kai Yui Samuel Chan is the UAW 2865 Recording Secretary. James Weichert is the ASUC Academic Vice President. Sharad Chari, Leslie Salzinger and James Vernon are co-chairs of the Berkeley Faculty Association. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.