California Aggie, October 15, 2002

Guest Opinion: The strike isn't what's hurting students

--John Stenzel
Lecturer, English Department

October 15, 2002 - When I was calling other lecturers last week to ascertain levels of support for the strike, one pleasant person from Engineering explained that he just couldn't support anything that could hurt students--that he had a responsibility to parents and to the university not to honor the strike call. In the next sentence, however, he admitted that in his department, class sizes were growing and that numbers of sections were tightening, with many classes simply not offered this year, and that much instruction was being done by people with no interest and no training in teaching.

Now, I am walking the picket line, and I am scheduling more than eight hours of additional student conferences in the coming weeks, and I would bet that my students will not suffer from my participation in the labor stoppage.

What is hurting students is this administration's policies: from Mrak Hall to the various deans' offices, we see support for ever-larger classes and ever-shrinking numbers of course offerings; we see less and less rigorous training for graduate student TAs by individual departments; we hear more and more stories of huge core courses delivered factory-style; we watch more and more sections filled by "warm bodies" -- my own Chair's term for the temporary and part-time people he had to hire this summer despite letting three excellent lecturers go last year for absolutely no reason!

Students endure longer lines and more red tape everywhere they go, playing musical chairs and getting the run-around ever more expensively and frustratingly. The university suffers from management disasters that lead to lower-level support staff hires doing jobs several ranks above them, while the ranks of administrators and star faculty swell with salaries of $100,000 to $200,000 and beyond. Students suffer under the colossal arrogance of this institution, which clings to a completely unfounded belief that the most inexperienced research faculty are unquestionably and categorically better for undergraduates than the most experienced and dedicated lecturers. Students will suffer more as they try to track down part-timers for letters of recommendation, and find it impossible to identify dedicated teachers amongst a revolving door cast of temps and short-timers -- who are themselves victimized and demoralized by these arbitrary, short-sighted and ultimately destructive hiring policies.

If we're concerned about our duty to students and parents, let's be honest with them about a system that has support-staff turnover approaching 50 percent in the first year, that pleads poverty in offering microscopic or nonexistent cost-of-living increases to the many at the same time it rewards the big shots with raises larger than a clerk's entire yearly salary. Yet there will be no turnover at the top: many of these people are being rewarded for the very policies that perpetuate these disparities, and many have such a cushy retirement deal that they will never leave.

If parents and students want a better education from the University of California, they will have to fight for it. I wish this strike weren't happening, that we could just do the jobs we love for an institution to which we've dedicated years of our professional lives -- but silence and acquiescence in the face of institutional inertia, complacency and self-congratulation simply cannot be allowed any more. I welcome the broader debate about how this university can get beyond the sloganeering and public relations campaigns, and work for meaningful improvements in what matters most to students and parents, and what matters least to too much of the rest of the university -- high-quality undergraduate experience, at a school with real integrity.

JOHN STENZEL is an English lecturer at UC Davis.