The University of California is one of the most prestigious public research university systems in the world, with the nine UC campuses home to state-of-the-art laboratories, museums and medical centers. While the UC system advertises its faculty as the “drivers behind innovations,” their lectures have been treated as far less for years.
During the nearly three-year long contract negotiations, lecturers at the University of California have been faced with little to no job security, unfair wages and unmanageable workloads. Lecturers are often assigned to teach very large courses, many of which are not provided with ample teaching assistants. This causes lecturers and teaching assistants to be frequently undercompensated for much of their work. While the negotiations shed light on the disparities that lecturers have faced, many current and former faculty have faced struggles with job security since the last UC strike in 2002. The university has treated lecturers as disposable faculty while simultaneously advertising them as the most valuable instructors.
UC lecturers had been negotiating for job security, a manageable workload and fair compensation since April 2019. It took over two years for the lecturer’s union, UC-AFT, to reach a tentative agreement with the UC system.
The agreement came in mid-November, just hours before UC lecturers were planning to strike. While the tentative agreement is a significant victory for lecturers and students alike, the UC’s long history of exploiting lecturers remains.
The most significant difference between lecturers and professors, aside from salary, is that professors conduct research while lecturers do not. The omission of research, however, doesn’t mean that lecturers work any less. Lecturers in the UC system teach more than 30% of all for-credit classes at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
The different tiers of teaching faculty in the UC system can oftentimes be confusing, leading to misinformation around the treatment of different groups. Many people often don’t fully understand or are aware of the tier system that UC faculty are subject to. The lack of awareness of these systems and disparities have made it much easier for UC to get away with treating their lecturers so poorly.
For many lecturers, the work comes in short-term and often part-time contracts. The contracts that many lecturers were tied to provided no job security and led to over 25% of lecturers not returning the following year.
Unlike many other large university systems, the UC required lecturers to be employed for 18 quarters or 12 semesters consecutively to achieve continuing lecturer status. It took most lecturers at least six years to feel that their position was protected.
UC Irvine anthropology and global studies continuing lecturer Thomas Douglas has taught within multiple university systems and compared his job security at each institution. Early in Douglas’s career, he worked at California State University and Long Beach while also lecturing at UC Irvine.
Lectures in the UC system are often not notified whether they will be brought back or let go until the last minute.
“You always have to make sure you are lining something up in case you don’t get invited back,” Douglas said.
Douglas also compared the ways in which faculty are provided with job security at CSU Long Beach. After about a year of employment when Douglas proved that his teaching was effective, he was very confident that CSU Long Beach would continue to provide him with teaching opportunities.
However, for Douglas and many other UC lecturers, the process is “not the same at all.” According to Douglas, the period in which there is little to no job security at CSULB lasts about a year. This is drastically different from the UC system’s previous six-year policy.
The six-year period can be extremely difficult — even for those who do get invited back each term. Lecturers are forced to endure high costs of living while relying on part-time pay for an extended period of time. Moreover, the exhausting anxiety of not being welcomed back each term lasts for six or more drawn out years.
Diane Nevárez, a former UC Irvine lecturer of race and diversity, recently wrote an op-ed published in the LA Times which recounts her experience as a churned lecturer. Nevárez, who holds a Ph.D. in urban education policy from the University of Southern California, was forced to move on from her position at UC Irvine because she could not afford to live near campus.
In the article, she described her work as being largely unpaid.
“My part-time salary came with a full-time workload,” Nevárez said.
In addition to poor pay and no job security, UC lecturers were also subject to difficulty in obtaining health benefits. Lecturers were required to teach in three consecutive quarters or two consecutive semesters to have access to the university’s health benefits. However, Douglas described that instead of teaching one or two courses a term, many lecturers would be assigned to teach multiple courses one term and then not be assigned any for the next term. This manipulation of scheduling, whether intentional or not, made it so lecturers would miss out on important health benefits.
The average yearly salary for a UC lecturer is less than $20,000 a year, forcing over 25% of lecturers to be eligible for government assistance.
In a university system that loves to advertise its top-notch learning environment, the well-being of the teaching faculty should be a top priority. A university cannot effectively function to the highest ability if its employees are overworked and struggling to pay rent. These are the exact conditions that UC lecturers have been faced with for multiple years.
Moreover, if a university is going to charge its students tens of thousands of dollars each year, they should be met with faculty who can support them throughout their academic careers.
For many students, the churning of lecturers means losing valuable mentors who can provide them with career and academic support and write them recommendation letters. Students who work to create lasting relationships with their high-quality instructors often lose them as a resource with little or no warning or explanation.
The new tentative agreement reached by the UC lecturers union will provide more job security, increased salaries, moderated workloads and four weeks of paid family leave for all lecturers. While this tentative contract agreement will make an immense difference for all lecturers, the university’s previous treatment of its lecturers should not be easily forgotten. For many lecturers, this agreement has come too late.
Students and all campus community members must realize the unfair hierarchy that is present for all faculty within the UC system. While tenure track professors often conducted groundbreaking research, equal praise and value must be placed on those teaching the next generation of researchers.
Claire Schad is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.