Blowing the Whistle on the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department

In response to the many people who have asked me whether I am leaving Berkeley, it is true that the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department has fired me. More precisely, the then Chair of the Mathematics Department, Arthur Ogus, emailed me on October 31st 2014 saying that my employment would be terminated in June 2016. I have asked the campus authorities to review the circumstances leading up to that decision and overrule it. I have filed a formal grievance, viewable here, with the aid of my union representative, and a meeting is scheduled for October 20th, 2015 with representatives from the UC Berkeley campus administration. My contract entitles me to a written response within 15 days of that meeting, by November 4th, 2015. I will be communicating the response I receive at this URL when I receive it. 

My reason for asking that the decision be overruled is that on 31st October, 2014, when the Faculty Appointments Committee of the Mathematics Department made its decision, my teaching record was as follows: 

  • My student evaluations for the two classes I had completed were the highest on record in the Mathematics Department. For Math 1A in Fall 2013 I scored 6.4 and 6.5 out of 7, and for Math 16B in Spring 2014 I scored 6.4 and 6.6 out of 7 for overall teaching effectiveness. The six year average for Math 1A as taught by Senate Faculty was 4.7 with a range of 3.2 to 6.0, and the six year average for Math 16B as taught by Senate Faculty was 4.6 with a range of 3.6 to 6.1. Going back further, no member of Senate Faculty has scored above 6.0 in Math 1A for at least the last 18 years, as far back as records go.

    It is noteworthy that the Mathematics Department failed to report these student evaluation scores for Math 1A in my personnel file, thereby keeping them secret from university authorities. It did this despite the fact that student evaluation scores are part of the Mathematics Department's own review criteria that it devised to evaluate teaching, making it contractually obliged to report them. These non-reported evaluations are viewable here.

  • My Fall 2013 Math 1A students were tracked into the next course in the sequence, Math 1B, and it was found that their average grade in Math 1B was 0.17 grade points higher than that of those students who took Math 1A with another instructor.

    However the Mathematics Department leadership at first refused to share this data with me, then it said that the positive difference was not statistically significant with a contrived analysis that compared my students to more of my own students, and finally, when this was refuted, claimed to not be sufficiently proficient in statistics to judge. It is noteworthy that Philip Stark, then Chair of the Statistics Department, was instrumental in the statistical analysis that was undertaken and he is someone who has gone on the record saying that student evaluations are not indicative of teaching effectiveness. The documentary evidence supporting these allegations, which I encourage everyone to review carefully, is viewable here.

  • In a memo to me of April 18th, 2014, the then Chair of the Mathematics Department Arthur Ogus wrote: "As you know, there have been three written evaluations of your teaching conducting [sic] so far, two in Mathematics 1A and one in Mathematics 16B; you have been provided copies of each. These evaluations discuss your extraordinary skills at lecturing, presentation, and engaging students."

    However in the same memo he went on to say: "They also reveal some significant differences between your practices and what has been typical in our department [...] I hope and expect that you will be able to align more with our standards for the remainder of this semester and during the next academic year."

This remark that I should align more with department standards has been the resounding theme of my time at Berkeley, and Arthur Ogus's comment in the April 18th, 2014 memo was not an isolated slip. On September 22nd, 2013 he wrote in an email "But I do think it that it [sic] is very important that you not deviate too far from the department norms." On November 12th, 2014 he wrote "I hope that, on the basis of our conversation, you can further adjust to the norms of our department." This raises the question: What does it mean to adhere to department norms if one has the highest student evaluation scores in the department, students performing statistically significantly better in subsequent courses, and faculty observations universally reporting "extraordinary skills at lecturing, presentation, and engaging students"?

This question is one that I asked, and in response it was made very clear to me what is meant by the norms of the department. 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.

This idea that I am causing problems by teaching too well is something that has been related to me by multiple members of faculty, including the previous Chair, Arthur Ogus, who on one occasion went so far as to ask me to teach in a way that was, to use his exact words, "more ordinary". Further, the current Interim Chair, Craig Evans, explained that I am causing problems because students are not signing up for other Professors' classes on account of me. This is to be observed this semester, Fall 2015. My two sections of Math 1A are signed up to near capacity with 437 and 405 students enrolled respectively, while the third section of Math 1A, being taught by a member of Senate Faculty and taking place in the same room as my second class, has just 107 students signed up. To get a sense of what this means in practice, here and here are pictures of my Math 1A class, and here and here are pictures taken during the section taught by Senate Faculty in the same room.

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.

The lack of care for student wellbeing in the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department leadership extends far beyond having the idea that undergraduates simply don't know what is good for them. I have tried to explain repeatedly that there are substantial learning benefits to the kind of teaching I am doing, with its emphasis on formative assessment, demonstrated not just in terms of conclusive statistical evidence but also in terms of qualitative factors like quality of writing. (See here for an example of student work from Math 16A before and after some formative assessment.) On each occasion, the department leadership reacted with frustration and imparted that this was not as important as keeping to department norms. If you would like to read what I had to do to put an end to the constant demands to keep to department norms, see here for an open letter I sent on December 15th, 2014 that addressed educational matters in more detail.

The above facts are shocking in and of themselves. However in isolation they do not answer the following question: Why is the Mathematics Department leadership so concerned about me teaching really well?

One possible answer is suggested by the Chair of the Faculty Appointments Committee, Mike Christ, who in his written report on one of my classes wrote: "With a few minutes remaining, after Alex had calculated the volume of a particular cone, a student asked about the formula (π·r^2·h)/3 for the volume of a general right circular cone. Alex responded by deriving it. This seemed entirely impromptu, yet was carried out with impressive polish and elan. The students responded with widespread applause. A colleague who teaches nearby has told me that Alex's lectures commonly end with applause from his class."

You might think that Professor Christ would be pleased that students were showing appreciation for mathematics and what they had learned in class that day. However later in the same report he wrote: "Insofar as the applause was directed towards this example, rather than the lecture as a whole, I find it disconcerting."

Despite being part of the story, however, egos are not in fact the main reason for the elaborate dance to suppress and distort evidence, and undermine my teaching record.

Instead it has everything to do with money, status and control.

In the April 18th, 2014 memo to me then Chair Ogus wrote: "We explained to you before you accepted the position that the idea of employing a full-time lecturer is controversial in our department." This raises the question of why it was controversial. It was controversial because the way the Mathematics Department justifies its size on campus is through the teaching of large service courses for other majors. I have been told by Craig Evans that around 15,000 students take classes with the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department each year. On the other hand, mathematicians typically do not bring in giant grants like experimental scientists, and compared to most other departments that do not bring in super-grants the Mathematics Department is large. The Mathematics Department uses its privileged role in providing service teaching for undergraduates in all the sciences and social sciences to justify its size and all the trappings that go with that like funding and office space. The problem is that their reliance on teaching to justify size and resources is not commensurate with a commitment to doing a good job.

Indeed, it is an open secret on the UC Berkeley campus that the administration and other departments are jolly cross with the Mathematics Department for not preparing students adequately. The argument used by the Mathematics Department in response to this is to say something like "It's easy for you, you teach these cool subjects that students are interested in and choose to do because it's their chosen major. Take it from us. Teaching these kids calculus is just impossible. That's why our student evaluations are terrible and students aren't prepared for your courses." The argument then concludes, as articulated by a member of Senate Faculty in his response to my open letter of December 15, 2014, something like: "Give us more money and more resources and we'll do better."

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 hide my record from the administration, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me.

Before concluding, I should mention that what I have reported above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of wrongdoing that is committed at the highest level in the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department. In addition there are further mischaracterizations of my teaching in my personnel file that I am prevented from sharing because the University claims it is their property. Further, one friend who studied Mathematics as an undergraduate at Berkeley told me "all the good teachers leave," so I wonder if the practice of systematically removing the best teachers goes back to well before my time. And I have not even begun to talk about the ways in which people who are perceived as weak are bullied and harassed. Women, staff, graduate students, lecturers. Sometimes this is overt, but more often it is done in subtler ways such as, as with me, manipulating personnel files. One member of Senate Faculty wrote me in an email, at a time when I was struggling with the strain of working in this environment, describing then Chair Ogus's conduct: "So the micromanaging harasser is at it again. Give the devil what is his due, so you can get back to focusing on your students and their learning."

This raises the question: What is more shocking, that I was being supervised by someone regarded as a habitual micromanaging harasser, or that this fact should be so routine that it was just deserving of an encouraging email and a pat on the back but nothing more? There are good people in the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department, who conduct themselves with kindness, honesty and dedication to both their research and their students. However most are simply too scared to stand up against the dominant group of men who lead by fear. Arthur Ogus in some sense helped me by supplying me with a large body of documentary evidence to substantiate what I am saying, but Craig Evans instead told me that he learned in a previous harassement case that he should never put anything in writing because "we might get subpoenaed."

I could go on, and I encourage others to speak publicly if they have similar stories to tell. Suffice it to say, working in that environment did take its toll on me personally, and I know I'm far from the only one to have struggled with the strain of working in a sinister and hostile working environment. Workplace bullying remains a societal problem that needs to be taken more seriously. However that is a battle I hope other people will take a lead in.

All I want to do is get back to focusing on my students and their learning, not just for the rest of this academic year, but for many years to come.

On campus there is a place called the Free Speech Movement Cafe, commemorating the movement that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. There is a plaque there that recalls Mario Savio's stirring words:

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

The problem is, the machine really needs to work.

I call on the campus authorities to make this so.

Alexander Coward