Professor Alexander Coward is one of the few academics willing to risk his career and reputation for the welfare of his students, although his name might suggest otherwise. He is the only full time “teaching professor” in the the math department, meaning his research focuses on pedagogy rather than pure mathematics. This is why his termination, beginning in June 2016, represents the tragic trend that the University of California system and other large research universities value money and a prestigious research reputation over the quality of academic instruction for students. Now that he is facing an untimely dismissal from the UC Berkeley math department, students must stand up for him. While UC Berkeley did not disclose the specifics of why Coward’s contract was terminated, his approachability and innovative methods clearly deviated from the norm.
Coward is, by all accounts, an exceptional mathematics teacher. His students fare better than their peers in their math classes by .17 grade points. But more than academic success, he has the rare ability to inspire and encourage his students despite the UC Berkeley academic pressure cooker. He emails students with encouragements and offers life advice in office hours. One of the most telling statistics is that his lectures have a 95-percent attendance rate. Teachers like this are diamonds in the rough of large universities. When most professors teach by PowerPoint and have little interaction with students, Coward’s methods stick out.
According to an open letter written by Coward explaining why he would break a teachers’ strike to continue teaching his students, the math department has repeatedly asked him to be “more ordinary” and “align to the norms of the department.” He refused and continued to teach in his peculiar-yet-effective way. On Oct. 20 over 2,000 students gathered outside the hall where Coward appealed his termination, and while over 3,000 students have signed an online petition to “Keep Coward at Cal,” their opinion evidently does not matter. The administration’s reaction to Coward’s methods is unfortunately unsurprising; as an old Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
Coward’s open letter quickly went viral. This “crossing of the picket line” demonstrates one more avenue for him to communicate his love for teaching and dedication to students. Not only does his dismissal emphasize that the university is no longer focused on learning, but also shows how the administration continuously ignores the pleas of students for a better education and respect under the University’s policies.
The conversation on education has increasingly revolved around dollar signs and decimal points. Unlike other professors who should have been fired years ago, namely the infamous UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, Coward understood how to touch a student’s soul rather than harass it. The University of California’s aversion to creativity and ingenuity is omnipotent in the UC system but this time it has gone too far.
It is absurd that the university turns a blind eye to students who are hurting because of “protocol” and to avoid tainting its reputation but will jump at the chance to fire someone who appropriately, and legally, deviates from the norm. Terminating Coward for no other reason than “staff turnover” is a disservice and will ultimately ruin the credibility of the institution, and its educational value for students who want teachers that actually care about teaching.