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Not Adding Up: Math Lecturer Behind Viral Email Set to Lose His UC Berkeley Job

October 12, 2015
by Glen Martin
Photo of Alexander Coward in front of a chalk board

Alexander Coward—the charismatic UC Berkeley math lecturer whose 2013 emailed justification for teaching during a university employees strike went viral—now says he’s about to be fired by the university, despite stellar reviews from his students. 

The university’s response: Personnel matters are confidential, and lecturers such as Coward receive no guarantee that their contracts will be renewed.

It’s hard to say which seems more ironic: That the university is apparently cutting loose an educator who once won widespread acclaim for his passionate manifesto on the value of education? Or that Coward, whose famous email explained why he would be crossing a picket line to teach his classes, has now filed a grievance against UC with the support of his union?

A hearing on his situation is scheduled with university administrators on Oct. 20. His students and former students upset by the news have rallied to his cause by creating an online petition to support him, and by organizing a Sproul Plaza protest to coincide with the hearing.

In a blunt post to his personal web page titled “Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department,” Coward characterizes Cal’s math department as mediocre, and posits that he is being dismissed because he is, paradoxically, too competent and too popular with his students. He says that department chairmen have told him he was causing problems because students aren’t signing up for other professors’ classes on his account, and that he should teach in a “more ordinary” way aligned with department norms.

“It means teach from the textbook. It means stop emailing students with encouragement, handwritten notes and homework problems, and instead assign problems from the textbook at the start of the semester. It means stop using evidence-based practices like formative assessment. It means micro-manage the Graduate Student Instructors rather than allowing them to use their own, considerable, talent and creativity. And most of all it means this: Stop motivating students to work hard and attend class by being engaging, encouraging and inspiring, by sharing with them a passion for the beauty and wonder of mathematics, but instead by forcing them into obedience with endless busywork in the form of GPA-affecting homework and quizzes and assessments, day after day, semester after semester. In a nutshell: Stop making us look bad. If you don’t, we’ll fire you… Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument, and that is why so many people conspired to make it not so, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me.”

Coward claims Cal administrators and various departments are “jolly cross” (he’s an Oxford-educated Brit) with the mathematics department because students are not learning math, and that the department’s traditional response boils down to “Give us more money and more resources and we’ll do better.”

Given the success I am having with students, one might think that the Mathematics Department leadership would be expressing curiosity about how I am achieving that success. Instead, Craig Evans in early 2014 asked me “If you had a job at McDonalds and came along with all these new ideas, how long do you think you’d carry on working there?” The fact that the now Interim Chair of the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department should compare undergraduate education to fast food reveals everything you need to know about how students are regarded by the leading clique of men at the helm of the Mathematics Department of the number one public university in the world.”

California has asked Evans, the interim math chairman, for a response. UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore wrote:

“We cannot address individual personnel matters, as they are confidential. However, many lecturers have appointments that may be for a single term or up to two years. They often fill in for regular faculty who are on leave, provide additional teaching to cover surges in enrollment, and teach large undergraduate classes.  Lecturers do not receive a commitment for ongoing employment until they have taught for six years and have undergone a rigorous academic review of their teaching….

In a follow-up email the next day, Gilmore noted that lecturers are hired to teach a variety of courses, including service courses—classes that fulfill general education requirements or are prerequesites to more advanced courses. For math courses, she said, professors establish the course program, syllabus, and certain requirements, which the department may require all teachers of the course to follow. She noted that student evaluations are never the sole basis for the evaluation, and that faculty within a department also may do assessments:

The math department is committed to the highest level of teaching excellence, and in fact, has several lecturers, professors and instructors who are top in their fields.  The department of mathematics at Berkeley is generally recognized as one of the broadest, liveliest, and most distinguished departments of mathematics in the world. with approximately 55 regular faculty members representing most of the major fields of current research, along with 25 to 30 post-doctoral scholars, 180 graduate students, 500 undergraduate majors, one of the finest mathematics libraries in the nation, and situated in a favorable climate in one of America’s most exciting and cosmopolitan centers for mathematics research and teaching, Berkeley has become a favorite location for the study of mathematics by students and faculty from all over the world. Since 1925, when the quality of its mathematics faculty was ranked eleventh in the nation by the American Council of Education, Berkeley improved dramatically, reaching fourth place in 1957, and second place in 1964. it achieved an unsurpassed ranking in 1970, which was reaffirmed in the most recent 1995 survey.”

On social media, hundreds of students are now debating Coward’s fate. By noon today, more than 2,000 people had signed the petition, which reads in part: “Alexander Coward is an incredible asset to students and the mathematics department at Berkeley. There is absolutely no sense in firing him for being too good at his job.” Thousands have joined a Facebook event created to organize a protest of his dismissal. As a testament to how well known Coward has become on campus, some said they had not been students of his, but knew of him from fellow students or from reading his viral email. One of the creators of the Facebook page, Courtney Brousseau, wrote, “ I have never taken a class with Coward but I am horrified that he may be fired.”

But others also expressed some skepticism, Mehrdad Ni noting, “I’m worried less about the campus and much more for the protesters who are so quick to jump the gun with such insufficient information.”

In his lengthy post yesterday, Coward accused the university of omitting from his file several concrete, positive indicators of his classroom performance. He also criticized his work environment, writing that he had suffered suicidal depression and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital last spring. “I’m now back at my best,” he wrote, “but workplace bullying remains a societal problem that needs to be taken more seriously.”

Interviewed this morning, Coward told California that his phone is “ringing non-stop, ding-ding-ding,” since his initial postings on his dismissal, and that his email inbox is crammed. Indeed, he seems to strike some deep and resonant chord with both students and the general public. Asked if his current predicament has prompted him to rethink his 2013 decision to hold classes in spite of a labor action, he said he would have to think more about whether there was a parallel. Some on social media were already drawing one: Jasper Deng posted to the Facebook protest event page: “I would love to go, however, as Coward himself has stated, my education is my top priority and I can’t miss a CS61C lecture for this.”

California’s original article about Coward teaching throughout the 2013 strike temporarily crashed our system and generated nearly a million hits. Why do so many people find his story so compelling? Coward says it may be because he’s emphasizing what should be the university’s primary mission: teaching.

“It’s easy to walk around campus on a beautiful day, the birds are singing and you have great views across the bay,” he says. “But people work incredibly hard to get to Cal and other top universities. It’s challenging. It’s expensive. It’s incredibly important to them, so it has to be incredibly important to us, the faculty and administrators. Before I entered graduate school, I took the time to get a teaching credential, and for me that was a transformative experience. That training was invaluable. One thing I see (at Cal) is that professors are beaten up on teaching, but they’re not given the support and training they need. I’d like to help fix that.”

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