Professing mistrust

UC Davis students will return to a campus still marred by labor unrest and threats of lecturer strikes

Dean Elizabeth Langland’s policy on replacing lecturers triggered the labor unrest at UC Davis.

Dean Elizabeth Langland’s policy on replacing lecturers triggered the labor unrest at UC Davis.

Photo by Jill Wagner

When University of California at Davis students return to campus this month, they’ll find the labor unrest that caused a lecturers’ strike in the spring hasn’t gone away. And neither have questions about who should be teaching the students.

Led by Elizabeth Langland, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, administrators have been firing part-time lecturers as part of her stated goal of increasing the number of tenured professors who can teach students, do research, enjoy job security and raise the stature of the school.

But the lecturers and some students are angry that accomplished, popular instructors have been given the boot. Such lecturers and students don’t trust the university or its administrators and believe the real agenda is to gut unprofitable programs, use more graduate students as teachers and put more resources into research that draws corporate support.

“This system is supposed to be based on merit,” said Kevin Roddy, a UC Davis lecturer who is the incoming president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).

“If people have earned outstanding results, they shouldn’t be fired. Students deserve the best teachers,” Roddy said.

With talk of another strike this fall, both sides are pulling out the heavy artillery, and it appears students are the ones being hit by the crossfire.

Many lecturers canceled their classes to join the two-day strike in May during a critical time of the year for students—a week before finals. “I know a lot of students who had their classes canceled,” said Alison Williams, a fifth-year student. “It came at a bad time. People were trying to prepare for finals.”

Students who needed questions answered or wanted to review material before taking exams couldn’t meet with lecturers who walked out. Lecturers said they had to strike during a difficult time because the administration wasn’t taking them seriously.

Strikes at the campus were triggered by problems the UC Davis administration created, but many of UC-AFT’s concerns are system-wide.

Lecturers at the University of California at Berkeley chose to strike during the first days of the fall semester—another important time for students. On August 28, lecturers canceled classes and joined a strike with clerical workers over bad-faith bargaining, saying the administration hasn’t sent negotiators with authority and good faith to the table. UC-AFT recently authorized a system-wide strike, approved by 88 percent of members, over bad-faith bargaining.

“There is a good chance we will see another strike at UC Davis this fall,” Roddy said. “We’ve been frustrated by the administration’s attitude toward us. We needed to speak out against the policy.”

Administrators claim the policy of firing lecturers before their sixth year, when they would be entitled to a three-year contract, improves undergraduate education. “We want to put more professors in front of our students,” said Langland. “We are hiring more research faculty to teach and be in contact with our students. This is what distinguishes campuses of the UC system.”

Langland’s goal is to increase the number of what’s called tenure-track faculty. She wants to replace lecturers with tenured professors, who conduct research, serve on committees and publish their work. The administration also awards grants and sabbaticals to these professors.

Commonly referred to as research or senate faculty, tenure-track faculty are crucial to academic freedom. According the AFT, few professors would discuss controversial ideas or conduct research that might conflict with the interests of powerful corporations or the government if they were not protected by tenure.

Support and funding for research allows senate faculty to stay at the top of their fields. Senate faculty members work approximately 52 hours a week and teach more than their untenured colleagues, according to the AFT. However, many question whether the administration is living up to its promise of hiring more tenure-track faculty.

“It is very clear that long-term lecturers will not be replaced by tenure-track faculty,” said Gary Goodman, a lecturer in the English Department. “As the number of lecturers [has] declined, [lecturers] have been replaced by post-doctorate fellows, graduate students and part-time lecturers.”

Goodman and other lecturers suspect they will not be replaced by tenured professors because of the huge expense to the university. Senate faculty retain a steady salary, generous benefits, research support and job security, while lecturers often work for low wages and minimal benefits and under poor conditions. Colleges have increased the number of part-time positions in the last 10 years in order to save money.

“Unless the requirements change, it would cost too much to actually have senate faculty teaching expository writing,” Goodman said. “Senate faculty are paid much more, to teach less.”

Although lecturers deny their stand is purely about self-interest, they can’t prove the administration is saying one thing and doing another. However, if lecturers were replaced with more graduate students teaching classes, the education of students would be jeopardized.

“I would suggest that dean Langland should be fired long before a single lecturer is replaced by fictitious tenured professors,” said Fred Choate, one of seven lecturers terminated at UC Davis. Like Goodman, Choate doesn’t think the administration will commit to its stated goal of replacing lecturers with tenured professors because of the enormous expense to the university.

Choate taught in the Russian department for nearly eight years. Equipped with a set of carefully crafted skills and a clear passion for what he does, Choate was one of the few instructors who taught advanced language courses, like third-year Russian.

Langland claimed to be helping students by replacing lecturers like Choate with tenure-track faculty, but the result of his firing has been that the department now lacks the resources to offer a full-fledged Russian program.

“Our program is crippled,” Choate said. “The students lose.”

After Choate’s termination, the department waived its third-year requirement for students. The university recommends students take a class on Russian poetry or study abroad after completing their second year, said Choate, although a two-year requirement doesn’t equip students with proficient language skills. Most top-tier universities like Stanford or Northwestern require students to take at least four years of foreign-language classes.

“Not once did [Langland] visit a classroom to observe a lecturer at work,” Choate said. “Nor did she even give an honest assessment of student evaluations.”

Dennis Shimek, the associate vice chancellor of human resources, and other administrators defend their decisions to fire lecturers, saying such firings are based on what’s best for students. He touted a detailed evaluation procedure that includes student evaluations and what he called a “needs analysis.”

The administration used the process to determine if Victor Squitieri, a lecturer in the English department, would be retained. “We decided there was no need for him,” Shimek said.

Squitieri was one of two teachers to receive an Excellence in Teaching Award from the university’s Academic Federation. Students wrote recommendation letters to nominate him for the award. After his termination was announced, students were outraged. Students Supporting Lecturers circulated a petition and accumulated approximately 1,500 signatures.

A group of graduate students in the English department wrote a letter supporting three lecturers in the department, including Squitieri. “Victor was an excellent mentor,” said a fifth-year graduate student. “He was sensitive to my nervousness about teaching and always let me set my own agenda and pace.”

Many wonder how the need for a teacher as talented and respected as Squitieri disappeared. Yet administrators say the new policy is good for the university and is consistent with union contracts and labor laws.

“The policy tries to help students,” Langland said. “We’ve abided by the contract.”

Some students feel the changes only help the university, not undergraduate education.

“Students will be stuck taking classes from graduate students who don’t have the time or resources to be effective educators,” said Daphne Say, a former student of UC Davis. “The fact that lecturers who served the UC Davis community for years were being kicked to the curb so callously was absolutely appalling.”