UC Berkeley lecturers face hardship without tenure

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Can Jozef Saul/Staff
Campus lecturers face difficulties balancing teaching obligations with research, which is considered in tenure decisions.

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Although Fang Xu, a longtime lecturer and researcher in the Interdisciplinary Studies Field at UC Berkeley, possesses extensive academic achievements and credentials, she is unable to spearhead her own research projects.

Xu noted she and many other untenured campus faculty face obstacles in conducting research as a faculty member with a Ph.D, but without tenure.

“I published a book last year,” Xu said. “But I couldn’t hold the status of principal investigator for my own work because I am not tenured.”

Xu added that while writing the last chapter of her book, she received notice from campus to pause her research because she was not qualified to supervise her own research as a lecturer. Her department was extremely supportive and wrote letters to the dean requesting an exemption, Xu noted.

Xu’s book — “Silencing Shanghai: Language and Identity in Urban China” — was published in 2021, but hardships like these are not the only ones lecturers at UC Berkeley face.

“(Campus) increasingly relies on lecturers to teach,” said Crystal Chang Cohen, lecturer and co-chair of UC-AFT’s Bay Area chapter. “They can hire more and pay them a lot less.”

Cohen added that after 12 semesters as lecturers, lecturers are eligible for an excellence review, in which they are considered for a contract as “continuing lecturer.” Cohen noted 1,300 members of UC Berkeley’s teaching faculty are currently awaiting a review.

In Nov. 2021, lecturers across the UC system planned to strike if the university did not improve the terms of their contracts. The strike was eventually called off with the agreement of increased job security and a 30% increase in pay over the next five years.

“We have a bit more job security than before, but still very little,” Cohen said.

Lecturers and professors are evaluated based on different factors, Cohen added. When being considered for tenure, professors are assessed on their teaching, research and service.

Lecturers’ contracts are renewed, Cohen noted, solely based on their teaching, which is why students are asked to fill out course evaluations at the end of a semester — they are a good measure of a lecturers’ teaching skills and sometimes a deciding factor in these decisions.

According to campus environmental studies lecturer Kenneth Worthy, research is often overemphasized in tenure decisions while teaching is underemphasized.

“I have heard directly from someone in a department that tenure promotion decisions don’t include teaching at all,” Worthy said. “Discounting it entirely is a bigger problem than the possibility of underemphasizing research.”

Although the importance of research when being considered for tenure can be problematic, research is important in a university setting, according to a graduate student in the social sciences, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. She emphasized the fact that professors currently conducting research are often more up-to-date on what their field looks like, with decades of experience to share with their students.

Worthy, an instructor for Environmental Science, Policy and Management 50AC, “Introduction to Culture and Natural Resource Management,” utilizes his research on human-environment relationships to better inform class materials.

“With a creative project, you’re making the course more diverse in a sense, making it more accessible to different students who have different learning habits and different best modes of learning,” Worthy wrote in a statement.

Despite their differences, both professors and lecturers face challenges, specifically class sizes at UC Berkeley. Cohen noted that professors find it difficult to make connections with students and track their progress. She emphasized the importance of one-on-one connections for student success.

Graduate student instructors, or GSIs, often fill that role, providing students with more individual interaction while conducting research for their dissertations.

However, according to Cohen, many professors and lecturers do not have access to GSIs as they are very costly. In fact, GSIs at UC Berkeley have a higher salary than new lecturers, according to Cohen.

“Lots of lecturers have to teach at multiple universities,” Cohen said. “The only reason most lecturers do what they do is because they love teaching.”

Contact Anoushka Jasuja at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anoushkajasuja.

A previous version of this article may have implied Worthy discounts the importance of research. In fact, he meant to emphasize that teaching should not be ignored.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Worthy is a lecturer in environmental sciences. In fact, he teaches environmental studies.